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Family Foster Care

There is growing evidence that removing children from parents during incarceration and placing them in foster care damages the children and goes a long way toward creating the next generation of adults who become addicted, mentally ill, and antisocial as adults. Fortunately, more effective alternatives are available.

Terence T. Gorski

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Posted On: February 17, 2003          Updated On: February 16, 2003
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001

Sharing Family Values
Troubled parents are getting a second chance:

foster care for them, along with their kids

AMANDA BOWER

From the Feb. 17, 2003 issue of TIME magazine

For much of her young daughters' lives, Tina Louise Cruz says, she sold drugs or sex to keep a roof over their heads. Each evening after the family had gulped down a meal of greasy fast food, Cruz would shut the door on her children and get high on methamphetamines. Then a new baby tested positive for drugs, and the older Cruz girls soon joined their infant sister in California's child protective services. But instead of moving the children from one foster home to a another, authorities in Contra Costa County gave Cruz a different option: move in with a family herself.

After completing a course of court-ordered drug treatment, Cruz, 37, got her baby back and moved last September into the Antioch, Calif., home of Barbara Funderburk, a mentor paid to teach Cruz the basics of good parenting. Together Cruz and Funderburk, a mother of two, planned meals, made budgets and discussed how to hold down a job and raise a family. "This is a new thing for me, to not be high and have a baby," says Cruz, who graduated from the program early and has spent the past three weeks setting up a new life in San Jose, Calif. She has started work in a cafeteria, her first job in 15 years, and her two other daughters have moved from their aunt's place to join their mother and little sister. "I got another chance with my children," says Cruz. "I feel complete."

Keeping at-risk families together in a supervised setting — and providing an around-the-clock role model for problem parents — is a little-known alternative to traditional foster care. Called shared family care, the program is available in scattered counties in 10 states, including California, Wisconsin and Texas. It helps prevent families from being separated, reunites them after a separation or serves as a way station while parents decide whether they want to relinquish their parental rights. At a time when the failure of the classic child-welfare system is grabbing headlines across the country (a little girl missing for 15 months in Florida before officials even noticed; a young boy dead and his brothers starving in a New Jersey basement), some social workers are pushing shared family care as a possible solution. Results from the small studies that have been done are promising: children whose parents complete the program are only half as likely to re-enter the child-welfare system as those whose families reunite after foster care; the number of participant parents (mostly mothers) with a job doubles after they have lived with a mentor; and living conditions for these families once they're on their own are much improved.

But while some 290,000 children were taken into foster care in 2000--the most recent year for which the Federal Government has statistics — experts estimate that fewer than 2,000 families have ever gone through shared family care. The main reason is an all-too-common problem for social-service agencies: money. Foster care for two kids alone is about $2,600 a month in Contra Costa County, but it costs $3,000 to provide shared family care for a parent and two children. The difference of $400 might not seem like much, but in these cash-strapped times, it is. And the bulk of federal funds given to states for out-of-home care for vulnerable children is available only when kids have been removed from their parents. Shared family care, by definition, keeps families together — so states have to come up with the money themselves. Funding for Contra Costa's full-family program was cut in half last year. With a $35 billion state-budget shortfall, says Sheila Self, an executive director at FamiliesFirst of California, "the future looks very tenuous. These kinds of innovative, cutting-edge programs can fall by the wayside very quickly."

Advocates argue that raw costs don't include the intangible benefits of keeping a family together. "Shared family care buys you support, guidance and training for the entire family, not just care for children," says John Cullen, director of Contra Costa County's employment and human services department. "We think it's a much better bargain." On top of that, he continues, shared-care programs tend to last less than one year, compared with the average 12 to 18 months that kids in his county spend in foster care.

But are there really that many people who are willing to take in a whole family? And are there that many troubled parents who want to be taken in? Less than one-third of parents referred to shared family care are deemed appropriate for it, according to one study, and only 70% actually complete the program. Then there is the challenge of finding mentor families willing to open their homes to people who have led less than exemplary lives. Agencies like Families First have placed newspaper advertisements and relied on word of mouth to find host families; mentors are then put through regular foster-care training as well as specific programs dealing with substance abuse and counseling adults.

Still, people like Ayesha Mahmoud are rare. Mahmoud, 58, quit being a foster mother 15 years ago because she was disappointed by the lack of contact between children and birth mothers. Today she hosts Nettie Carter, 28, and two of Carter's four children in her tidy, modest home in Milwaukee, Wis. As with any family there are tensions, but there is also a strong bond, particularly between Mahmoud and Charles, 11, who loves to solve puzzles with her help. "I introduce him as my grandson," says Mahmoud, who has raised four kids of her own. "That's how it feels to us."

Karin Niemuth, a social worker who helps run the program in Milwaukee, says mentors like Mahmoud are often the first real mother figures for program participants. "[These mothers] never had the experience themselves of growing up with a healthy parent-child relationship," she says.

Anna Sangermano knows from firsthand experience what such programs can do. Now 40, she says she began drinking and doing drugs at 13, dropped out of her Marin County, Calif., high school in the 11th grade and began living on the streets at 20. She smoked so much methamphetamine that her teeth rotted. The county took away two of her sons and placed them in foster care. Finally, in 1999 Sangermano entered drug treatment and then the home of Joyce and George Parker. During her nine months with the Parkers, she got her driver's license, her GED and dentures. She also enrolled her youngest son in preschool and signed up for a welfare-to-work program. Today Sangermano lives with her son in a two-bedroom apartment, works part-time and is taking college classes. She hopes to bring the two older boys home from foster care soon. "This program helped save my life," she says. "And helped me be a part of my kids' life."

— With reporting by Caryn M. Gracey/Milwaukee and Laura A. Locke/Contra Costa County

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