This May when NPR asked White House chief of staff John Kelly what would happen to children separated from their families at the border he responded, “The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.” Kelly’s flip tone indicates that he probably was not thinking about the complicated nature of foster care — or how the number of children in the U.S. foster care system has increased for the fourth year in a row. According to the Administration for Children and Families of the Department of Health and Human Services, 437,500 children were in foster care by the end of fiscal year 2016.
The Cut asked New York parents whose children are currently or have been placed in the foster care system about their experiences, their biggest concerns, and what changes they believe could improve the system. Several worry about physical abuse within non-relative homes, and want to know why their kids are being put on psychotropic drugs. Others wonder how they’ll ever move on when their cases have made it impossible to find work, or if some foster-care parents are just in it for the money. They shared stories of other parents in their community struggling after their parental rights were terminated. Here’s what they told us.
“When they go to college who’s going to help them out?”
*Jane, New York City
10-year-old and 12-year-old in foster care for five and half years.
Parents make mistakes. I did. I’m Chinese, and I used corporeal punishment on one of my kids because he has ADD and I didn’t realize it. The corporal punishment was absolutely wrong. But the agency didn’t take into account the culture difference; they were biased against that. They did everything to discriminate against us. I’d like to see them take into account cultural differences. The foster parents took the children to Dominican church three times a week and to a three-hour Bible study — I’m a Buddhist, that’s not my religion. It’s important for a child to know their heritage. ACS has a rule — when you assign a home you have to take into consideration the family’s background and heritage, but no one follows it.
I always believe you cannot buy love. But for a foster mother, there’s money, but that money has a time limit. When the kids reach 18, they’re done, there’s no more money — is she still going to continue supporting them? That’s the question everybody needs to think about. When they go to college who’s going to help them out?
“Foster care was my first example of what a real good family should be.”
Alyssa Gonzalez, Suffolk County, New York, 27
Hasn’t had contact with 5-, 7-, 9-, and 10-year-old children in foster care for two years. Currently receives home visits twice a week with 1- and 2-year-old children in foster care.
Throughout my entire childhood, we had Child Protective Services involved. I grew up in foster care, and I didn’t have a negative experience. It was my first example of what a real good family should be.
I’m not so bitter that I think all foster-care experiences or all foster homes are bad. My children were placed in a foster home here for about two years. I believe it was a family that genuinely loved my children and it showed. My children loved them too, and I’m grateful for that family. But on the other hand, where my children are now is not a good experience. When they took them from me, they placed them in a home where they were not treated good and CPS didn’t do anything about it.
My children were coming to my visitation, where they were supervised, and they were telling me the things these foster parents were doing to them. I called the child line and tried to report it — they accused me of coaching my children.
She [the caseworker] got a promotion actually, after they terminated my rights for my four children. I’m not allowed to know anything about them, or where they are. I’m not allowed to see them.
For me, it was more of a domestic-violence situation but I didn’t tell anybody. If I would’ve been able to, I would’ve been able to remove myself and my children. You’re only able to take parenting classes after your children have been removed. Parents should be able to seek out those classes before that happens. It should be preventative, not something after the fact.
“I called the worker and said, ‘Where are my children?’ She hung up.”
Kimberly, New York City
7-, 12-,and 15-year-old children spent six months in foster care
I was overwhelmed. I knew I had to get medical attention, so I went to the hospital. I recognized that I was under emotional distress at the time — I was taking care of my kids by myself, on a fixed income. I didn’t have any alternative child-care arrangements because I was a single parent. And as a survivor of domestic violence, I didn’t think it’d be in their best interest to call up the abuser. I already had an active case for one of the smaller children’s behavior, so I called up the CPS [Child Protective Services] worker and said, “I’m gonna go to the hospital.” At the hospital, I explained my situation to the staff, and they decided to give me a psychiatric evaluation. After they admitted me, the only thought racing through my mind was: Where are my kids, what’s going to happen with them?
Then here comes ACS, and they said, “You’re going to sign this temporary paper.” I’m thinking it’s temporary —I didn’t plan to stay in this hospital for a long period of time. So I signed off. Six days later when I was discharged, I called the worker and said, “Where are my children?” She hung up.
My kids had been placed in foster care. I was only in the hospital six days. Nobody had a conversation with me about this. I didn’t even know it was happening.
How was I neglectful? Had I not been in poverty, and by myself taking care of them, this might not have happened. My kids stayed in foster care for six months — it was the longest six months of my life. I’m the type of person who walks everywhere with her kids. When they were gone, I’d sneak out in the early morning when everybody was sleeping and not come back until everybody was going to bed. That’s how embarrassed I was to be walking around without my kids. It was the most traumatizing experience I ever had.
I had a hearing with the same person who took away my kids, and I asked her: What was the purpose of this, why did you penalize me for getting help?This makes people skeptical of getting the help they need. They used my help against me.
