Why a broken foster-care system is sending more kids to prison than college

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Kansas City Star on 12/15/2019 by Laura Bauer and Judy L. Thomas

He still has the last name of a woman who adopted him in grade school — then gave him back.

From the time he was 3 until he turned 14, Dominic Williamson was bounced to 80 different foster homes. When he turned 18, he found himself alone and homeless, and resorting to a life of crime.

Now, at 20, he has a home more permanent than any he’s ever known.

The Hutchinson Correctional Facility in Kansas.

“I had plans for the future and I kind of ruined it,” he said from prison, where he’s one year into an eight-year sentence. “But how could I be a good kid with all the horrible things happening?”

In the American foster care narrative, prison is where the story leads for many kids like Williamson.

Before she was an inmate, Michelle Voorhees was a kid in foster care. Painting a vivid picture, Voorhees asks you to imagine the harrowing, disconcerting experience of being removed from your own home.

For the past year, The Kansas City Star has examined what happens to kids who age out of foster care and found that, by nearly every measure, states are failing in their role as parents to America’s most vulnerable children.

Roughly 23,000 kids across the country are churned out of the system every year, and their lives highlight a distinct path traveled by many:

Taken from an unstable home. Terrified by their first contact with the state. Emotionally and cognitively damaged in care as they are moved from home to home. Robbed of an education equal to their peers. Turned out to the streets unprepared to stand on their own. And changed for life.

“We are sending more foster kids to prison than college,” said Brent Kent, who spent the past 3½ years helping Indiana foster children transition into adulthood. “And what do we lose as a result? Generations of young people.

“I think as a society we view foster children the same way that we might view offenders coming out of prison or addicts in recovery. We forget that they are just children, that they were put in foster care and removed from their families through no fault of their own.”

As part of its investigation, The Star surveyed nearly 6,000 inmates in 12 states — representing every region of the country — to determine how many had been in foster care and what effect it had on their lives.

Of the inmates who took the survey, 1 in 4 said they were the product of foster care. Some spent the majority of their childhood in strangers’ homes, racking up more placements than birthdays.

The Star’s survey results “make it clear that fumbling foster care has dire consequences,” said Kevin Smith, a district judge who handles family court cases in the Wichita, Kansas, area. “So many of society’s problems are directly linked to foster care outcomes, it is shocking.”

From Texas’ death row to a south-central Missouri prison and communities nationwide, The Star found people numbed by their experiences and battling to overcome the trauma inflicted not only in their biological homes but also by the states that later raised them.

The investigation found:

▪ Most states spend a fraction of their budget dollars on family preservation efforts, even though more kids are removed for neglect than abuse. Most of the $30 billion spent on child welfare annually is funneled into foster care or adoption services, despite a 40-year-old federal mandate that prioritizes family preservation. More dollars are spent on investigating families than trying to keep them together.

▪ Emerging science that suggests multiple foster care placements can actually harm a child’s brain. Some kids are moved dozens of times — a few as many as 100 times — over several years. Foster children are diagnosed with PTSD at a rate greater than Iraq war veterans.

▪ Foster children are failed in the classroom, the least successful of “special population groups” in high schools, including homeless students and those with disabilities. In Oregon alone, just 35 percent of foster kids earned a high school diploma in 2017 compared to more than 77 percent of their peers. As for college, fewer than 3 percent across the country will get a bachelor’s degree.

▪ More than 4,000 former foster care kids every year end up homeless after leaving the system, a conveyor belt that deposits some into sex trafficking and drug addiction. Within four years of aging out, the homeless number doubles in some parts of the country. One center for homeless youth in Indiana reported that nearly 70 percent of the young people it has served so far this year had spent time in foster care, a 36 percent increase over last year.

▪ Completing the cycle, many come back into the state’s care as adults, this time as inmates. Said one convicted murderer from Texas death row: “The state that neglected me as a kid and allowed me to age out of its support is the same state that wants to kill me.”

The dysfunction of America’s foster care system goes back decades, but the situation has become more dire in recent years, The Star found. More states are under fire and facing lawsuits for how they treat foster children as the number of kids in care has grown. In 2017, 443,000 U.S. children were in foster care, a 12 percent increase from 2012.

Several states — including Indiana and West Virginia — have seen significant surges, some blaming the rise of adult opioid addiction. The rate of kids in Kentucky foster care has hit an all-time high, according to a report released last month. That has created a shortage of suitable foster homes.

“Forgotten and cast aside” is the way Julián Castro describes foster kids.

“Right now, our foster care system across the United States is in very sad shape,” Castro, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, told The Star. “There are a lot of things in this country that we just don’t accept. We shouldn’t accept this, and we have it within our power to change it.

