January 23, 2008
Clint Brewer, Executive Editor
Nashville City Paper
624 Grassmere Park, Suite 28
Nashville, TN 37211
RE: PRIVATIZED FOSTER CARE
Dear Mr. Brewer:
I would like to share what I've learned through my experience working with older adolescents reaching the age of majority—18—who are being released from state custody with the Department of Children’s Services.
One child, now twenty, is pregnant and moves from place to place every few days or so (photos attached). When I first got her case, 5 years or so ago, she had concrete goals, dreams and aspirations. She had hope. She wanted to go to college. Now, today, she is homeless, pregnant, and has been without services since the day (and I do mean day!) she turned 18. On her 18th birthday, she was dropped off at a Food Lion parking lot in Gallatin without any money, clothing, food, healthcare, benefits, e.g., food stamps, transportation and no where to go. She was on her own with a 10th grade education and no GED.
CG is a young man who was diagnosed with a brain tumor at 19, shortly after leaving custody. He was denied TennCare 4 times before I made the decision to get involved at any cost. Like all of my other former DCS clients (at least those who have contacted me over the years) CG is also chronically homeless, unemployable, and has only a 10th grade education, epilepsy, and a mental illness. He TennCare is ending 3/31/2008—not quite enough time to plan and execute the brain surgery he needs to help him live a relatively normal life… I’m still involved, but tomorrow I will turn his case file over to two new case managers and hope that they can keep up the pace. I have to let go. I can’t pay my internet bill!
I hope and pray that all of the hard work I have put into his case: applying for benefits, social security, Medicaid, Food Stamps, even a library card and a voter registration card (which are a dime a dozen in this town; Nashville, TN; these days) so that he can get the brain surgery and medical treatment he needs and deserves does not get lost when I go back to work next week. I have assured him that I will not abandon him like everyone else in the past—besides, I hold his history—his memory—his voter registration, TennCare and Social Security cards.
These children and young adults (DB, CG, CW, and CB) and a few other exceptional children left an imprint on my heart long after I left my position with the Department of Children's Services...
After leaving the private (contract) agency I was working for, it took a very long time for me to decide whether I should continue in the field of social services for children. You see, I was under the impression that foster care was about children. Wrong.
Unfortunately, I came to realize that it was more about money than children. Private agencies pay barely there, barely trained “people” upwards of $40-60/day per child tax-free. One foster parent I worked with kept ten children in a four-bedroom home in Madison. She also kept chains on the refrigerator door so the children wouldn’t eat too much food. Another family had multiple complaints of sexual assault filed against them, but those complaints were mysteriously absent from my case file when I left the agency. As was my actual signature on my case reports—they didn’t even try to color between the lines when falsified my records with white out. Who can be that lazy? Who can be that reckless? Who can be that person?
I was deeply saddened by this realization because I was unsure what to do with the information I had acquired throughout the years. However, at this point in my life, I do feel that I have some ethical obligation to either speak out or take action to work towards resolving the systemic problems in the privatized foster care environment.
I came to the realization that I may be able to use my own voice to speak for the children who have been repeatedly silenced by our society: our schools, our courts, our social service system, and the adults they relied upon to have their most basic needs met.
Of course, I would have to speak with DB and CG about their willingness to meet with you to discuss their experience while in the custody of the children's services.
However, if you believe (like I do) that sharing these stories (albeit anecdotal) may ultimately lead to profound changes and reform within the foster care system, then I am quite certain my former clients would be more than willing to speak with anyone who has the capacity to make things better for their natural and foster siblings still in the system, I do not see a problem so long as we can create a space where they can speak freely without fear of repercussions.
DB is not alone in her experience, and for whatever reason, these children seem to feel comfortable sharing their stories with me.
There is another young man, Cody G, who is an incredibly gifted writer that deserves to be heard and recognized. Much like DB, he has experienced a great deal of difficulty finding stable living arrangements once discharged from DCS custody. Because he was constantly in motion, moving from place to place to place-- I agreed to hold onto his personal journals documenting his experience in DCS.
His voice deserves to be heard along with a chorus of others! Some of these children develop such fascinating ways to cope with the pain, the isolation and the abandonment issues they grow up with, and I try to do the best I can to steer them in the right direction.
Talent such as Cody's and perseverance like DB's should be revered, celebrated, respected, and validated-- not thrown away or ignored..
Foster care is mess. What happens next is a complete and utter tragedy. Please consider doing a story about Tennessee Foster Care. I hope you are deeply disturbed by the contents of this letter—if so—my job is done for the day! You can reach me on my cell (615) 424-8810 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will be meeting with DCS all day tomorrow, but I will have several breaks if you have an interest in covering this despicable state of affairs and this not so well hidden secret about privatized foster care in the state of Tennessee.
Thank you for your time and discretion when handling this correspondence. I look forward to hearing back from you soon.
Elyssa Durant, Ed.M.
This is how Cody writes:
The Leaveless Plant:
by Cody Gambill
I am a plant without any roots
I bring no syrup I bear no fruits
I am not much to look at without any flowers
All I do is sit and stare for hours
Every so often, I wander off to find a new spot
Feeling no attachment to anything I've got
Every time I move, I lose a leaf or two
But no one will notice because here I am new
After moving a while, I look down to see
How oblivious I am to my nudity
All of my moving has shaken me bare
Embarrassed and all I ignore the stares
But the more I think the better I feel
Because the leaves from me provided a meal
So I am important like all on this earth
Think I'll settle down and show this world what I'm worth
And this is how DB lives: pregnant at age 20:
The bathtub. No door. No curtain.
Going Live... enough is enough. We have a problem here. Can someone tell me what it is?