I wish they would look into anonymous reports more. If you don’t want to give your name, it’s ironic — you don’t want to take responsibility after you made the call? I believe in sitting down and having a discussion. If I did something that’s not correct, call my attention to it and help me to do better. When you know better, you do better.
“They’re supposed to be giving me preventative services for my two kids.”
Angela, Suffolk County, New York, 37
12- and 15-year-old children are currently in foster care
They’ve put my kids in six different foster homes, five different schools, and three different states. They moved them from New York, then to Pennsylvania — and now they’re living in Iowa. The only thing I get for contact is pictures of my kids twice a year, that’s it. I have parental rights, but I haven’t had visitation with them in seven years. I have custody of my 5-year-old, who lives at home with me.
They’re supposed to be giving me preventative services for my two kids, but they won’t. I’ve already done cognitive behavioral therapy. They kept promising me, If you complete all these services we’ll give you your kids back. But they haven’t.
I’ve turned a foster parent in for child abuse. Anything that was wrong — bruises, cuts, even burn marks — I was documenting it. But my visits were taken away seven years ago, and I haven’t seen my kids face-to-face since. I talked to them once on the phone because I begged the judge to let me talk to them. I wanted to say I was sorry and tell them I love them and miss them.
We need legislators and lawmakers to be making changes because we can’t. Policies need to be changed. Some people should be foster parents, but other people really shouldn’t be.
“They should take more preventive action, than removal.”
Sharlene Fields, New York City
One of the things I’d like to see changed is that there be stricter laws with foster parents. I once got onto a conversation about nutrition with the foster parent, and she got very upset — she started cussing me out in front of the children, calling me “crackhead,” “unfit mother,” “your children are this, your children are that.” I never felt so humiliated in my life. She threatened to fight me. When the director confronted the foster parent she started verbally abusing my children again in front of the director. They immediately placed the kids with me in a mother-and-baby program. But I was horrified when I went back to the agency about a week later and found out she was still a foster parent.
When you’re on the other side and you’re the parent dealing with these agencies, they pick everything you do apart like a frying comb. They leave no room for errors, no room for mistakes, everything is used against you. But when the foster parent very clearly lost it, went way beyond boundaries, they didn’t remove her. If I did what she did there would’ve been repercussions for me concerning my children. Foster parents get away with way too much for too long for whatever reason — maybe it’s because they need more parents to take children on and things are hushed up or pushed under the rug. If a foster parent clearly shows they’re incapable of managing their emotions and being abusive to children, however verbally or physically, they should not be allowed to be a foster parent.
They should take more preventive action, than removal. I know people who had their children removed, and even if the report was founded they removed the children without putting in support. If it’s a domestic-violence situation, help place that person in a safe environment and get them to counseling. Do whatever you can before you remove the children.
“My son doesn’t need psychotropic medications.”
D’Juan Collins, New York City
Lost appeal to be reunited with 11-year-old son in foster care. Collins is unsure if his son will be adopted.
In 2007 I was living in Rosedale, Queens, New York. I was caring for my son because he was born with a positive tox screening for cocaine. His mom was a drug addict — right after his birth, ACS got involved and took my son, although I didn’t know he was my son at that time. A paternity test showed that he was. Within the span of five months I got my son out of care.
But later that year, I was arrested. My mom came from Chicago to take over care for my son, because ACS was already involved — I was supposed to be making visits but obviously I couldn’t make them because I was incarcerated. He was placed in a non-relative foster home where he continues to reside to this day, despite me and my mom’s efforts to get my son.
The court ordered the agency to do an expedited ICPC [Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children] so my son would be transferred to his grandmother but the agency never did it. After a year went by, the court ordered it again and they said, “Well, she has to be approved as a foster parent.” So my mom did all of that — the home was approved, and the state of New York agreed to put my son in Chicago. However, the agency’s permanency plans were to return him to his parent. But of course you can’t return him to me because I’m going to be incarcerated. You can’t return him to the mother because she has an open neglect case and a history of drug abuse. Her other kids were also in foster care.
While I was in prison I was proactive about being in my son’s life. Even though they didn’t tell me what my rights were I found out what my rights were. I would write to the case manager and I’d say, “I don’t know what’s going on with my son, nobody’s telling me how my son is doing, how’s he progressing?” Later on they said, “Your son is banging his head, rocking back and forth, beating his head up against the wall,” and so now they’re giving him some counseling. He has ADHD, and they wanted me to sign off on a form to allow my son to be put on psychotropic medications. I said, “My son doesn’t need psychotropic medications — any child that’s been snatched from his home is going to have some traumatic experience. That’s normal. It doesn’t mean you have to put him up on drugs to calm him down.” He needs to be with his family, point blank period, but they never wanted to address that. I fought them from prison.
For my son to know his existing extended family … and then sever that completely. The eventual psychiatric evaluation was that my son suffers from anxiety disorder and not ADHD — separation anxiety to be exact. They’d wanted to put my child on drugs, which they did over my objection, because that would deem him a special-needs child. There’s more money for a special-needs child. That’s what it’s all about — my son is a cash cow for the system.