“These children have essentially never had a first chance in life,” he said, noting that their “outcomes are so, so bad compared to their peers, it cries out for urgent attention and resources.”

Jess McDonald took over Illinois’ child welfare system in the mid-1990s and was credited with turning around the troubled agency in his nine-year tenure.

The state, however, has since returned to high-level dysfunction, including a recent case in which foster kids were being transported in handcuffs and leg shackles — a practice that has now been prohibited by the agency.

McDonald said the sheer number of children coming into a crowded system means workers must focus on kids’ immediate needs. Their top priority is to ensure the safety of those who have been reported for abuse and neglect.

But when he sees what happens to some foster children, “it’s devastating,” he said. “Because you look at them and say, ‘Could I have done something to make a difference?’”

No doubt, some kids do OK in foster care. Thrive even. But for many, the experience only adds to the trauma they have suffered.

The majority of inmates who wrote messages on their surveys, or who spoke with The Star, said being in the system, and aging out with few skills or support, changed them forever. Those changes made the transition to crime easy.

“I hated it and still feel like today I can never find a real family,” an Arizona inmate wrote. “I believe it directed me more towards the prison/jail system than setting me up for success. … I would give absolutely anything to take a correct step in life, to get help, really anything to get my life right, but I’m still digging myself out of this state-raised pit that I am in.”

Another Arizona inmate was in foster care for 14 years. He was moved more than 100 times.

Texas lawmakers recognized the existence of a possible foster-care-to-prison pipeline several years ago.

That’s when they passed a law requiring that offenders be asked during the intake process whether they had ever been in foster care.

The bill’s sponsor said many children “have experienced significant trauma, including violence, neglect, abuse, threats, humiliation and deprivation.”

Not only do most states fail to track that information, many refused to allow The Star to distribute its survey in their prisons.

In the past year, The Star contacted every state requesting their participation in the survey.

The first to sign on was Kansas, a state whose child welfare agency has been under siege for years and where many young people like Williamson struggle in care then age out alone. Wardens in all eight prisons distributed the survey, and the state ended up having the largest number of inmates participate with nearly 1,200.

“I think it brings strong value,” said Laura Howard, secretary of Kansas’ Department for Children and Families, who has recently started programs to focus on older youth and keeping families together. “We can learn from this.”

Of the 1,174 responses in the Sunflower State, 382 inmates said they had been in foster care. That’s 1 in 3, which is among the highest percentages of the states that participated.

The results, for Kansas and the 12 states overall, show the trauma kids suffer when coming into care and the need to emphasize “trauma-informed services,” said Howard, DCF’s third leader in as many years.

“I don’t sit here and say, ‘Gosh, that’s a failure of the child welfare system,’” she said. “I think what that tells me is as a society, a state, community, we need to do a better job of wrapping services around vulnerable youth.”

Williamson was one of the Kansas inmates to complete a survey.

“I was thrown out into the world with nothing at 18 and was homeless,” he wrote. “So I did what I had to do to provide for myself and make do. Ended up with 6 felony charges at 18 years old.”

Overall, 5,889 inmates responded to The Star’s confidential survey. Of those, 1,446 said they had been in foster care.

While the results are not scientific, experts who reviewed them said they offered rare insight into the backgrounds and challenges of former foster children who end up behind bars.

Fifty-four percent of inmates who responded said they had been convicted of a juvenile crime when they were younger. Nearly 60 percent said they had experienced homelessness.

Only 16 percent said they earned a high school diploma, and another 29 percent said they had gotten their GED.

A female inmate in Kansas said she was in 21 different homes in her six years in foster care and was told “how worthless I was and no one would ever love me.”

“I moved homes every two weeks with hope the next home would be better and I would be loved just for who I was. But my hopes were always crushed.”

In Louisiana, where 709 offenders completed the survey, one said he felt he was “treated as a subhuman” while in foster care and enlisted in the military after he aged out at 18.

An inmate from Pennsylvania said he had two sets of sisters who were allowed to stay together in foster care (two in each placement) until they emancipated. They are well-adjusted adults today with no substance abuse issues and no criminal history, he said.

“Makes me wonder how I’d of turned out if I was placed with a natural sibling,” he wrote. “I never felt as if I belonged.”

The Star’s survey prompted corrections officials in at least two states to consider implementing a process similar to Texas.

The Michigan Department of Corrections said it was participating in the survey “with the goal of better understanding the background of incarcerated offenders and utilizing that information to continuously improve our preparation of prisoners for reentry into the community.”

Clark Peters, a professor of social work at the University of Missouri, said the survey results are alarming. And show that the country has to do better to help the kids it vowed to protect.

