Thursday, December 23, 2010

8,000 foster youth in Tennesse

Foster care program vital this time of year
Tennessean, December 22, 2010.

Of the 200,000 or so children around the country who entered foster care last year in the United States, some 8,000 of them resided in Tennessee.

And of that 8,000 in Tennessee, around 1,000 entered the foster care system in Rutherford County.

"We have so many children who come in every single day," said Lauren Johnson, a senior recruiter and trainer for foster care treatment for Youth Villages, a Memphis-based nonprofit national leader in offering programs and services to help children and their families.

Johnson recruits and trains within eight Middle Tennessee counties, including Rutherford, Cannon, Robertson, Cheatham, Sumner, Williamson, Wilson and Trousdale counties.

"Our mission is to help children and their families live successfully," she said. "And that's not necessarily their birth family, but also could include their foster, adoptive or care-giving families."

And that is especially so during the holiday season.

"This time of year can be really sad for children within the welfare system if they are not with a stable and loving family," Johnson said. "That's the biggest thing we ask of families to provide the children."

Founded in Memphis in 1986, Youth Villages has offices in 10 states and the District of Columbia. According to its website, the private nonprofit organization "provides a fully integrated continuum of services, including residential treatment, in-home services, foster care and adoption, mentoring and a transitional living program for young adults aging out of foster care."

Locally, Youth Villages started offering foster care informational and instructional classes taught by Johnson last October. Another series of classes starts Jan. 15 for seven straight Saturdays from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. at First Baptist Church at 200 E. Main St.

"The more homes we have, the better we are able to match up these homes to children," Johnson said.

Part of Johnson's battle is perception concerning foster care.

"A lot of people don't realize what foster care is, how it has changed, or that it is even out there," she said. "A few decades ago, people saw a lot of foster care as orphans and the system was a little bit broken. We have come leaps and bounds. There is so much support offered to families for them to be successful with these children in their homes."

There are other ways to become involved other than becoming a foster parent, including mentoring, where adults work directly with youths without housing them.

"The mentoring program gives a child someone to look up to as a positive role model and just have somebody to hang out with," Johnson said.

Last year around 29,000 young adults nationally were "aged out" of the foster care system without a safe and permanent family in which to reside. Several programs target those young adults, including a Transitional Living program at Youth Villages.

For more information, contact Johnson at 615-250-7318 or visit Youth

Monday, August 10, 2009

Placing 15-yr-old two doors away from her abusive father led to her death

Advocates question whether foster kids should be placed close to home
DCS tries to balance safety with familiarity

Ross, Janell. The Tennessean, August 9, 2009.

In the case of Stevie Noelle Milburn, a 15-year-old Dyersburg, Tenn., girl who loved soccer, dancing and singing, some facts aren't in dispute.

Two weeks ago, she accused her father of some sort of abuse. Tennessee Department of Children's Services caseworkers consulted Stevie, her father and police and arranged for her to stay with family friends two doors away.

Three days after Stevie's move, Christopher Milburn, 34, walked down the street to shoot and kill his daughter and his neighbor. A short distance away, he took his own life. People in the city of 17,000 about 80 miles northwest of Memphis raised money so Stevie's mother could take her body home to Oregon.

But what former foster children and those who knew Stevie — and some who didn't — are debating is the wisdom of placing a child at the center of an abuse investigation in a home so close to her accused abuser.

"Were the right decisions made in this case? I don't pretend to have any of those answers," said the Rev. Gary Meade, pastor of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Dyersburg, the church Stevie's caretakers attended. Meade also is a former lawyer and foster father who adopted two children.

"This story highlights the reality of social work. There are laws and there are policies. The challenge is in how those laws and policies intersect with real life."

Some answers lie in a collection of state laws, Department of Children's Services policies and practices endorsed by the National Association of Public Child Welfare Workers. Together, they call for most parents to be consulted about places where their children can stay while investigations are under way and for children to be placed in homes near their families.

But some things will never be known because state law shields abuse investigations like Stevie's from public view.

State Custody vs. Open Investigations
In Tennessee, 5,333 children were in state custody at the end of June. There are 11,770 open investigations, some of which involve children, like Stevie, who have not been legally removed from their parents' custody but are living with relatives or friends under the terms of what's called an "immediate protection agreement."

She was not in foster care, said Rob Johnson, spokesman for the Department of Children's Services.

The Tennessee Department of Children's Services does not regularly track the number of children living under an immediate protection agreement, said Stacy Miller, the agency's general counsel. The Tennessean requested a review of case files involving immediate protection agreements between July 2008 and July 2009. It revealed one death — a child drowned while with a babysitter. That case is under investigation.

Johnson said the department will review its actions in Stevie's case. And, as with every child's death in Tennessee, a county health department-led team will review her death to determine if it was, in any way, preventable.