Then they put in a petition to terminate my parental rights based on the fact that the mother hasn’t been planning for her son and they came up with some trumped-up charges on me, on how I have not planned for my son by failing to provide an adoptive resource. First of all, I had letters sent that said I want my son to be in custody of my mom. The law favors reunifying children with their family members. My mom put in a custody petition in 08’ that never got answered. They failed to plan with me. I wrote the agency numerous times. They knew from day one what my plan was but they kept pushing adoption, adoption, adoption.
At first, the foster mom wasn’t keen on me having community visits with my son. The case managers didn’t have the time to take me and my son out into the community, but I fought for that. I caught the foster mother smoking the other day. While I was in prison I was always wondering why my son was having these asthma-related attacks. You have my son in a non-relative home with a woman that smokes, and he has asthma. Nobody wants to address that.
When you ask me about change, this is what I’d like to see: I would like an independent, neutral organization to come in and do evaluations of foster-care homes. If there’s a complaint, listen to the child away from the foster mom, because oftentimes when the case worker goes in there the child is in earshot of the foster mom. So of course they’re not going to tell you nothing.
“An anonymous person gave you a phone call and you come and take my kids?”
Regina Lynn McBride, New York City
17-year-old son in foster care, parent of six
I have a son who’s 17. He’s been in care since he was 13. I have five sons, none of them had ever been in care. My little one made a statement to me, that caused me to go out of my parent mode. He went to school and told what happened.
I know I was wrong, that I should not have done that. But my son has gotten worse as far as I’m concerned. The system didn’t do anything as far as bettering him. I wish people in the system listened more. I wish they would listen to why you’re angry instead of just coming and snatching your kids away from you. An anonymous person gave you a phone call and you come and take my kids?
Yes, what I did was wrong. But how long are you going to punish me for that? I have 12 parenting certificates, I’ve taken anger management, I’ve been doing everything possible. I work within the community, I work with mental health. I do as much as I can for myself, my son, and other people. I want to teach little guys from kindergarten to second grade, but I can’t do that until my son turns 28.
What can we do to better things? Change the whole system. You don’t know about it until they’ve taken a child. How many cases have we heard this year alone of death because ACS slipped through the cracks. We need to revamp the entire system. Give us a break, hear us, help us, support us, instead of kicking us in the teeth, because that’s what it feels like.
“It seems they have used my disabilities against me.”
Teri Luck, St. Lawrence County, New York
5-year-old son currently in foster care
As a child I begged to go into foster care, but it never happened. Then I grew up and got into abusive relationships, and I knew how bad it could be for a child because of my experience. Still, I thought I was keeping it from my child well. I was wrong, I’ve learned. Now they [the staff at the agency] are lying to the judge saying I’m not seeking treatment for the PTSD I obtained from my childhood. It seems they have used my disabilities against me and offered no help.
Because of receiving no help, or as they say I didn’t seek help, I couldn’t really understand what to do. I was severely depressed. I had to call my abusive boyfriend to get help for doctors appointments and rides for surgeries and someone to watch my child as I recovered. I have no family to help me. I don’t know what to do. My child just wants his momma; that’s all he knows. He’s acting out in school and of course they are blaming me because of my abusive relationship. But he just wants to come home. He says, “Momma come live with me so I don’t have to miss you and you don’t have to miss me.”
The caseworkers hear a lot, I know, but when someone says they have PTSD and chronic pain from a back injury and marijuana helps because all other medicine has failed — maybe a doctor is needed rather than taking children?
“I do everything I’m supposed to do to get them back.”
Eric Carisceyo, New York City
13-year-old daughter, 11-year-old son, 10-year-old son currently in foster care
I’m a father of three. After my wife passed away in 2013, the principal of my kids’ school would call me every day during work hours. It was like, Your kids are in the hallway, they’re conversing with their friends. It cost me one job. I said, “Is there any way possible I can get a grandma, or secondary person to talk? And if it gets that bad have them call me? I don’t want to jeopardize my job.” And the principal told me, “No, I only speak with parents.”
I called 311 thinking it was going to help me, but instead it started a bonfire. They called the principal and alerted her I’d made a complaint. Things went from It’s imperative you come in because your kid is in the hallway, to We cannot tolerate your daughter’s violent behavior, we need to have her removed or arrested. My daughter had bitten a boy who was trying to follow her into the bathroom.
I’m on my sixth case, and I’m at the point where I’m exhausting all of my resources. Who can I go to? I can’t afford a lawyer. This has cost me two jobs.
I do everything I’m supposed to do to get them back. And it feels like they keep hinting that I need to continue doing that to get them back, that’s the cat-and-mouse game we have going right now. When is someone going to notice the repetitious thing? When I said I was going to the media one lady said, “Um, don’t mention my name please.” The next day that case got closed.
There’s no reason to take out the agency. I’m for protecting children. But they should have a third party move in and start a filtering system. Have someone filter the phone calls, not stop them. It only takes a small bit of energy to gauge if the call is genuine.
*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.