“We knew their parents failed them, and we didn’t do any better,” Peters said. “We have failed as parents.”

Kisa Van Dyne, 32, served five years at the Topeka Correctional Facility, Kansas’ only prison for women. She was one of the more than 400 inmates who completed the survey at that facility. Of that group, 39 percent said they had been in foster care.

In a prison interview, Van Dyne said her time in foster care changed her.

“I have always felt like a throwaway, like I am unworthy of the effort to be loved. I felt like just a number in the system and as if I was disposable,” she said. “Due to that, I learned early on how to be completely indifferent to others. … I learned how to not care.

“I learned how to make sure that the only person I ever needed to rely on was myself and that I could never trust anyone to care enough about me to take care of me.”

Dominic Williamson was just 3 when his older brother grabbed a broom in the middle of the night and jiggled the lock open on the front door of their Wichita home.

The preschooler wandered around in the dark while the rest of the family slept. A concerned neighbor called police.

Within hours, officers walked through the family’s home on a routine check and found a crack pipe and other evidence of drug use. The brothers were scooped up and taken into state care, according to what Williamson’s mother later told him.

She would never regain custody of her children.

Williamson’s memories from foster care, where he was moved around the state, are random: being in a treehouse with one family, riding on a jet ski during a vacation with another. That family wanted to adopt him, but in the end didn’t.

“They said that the family had gave me back because they had too much on their plate or something,” he said, almost shrugging it off.

Williamson’s life in the state system epitomizes the path so many foster kids are forced down before being turned out on their own: he was removed because of neglect, not abuse; moved between dozens of foster homes; struggled with school work; and only wanted to be back with his biological family.

From the time he was taken from his mother, Williamson acknowledges he was hard to handle. He says he had anger problems, mad because he never felt accepted.

“I would just act out to make them not want me there so they would call the social worker and basically tell them that they didn’t want me and that they’d end up finding a new place for me,” he said. “Somewhere where I’d be happy.”

Williamson and his brother initially were put in the same homes for two or three years. Their mom told Dominic years later that before she signed over her parental rights she asked the state to keep the pair together.

But that didn’t happen, and the two were split up when it became hard to find placements that would take them both. Then his brother was adopted.

Williamson, meanwhile, continued to move from home to home. Three families, he said, wanted to — or did — adopt him. But none ultimately worked out.

He has a constant reminder of that final failed adoption.

“I still have the last name of someone who gave me back,” Williamson said. “It doesn’t feel very good. It makes me feel like I’m not wanted anymore.”

When he was 14, he reconnected with his biological mother after finding her on Facebook. She was living in Florida.

“She ended up selling her car and buying a bus ticket and moving down here to the Salvation Army in Wichita,” he said. “She got a job and she was doing real good and she was trying to get me back.”

But she relapsed and turned back to crack cocaine. He ran away from foster care and moved with his mom to Massachusetts, where many of their relatives live.

Soon, however, he returned to Wichita to take care of his juvenile court cases. Before long, he stopped hearing from his mom and couldn’t find out where she was.

When Williamson started getting into trouble again, he said the state sent him to group homes in Topeka and Wichita.

“They only put me in like three or four until they pulled me out and they were like, ‘You know what? We can’t help you. We’re just going to let you go.’

“And they let me out of the juvenile facility right before my 18th birthday and said, ‘I hope the adult system picks you up, because we can’t help you.’”

The extent of the foster care crisis can be measured in court records across the nation. Since the 1980s, nearly three dozen states have faced lawsuits asserting that they were further harming children they were supposed to protect.

“Once children enter government custody it is difficult for them to escape without being further damaged by their stay in state custody,” said a suit filed in Wisconsin more than 25 years ago.

In the past two years alone, at least five states have been sued.

The Star reviewed four decades of lawsuits and found some states are being sued today for the same issues that plagued other systems 15 to 20 years ago.

Lawsuits, and the combination of nonprofit legal child advocates and private law firms, are the only voices these foster children have.

“Look who the plaintiffs are — highly vulnerable kids in government custody,” said Ira Lustbader, an attorney who has traveled to more than a dozen states in the past 20 years to represent children. “They are poor, they don’t vote, they don’t have all the powerful interest groups.

“I certainly didn’t realize how deep the structural problems were and how devastating they can be to both children and families. Once you see that, you can’t look away, you have to keep fighting it.”

This fall, a lawsuit filed on behalf of 12 West Virginia foster children said the state’s child welfare agency was in “a perpetual state of crisis” trying to find placements for kids. The suit detailed roughly a dozen systemic breakdowns, leading to kids like 12-year-old Ace L being abused, overmedicated and moved multiple times, including to institutional and hospital settings.