As a standard part of the initial investigation into unsubstantiated allegations like Stevie's, the department often works with the family and child to identify a safe, neutral space where the child might stay for at least a short time. It's a process that happens quickly but carefully, said Carla Aaron, the Department of Children's Services executive director for child safety.

Caseworkers make a number of observations about birth and host families, the child and his parents' safety and mental stability as well as any criminal records of the people involved. State records show Christopher Milburn had no Tennessee arrests and served no time in prison here.

"If we thought there was danger, we would not go down the road of doing an IPA," Aaron said. "We might pursue protective custody. … In this case, we had no indication that this was a dangerous situation at all."

Protective custody gives the state at least temporary custody of a child and in most cases will lead to a placement in a foster home. If family issues can't be resolved or corrected, it can lead to years in foster care or, ultimately, adoption.

DCS practice criticized
Nashville attorney Natasha Blackshear, an alumna of the New York state foster care system, said she doesn't believe the practice of placing children in their home communities — either for the night or for years — is best.

"I think that that's one of those policies that's been made with a middle-class, blond-haired, blue-eyed child in mind," said Blackshear, who serves on the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. "The child that benefits from that policy comes from a middle-class neighborhood with good schools or is the kind of child that people are looking to adopt.

"But that's not the story with most of the kids that come into the system. A lot of them come from the ghetto
, from neighborhoods where the trouble isn't just in their home and from bad schools."

Blackshear said the close-to-home approach to placements is part of the reason only 25 percent of the children in state custody have earned a high school diploma or equivalent or are working by their 18th birthday. And, when parents are accused of abuse, Blackshear believes that some additional care and caution need to be taken to protect children, she said.

"Even when there are unproven accusations, it does seem like some additional caution, more than two doors' distance, might be a good idea," she said.

There are benefits to keeping foster children near the schools, stores, gathering places and perhaps places of worship they know, said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children's Rights, a New York-based nonprofit child advocacy agency. The agency in the late 1990s brought a civil rights suit against Tennessee over the state's treatment of children in its care.

"Safety trumps everything and has to come first," Lustbader said. "But it's an important goal because the experience of being removed from one's home and placed in foster care is in itself traumatic, and you don't want to expose that child to any additional trauma."

Lustbader said there is not enough publicly available information about the Dyersburg case to assess whether the appropriate balance was struck between Stevie's emotional and physical safety needs.

Some former foster children agree with the idea that children in state care belong closer to their families of origin. Krista Noel said she was 13 when false allegations of sexual abuse led the Department of Children's Services to remove her sister and her from their homeless mother's custody.

Noel's sister, then a student at Hume-Fogg High School, asked to be placed in a home in Nashville so that she could continue attending the magnet school. Noel says she wasn't asked where she wanted to go and ended up in Baxter, Tenn., about 70 miles east of Nashville.

"Even though DCS was taking me, had I had a say, I would have wanted to stay in Nashville," said Noel, 24, an expectant mother and waitress. "I would have already known my community and I wouldn't have felt so like I was alone.

"Not that race is so much an issue, but I'm mixed with black and white. In Baxter, there's not that many black people."

Today, she serves on the Tennessee Youth Advisory Council, which works to give children in the state system a voice.

"Even now, not many kids have a choice or a say in where they are placed," Noel said. "Children who know their rights are able to advocate for themselves. But in most cases, youth don't know what's going on. They don't know what rights they have."

Friday, June 06, 2008

Concern about GAL services in Tennessee

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Saturday, July 07, 2007

TN's rankings on Kids Count report

Report: state still ranked high in infant mortality rate
Kids Count report ,, June 26, 2007.

KNOXVILLE - Once again, Tennessee ranks near the bottom of the list when it comes to a national report on the health and well-being of children and teenagers.

Overall, Tennessee ranks 46th for 2006 in the annual Kids Count report. That's also where the state was ranked in 2005.

The Kids Count report also ranked Tennessee 47th in the category of infant mortality.

However, there are some improvements when you break down the numbers in Knox County.

Knox is currently ranked fourth worst in the state for infant mortality, with 23 cases. But that's a decrease from 2005, when there were 39 cases of infant mortality, ranking Knox County third worst.

The number of teen violent deaths has also decreased in Knox County. In 2006, there were 11 deaths compared to 2005, when there were 14.

And in proven child abuse and neglect cases, Knox County came in third worst with 516 cases, according to the children's services. That's another decrease. In 2005, there were 640 cases of abuse and neglect.

The report by the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth outlines strategies to improve those rankings.

One plan is to provide more pre-pregnancy health programs that make sure women have a proper diet and avoid smoking, using drugs or alcohol.

Lawmakers this year approved $390,000 for a pilot program that will provide in-home visiting nurse services to low-income, first-time mothers during pregnancy and through the child's second birthday.

The program will be based in Shelby County.

