KHI News Service

Teens describe the foster care experience

House panel continues examination of state foster care system

By Dave Ranney | March 09, 2010

Rachel Perkins, 19, spent six and a half years in the state foster care system.

“My mother had a habit of leaving me – when I was 10 years old - with my four brothers and sisters while my dad was in rehab for a week or two at a time,” Perkins said Monday, testifying before the House Federal and State Affairs Committee.

The committee spent much of last week listening to parents and grandparents whose children and grandchildren were in state custody accuse the system of trampling their rights and profiting from their families’ troubles.

Several committee members have been critical of the 1996 decision to privatize most of the state’s child welfare responsibilities.

Perkins assured committee members that while some case workers weren’t so good, others were terrific, and while some foster parents were kind and caring, others were mean and selfish.

Most children in foster care, she said, were there because their parents could not or would not care for them.

“My mother told me I was the worst mistake in her life,” Perkins said.

Perkins said her foster care experience was “one of the best things that’s ever happened to me,” even though she was separated from her siblings and ran away a few times.

Modia Evans and Richie Bazurto also testified.

Bazurto, 17, said he and his 16-year-old sister have been in foster care for six years.

“We were placed in foster care because no one in our family was financially able or willing to take us in,” he said. “To this day, not one family member has stepped up to take us both in.

“There’s a lot of hatred in my family,” Bazurto added. “Being in foster care really helped me out.”

Evans, 19, said she was declared a ward of the state when she was 17 but is no longer in state custody.

“My mother was addicted to crack cocaine, my father is in prison,” Evans said.

Evans ran away from one foster home, she said, because she refused “to be a slave.” Her second home, she said, was much better.

“I think she babied me a bit,” Evans said, referring to her second foster parent. “I was her favorite because she loved that I was going to school and wanted to go to college.’

Still, Evans said, other girls in the home stole from her.

“Overall,” she said, “my experience in foster care was not a bad one.”

Evans, Bazurto and Perkins are active in the Kansas Youth Advisory Council, a Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services-sponsored organization designed to give teenagers a voice in setting foster care policies.

Rep. Mike Kiegerl, R-Olathe, said he appreciated the trio’s testimony but failed to see how it offset the parents’ and grandparents’ criticism of the system.

“Their stories, frankly, give me nightmares,” he said, referring to the parents and grandparents.

Kiegerl, who’s vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Children’s Issues, challenged SRS Secretary Don Jordan to “show some leadership and take some decisive action” on cases Kiegerl had called to his attention late last year.

Jordan said “all but one’ of the allegations cited by Kiegerl’s sources had been found to be groundless.

He told the committee that decisions must be made based on what is best for the children, not the parents or grandparents.

“When multiple adults are involved, we are going to err on the side of the child,” he said, “and there are going to be some unhappy adults.”

When family members call with complaints, Jordan encouraged committee members to ask them to sign a waiver, allowing SRS to discuss their case with them.

“Otherwise, with confidentiality being what it is, there’s not a lot we can say,” he said.

Though a federal survey of 36 states has shown that Kansas’ foster care system is as good or better than most, Jordan declined to praise the privatized system.

“It’s an area where you’re never going to get to perfection,” he said. “But you should never stop trying to get better. Unfortunate things happen and when they do we need to say, ‘OK, how can make things better?

The committee is scheduled to work a foster care reform bill during its March 17 meeting.

“There are some improvements that can be made – just like there are in every other state,” said Rep. Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls. “There some things we can do to address some holes in the system.”

Neufeld, the committee’s chairman, said he’d he’d like to strengthen continuing education requirements for social workers and expand grandparents’ rights.

“I suspect there will be some other things brought up,” he said.