A Better Childhood, a watchdog organization based in New York that filed the suit, said on its website: “The result of these failures is that the West Virginia foster care system devastates and permanently damages the children in its care.”

At least eight suits, including one filed in Kansas last year, allege that multiple placements are causing children further harm.

A 10-year-old Kansas boy, known only as C.A. in court records, had been in DCF custody for six years. During that period, he was passed around 70 times between foster homes, group homes and agency offices, according to the suit.

In 2018 alone, C.A. suffered through three months of continuous night-to-night stays that contributed to the disruption of his treatment for Attention Deficit Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the lawsuit alleged.

The litigation states that the plaintiff children have been moved 10 to more than 100 times while in state custody.

In their April 29 response to the original complaint, the defendants denied that they had caused injury to any of the plaintiffs.

“Plaintiffs have suffered no actual injury as a result of the actions or inactions of Defendants,” the document said. It added that “Plaintiffs’ own conduct was a contributing cause of injury alleged by Plaintiffs.”

In Rhode Island, two brothers were kept in institutions simply because the state had nowhere else to put them, according to a lawsuit filed in 2007. The brothers, ages 9 and 13, were among 10 children named in the suit filed against state officials and Rhode Island’s child welfare agency.

“Abuse and neglect of children in foster care in Rhode Island has been so pervasive,” the lawsuit said, “that children in Rhode Island are more likely to suffer abuse or neglect if they are in foster care than if they are not.”

Lawsuits continue to be necessary, said Lustbader, because there’s no accountability when the systems fail.

States have a “constitutional, statutory obligation” to provide a web of care for those they bring into the system, he said.

“If your system is literally re-victimizing them, reharming them, you as a government are contributing to their negative outcomes,” said Lustbader, litigation director for New York-based Children’s Rights, a national advocacy organization that represented children in the Kansas and Rhode Island lawsuits.

“Being removed from the family you know and then being harmed by the system that was supposed to protect you certainly stacks the odds against anyone trying to make their way in the world.”

Shortly after he aged out, Williamson met with a close friend of his mom’s who had told him they needed to talk.

“Your aunt and uncle called me, and they want me to tell you that your mom passed away.”

Williamson had just aged out of state care. His dad died when he was 3. And now his mom was gone, dying in her sleep, he said he was told.

He had no home. He’d never had a job or a driver’s license. He had attended four high schools and accrued only six credits toward graduation.

“They wanted to know if I wanted to stay in custody, which means they would try to get me some independent living program or something like that,” he said. “But after everything that I’d just been through with being in custody and the foster homes, I was just like, ‘No, just leave me be.’ I didn’t want their help. Because their help so far hadn’t gotten me anywhere.”

When he left the system, he said, “I didn’t have no plans.”

“I had to make some money somehow. I had to find a place to stay somehow.”

He tried to sleep, he said, “in hotels, motels, just wherever I could lay down.”

“But I didn’t really sleep because I would be high on meth. I was doing a lot of bad things at that time.”

Two months after aging out, Williamson was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after he threatened someone he said owed him money.

And in April 2018, six weeks before he turned 19, he and a 17-year-old female friend were stopped by a loss prevention officer while trying to walk out of a Menards in Wichita with a home security system.

Williamson, high on meth and up for nearly three days straight, shot the guard in the stomach, wounding him, then escaped in a stolen car. The next night, police showed up at his place as Williamson was climbing into another stolen car. He took off with police in pursuit but shook them and headed west.

Several hours later, state troopers caught up with him on Interstate 70, more than 200 miles from Wichita.

Williamson was sentenced to eight years in prison for aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, theft and eluding law enforcement officers.

Now, he earns 60 cents a day as a rotunda porter in the main lobby of the Hutchinson Correctional Facility. The first job he ever had, he said, was in prison.

Since he’s been there, Williamson said, he has not been in contact with any of his relatives. Before prison, he said, he reached out on Facebook to the woman whose last name he still has, to apologize for any problems he may have caused as a child.

As for his brother, he’s heard he tried college but ended up in the military. Williamson said he’s made many attempts to get together with him.

“But it seems like every time we made like a plan or a date to meet up, he’d message me and ask for a rain check,” he said. “At that time, my life was really bad. I was using drugs, I was selling drugs… I wanted to meet him, I wanted to have a relationship with him. But I didn’t.

“I don’t think he even knows I’m in prison.”

Seventeen years after he was removed from his home, Williamson still has that need to be with his biological family.

“I wanted to be there with them because I felt like they were the people in my life who actually truly even cared,” he said.

“You’ll never have a bond with anybody like you would with your own.”