Why I’m Going Back To Jail

I have spent the past 2 years working in the Child Welfare System in San Francisco as a Social Worker in the Adoption Assistance Program. I learned a lot of things. Working there also confirmed and reiterated things I already knew, indirectly, but had not experienced first hand. I’ll get to that.

I arrived on my first day having no idea that the Adoption Assistance Program existed, much less what it was. In fact, going to work that first day of February 2014, the only thing I knew was where to report and who to report to. I soon learned that when kiddos are adopted through the Foster Care System in this country, every family is awarded a monetary benefit for that child. That Adoption Assistance is be received until the age of 18. In certain cases, that age can be extended to 21 if certain criteria is met.

These amounts range from a base rate to specialized rates depending on the needs of the adopted child. These benefits are dispersed on or around the first of every month. The Adoption Assistance Program is a benefit created by Congress in 1980 to encourage the adoption of special needs kids and to remove the financial disincentives for families to adopt. A great number of these children’s “special needs” were being exposed in utero to drugs or alcohol. If could also be being born to parents who, for a myriad of reasons, were unable to care for their child. The child enters the Child Welfare System and the Foster Care System. Eventually, the parents parental rights are terminated when, they are unwilling or unable to meet the courts requirements for re-unification. The termination of parental rights, subsequently, leads to these kiddos being adopted.

In theory, permanency or adoption sounds like a viable, if not great, solution to avoid kiddos lingering in Foster Care. Yes, in theory. So what is the problem? Our Foster Care System is the problem.

During my many years working in the Criminal Justice System, I viewed the Foster Care System from the lens of those for whom the system had failed. You’ve heard the stories of kids being bounced from foster home to foster home; siblings being separated; kids aging out of Foster Care with no where to go. Those kids became adults and then,some, obviously not all, became my and my colleagues clients.

One client, who’s story I will never forget, is on death row. He, along with one of his sisters, was convicted of a string of robbery murders. She got LWOP or  life without the possibility of parole.  Another one of his sisters had been in and out of jail, most recently finishing a federal sentence for bank robbery, when I began working on her brother’s case. The third sister had struggled with drugs and alcohol, been arrested numerous times for prostitution before her naked body was found in a vacant lot in LA, having been strangled to death.

How is it that 4 siblings could live such tragic lives?  All had been sexually assaulted for years by thier step-father. My client endured years of physical and sexual abuse and was made to sleep on the floor of the laundry room, every night. Two of the sisters had 2 children each. Fathered by their step-father. Fathered by their step-father.  What does this have to do the Child Welfare System? There were volumes and volumes of files from Social Services with allegations of abuse by the step-father and neglect by their mom, who had well documented history of domestic violence. There were written reports of allegations that the step-father had fathered the girls children. The children were removed, placed in Foster Care, where they were further abused and eventually were returned home.  These four siblings were not protected at home nor were they protected in the system that was designed to protect them.

Is this an extreme case? Only if you haven’t had any dealings with the Foster Care System to Prison Pipeline. In a less horrific case but equally as tragic, a teen age boy, with a father in prison and a mother who is a crack addict, is placed in the care of his 20 year old sister when his mom dies. His sister, at 20, already has 2 children of her own. She is barely able to care for her children and not able to provide for her teen-age brother as well. He begins to steal to eat, to have decent clothes, to survive. He begins to get arrested resulting in out of home placement – group homes. He begins to run from the group homes. And the cycle of arrest and incarceration begins. Once he turns 18, homelessness and drug use becomes part of the cycle.

At the age of 19 or 20 he goes to prison. He paroles, 4 years later, with no family, no resources, no support and the cycle resumes. At the age of 25 he is arrested for armed robbery and is facing 20 years. His public defender, after obtaining his Social Service files, is able to negotiate a plea deal of 12 years. At 26 years old, he began his second prison sentence.

During my 2 years at SF’s Human Services Agency, I experienced first hand how the above tragedies occur. I also saw first hand people who work tirelessly and endlessly to keep kids out of the system. People who work diligently to find good, appropriate homes for kiddos. This post isn’t about what is right with the system.

This is about a system that does not have enough resources or money to do the very best with kiddos who have already experienced extreme loss and often trauma. This is about a system where the volume of cases compared to the number of caseworkers has us starting off behind the eight ball.

Adoption can be a wonderful thing and definitely a viable option for many different people, both single and married; both traditional and non-traditional families.  However, the rush for “permanency” can not supersede being intentional and honest with some of the challenges that can arise when adopting “special needs” kiddos as well as in transracial adoption and non-traditional families.

Just cause we don’t talk about these very real issues doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Just because I raise these issues doesn’t mean I’m against transracial adoption or homophobic. Kids, especially pre-teens and teens, deal with a myriad of issues growing up in the “best” of circumstances. What is the conversation when a teen girl, being raised by 2 dads, continuously states, “I want a mom”? When a African American, pre-teen boy, being raised by two white dads, transfers to a predominately minority to school, begins to get into fights, does it occur that he may be getting some grief on the playground from his peers regarding his parents? When I ask had they considered that as a possible reason for his “all of a sudden” acting out, the response was, “He never said anything about it”.

And yet, when I raise issues, concerns, questions about how this system malfunctions, I am met with either indifference or “it is the way it is”. Not by everybody, of course. However, people do seem okay to operate in chaos and disorganization. Not me. Not with people’s lives, especially kiddos.

It didn’t take me long to figure out, I could not take on the Child Welfare System. I had spent nearly 30 years fighting the Criminal (un)Justice System. I have been yelling and screaming about the arbitrariness and disparities in this system since I was 14 years old. All this recent talk about ending mass incarceration, makes give the side-eye and say, “You all are late to the party”.

I had long seen the flaws in the Child Welfare or Foster Care System and the results when it failed. From the inside, I saw a lot of the contributing factors. I knew I had to return to the fight I was familiar with. I had to return to the Criminal (un)Justice System. The one I knew so very well. The system I had had a relationship with for so many years.

The system where I saw change occur on the inside and now was beginning to see change occur on the outside. I accepted a position with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department. Yes, I decided I had to go back to jail.

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Lunch

    Your fight continues! It’s endless but worth it!!!

    Like

  2. Nikcole Cunningham

    Girl!!!!! You’re on FIRE! I can relate and understand as I sit in your chair with those 400+ adoption cases daily!

    Like

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