by Abigail Adams
COLUMBIA, S.C. – Five people. The number may seem small, but for people who fall within that number, it can mean the whole world. Ridge View High School is filled with a variety of students, each from different walks of life. An estimated five students here are part of The Foster Care System. This system isn’t often talked about; there are many people who do not know what goes on within the system or what it is like for a child to be in it. One student agreed to share information on what their life in the Foster Care System is like; one staff member agreed to share her experience in helping a former student who was in Foster Care.
Children can be entered or placed into The Foster Care System due to physical abuse,
sexual abuse, neglect, voluntarily placement, truancy or incarceration of a parent. Children can also be placed in the system if they are juvenile offenders or if they are a runaway. People from different agencies are assigned to a child when they enter Emergency Protective Custody, such as workers from Guardian ad Litems (GAL), Department of Social Services (DSS) and several others with related titles. They all work for a solution that is in the best interest of the child. “This can make you feel important at times. They are all working to do what’s in your best benefit, but it can also be stressful as they all work to build your life around you without your input,” the student mentions.
There are two different places that a foster child can live, a group home or a foster home. When living in a group home, the child is surrounded by other minors. In a foster home, the child has foster parents that watch the child instead of having them in a group setting. The student comments, “Living in a group home can be supportive if you have a good relationship with the staff and other kids living in the home…In a foster home, you gamble on having a connection with that set of foster parents and feeling isolated.”
When asked about what the public should know, the student said, “Children in foster care are regular people/they just got the bad end of the stick…They crave a life of stability.” The student tells how he focus on the future and the goals he wants to reach instead of dwelling on his situation.
“Never give up. Always keep your goals in mind. Always strive to reach your goals, and always set new ones as you reach them,” he advises to those in similar situations. This student has plans to go to college and get a bachelor’s degree. The student believes that being in Foster Care won’t prevent them from getting jobs or living the life they want, “I think being in foster care can help my future by giving me a skill set to overcome and fight through obstacles.”
The staff member
A staff member here at Ridge View, who wishes to remain anonymous, shared the story of a former student who was in the Foster Care System. The staff member relays that the former student had signed herself out of Foster Care in May, after she had turned 18. They had wanted to foster this student before she turned 18, but it was better financially (for the student) to have her sign herself out of the system. The student had originally come to Ridge View but her situation changed and she went to Blythewood. The student’s living situation changed again and she returned to Ridge View, this second time the staff member got to know her.
When asked about what the student was like, the staff member mentioned that after everything this student went through, she had learned to be wary of people. “She became very distrusting of everyone and everything. Not only did her foster parents let her down but DSS let her down. She felt like she had been lied to, that nobody cared about her,” the staff member mentioned. She also said that the student had a hard time with interpersonal relationships.
The student wasn’t placed in the best of houses. “She had always lived in individual homes…All of her homes had single mothers,” the staff member continued on, “Some would not come home, not provide her with nutritious foods. Some did not provide her with personal items, like shampoo, clothes, soap, etcetera. One family literally put a lock on the refrigerator and told her to eat from the freezer outside that was filled with frozen burritos. They would not follow through with what foster parents are supposed to do.”
This staff member, and a few others, assisted the student with needs. They would bring her some clothes, food, or whatever she needed that her foster parents weren’t providing.
The former student was very intellectually bright; she was accepted into six colleges that she had applied to. During her freshman year in high school, she was placed into the system. She quickly began moving from place to place. By the time the staff member met her in her senior year, she had already been to seven different schools and 15 different foster homes. Her education was constantly disrupted; she ended up retaking English III twice and was once given zeros at another school for exams she had taken. The Foster Care workers told the student her transcript got lost.
Once she signed herself out of the system and high school was over, the student lived with this staff member. They helped her get her driver’s license, dorm supplies, and basic medical attention before she went to college and had to do it on her own. Now, finally attending college in South Carolina, the student is living the life she always wanted. At first she lived in a dorm, but struggled to be there because she was always in foster houses in which she was the only child. Counselors at her college helped her find her own apartment just off campus. Now, she lives in the apartment that she pays for with money she received from scholarships, majors in Psychology and made the dean’s list in her first semester.
“It has given me a restricted view of the foster care system…I feel bad because I know those people (DSS and related) are overwhelmed and they have a hard job, but I, personally, saw very few compassionate people,” the staff member mentions. The staff member also mentions that DSS and other people who worked within the system were never on top of issues, such as providing help for payment of the student’s cap and gown for graduation. They also mention that whenever the student and the foster parents had issues, DSS wouldn’t really listen to the student’s point of view, which never helped the student’s situation. “Everyone should listen to two sides of the story whether you’re a parent, DSS or whoever.” While the staff member has met other students who haven’t had as terrible of an experience as the former student did, the staff member has concerns about the system and hopes that it was an isolated case.
DSS and group homes
During Career Day on April 5th, 2017, I got the chance to speak with the Richland County Director of Department of Social Services (DSS) , Reese Palmer, and Ti Barnes, the Executive Director of Bowers-Rodgers Children’s Home. Being Director of DSS means that Reese Palmer meets with his management staff almost every day. He reviews several reports from the 2,000 families involved with DSS. As CEO of the Bowers-Rodgers Children’s Home, Ti Barnes handles budget, regulatory affairs, and day to day operations. He also has a staff of 14 that he manages.
When doing inspections in homes, DSS checks two major issues, the mental and physical environment. Their primary concern is the safety of the child and to hopefully reunite children with their families. DSS determines if the child is safe based on whether or not the house has heat, water, food, any unsafe items, high stacked items, clutter. They also look to see if the house is clean, if there are any exposed electrical wires or outlets. To check if the house is mentally safe, DSS interviews household members and watches interactions between the household members and children. If the child finds it uncomfortable to return to their home, DSS will provide referrals to individual and family counseling and will determine if the child is in any danger of being mentally or physically harmed or abused.
The priority of Bowers-Rodgers Children’s Home is to provide emergency care for abused, abandoned and neglected children and prepare them for permanent placement. Children can remain in the home anywhere from a few hours to over a year. How long the child remains there is dependent on whether or not the parent or guardian can regain custody of their child after the completion of a treatment plan; this is designed to help both guardian and child. The group home has an onsite therapist, the children receive a mental and medical health assessment within 72 hours of being placed in the home as well as being placed in school within those hours. DSS works alongside the organization by doing a home-study to ensure that the home is suitable for the child to live in. If the child does not return to the custodial parent/guardian, they may go into kinship care, which means that another family member will gain custody of them. The third option for a child in the children’s home is adoption.