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Friday, July 06, 2007

TN couple understands stigma of foster care, stays in contact after foster youth "age out"

Fostering children is a mission for local couple: DCS starts foster parent training program
Tatum. Cheryl. Hendersonville Star News, July 6, 2007.

Over the last four years, more than 30 children have found refuge in the Hendersonville home of Johnny and Rita Parrish.

Mostly teens, these young people have had a laundry list factors placing them in foster care in Sumner County. For some it was circumstances beyond their control and for others behavioral problems lead to their placement in state custody.

But whatever the reason, Johnny Parrish said as a certified foster home he and his wife always have a room ready for children in need.

"We have had calls at midnight, we always keep the room available. Sometimes they stay the night until they see the judge and sometimes they stay longer," he said.

It is homes like the Parrishes that keep the foster care system in Sumner County operating, according to Clifton Funk with the Department of Children's Services (DCS).

Without foster homes, DCS would have an even more difficult time caring for those children whom judges say can no longer live at home.

Currently Sumner County has about 230 children in foster care.

With only 60 foster homes, that means some of this county's children have to go out of county for care.

All parties involved say that is not the in the children's best interest.

"A lot of children are placed outside the county. That makes it difficult for the families and children. They are taken out of their schools, home communities and churches," Funk said.

That is why homes like the Parrishes are so vital, the DCS foster family recruiter said, particularly because Johnny and Rita take teens into their home.

"That is where out biggest need is," Funk said.

For the Hendersonville couple, fostering teens has its own special reward.

According to Rita, providing teens is both challenging and rewarding. Having raised two children of their own, she adds fostering teens provides the opportunity to steer them on the right path for life.

"We are full of love and there are a lot of children out there who are in need of love," she said.

Johnny adds caring for teens does have its advantages.

"They are old enough to take care of themselves and you have the opportunity to make an impact on their lives before they are either reunified with their families or they age out of the system," he said.

Both Johnny and Rita say many of the teens who have passed through their home stay in touch.

"We have a bond with the ones we stay in close contact with, they know they have a forever home here," Johnny said.

Fostering children is calling for the couple who have lived in Hendersonville for 14 years.

"We are a Christian family and we try to never turn away a child unless we know we can't provide for them," said Johnny, who also serves as a pastor for a Madison church.

Funk said for the good of Sumner County children, more families need to share the Parrish's mission.

"We never have enough," Funk said of foster homes.

To help in the recruitment of foster families in Sumner County, DCS is hosting a seminar introducing local residents to the foster care program.

Known as PATH (Parents As Tender Healers) the class is designed to answer questions about foster care and introduce foster parents to those interested in serving children.

Johnny will be an instructor for the series of classes that begin Monday.

"People need to think of their own children and if they have any parenting left in them, the Department of Children's Services needs their parenting skills," he said.

Rita adds that foster children sometimes have negative image, one that in most cases they do not deserve.

"People are quick to judge children because they are in foster care, but they don't know why they are in the system. There are all types of reasons," she said.

Both Johnny and Rita say being a foster parent is not always easy with letting go sometimes being the hardest job of all.

"It's very difficult when they leave, its heart wrenching, but most of the time the teenagers will stay in contact. And, it's easier to let go when you know they are going to what's best for them," Rita said.


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Creating a network to support Tennesse children

We need a network of child development
O'Neal, Linda. Tennessean. June 28, 2008.

In the past 50 years, in Tennessee and the nation, we have built a series of modern networks that are essential to our quality of life — our power grid, phone systems, water systems, interstate highways and the Internet.

Tennesseans need to work together to build comparable public structures, systems and networks to support the development of healthy, productive citizens.

The failure to provide comprehensive supports for Tennessee children — the backbone of our future work force and economy — is the equivalent of having scattered wells, individual generators and county roads, but no infrastructure to ensure future success for our children.

The work force of tomorrow depends on the investments we make today. Our legacy needs to be one of responsibility. We must ensure Tennessee children have a bright future and, consequently, the future of the state as a whole is enhanced.

On June 26, the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth released a publication entitled, "Blueprint for the Success of Tennessee's Children"

Investing in Tennessee children is the most important thing we can do to provide them with good quality of life and opportunities for success. Our future is at risk if the health, education and development of Tennessee children are not given the priority they deserve.

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Cory's goal is to help other foster children

MONDAY'S CHILD: Cory wants to help other kids in foster care
WBIR-TV, June 18, 2007.

Fifteen-year-old Cory says he wants a family who will give him the opportunity to be himself and express his feelings.

Cory has a very outgoing personality and likes to be the center of attention. He is intelligent, and does well in school, although he admits he could do better.

He says his career goal is to work in social services to help youngsters like him who are in foster care and need to find permanence.

For more information about any adoptable child call 594-7091, Extension 121 in Knoxville or contact the Department of Children's Services in any Tennessee County.

Click here to view Tennessee Department of Childrens Services website.

1,1717 displaced children in Tennessee

Everyone needs a dad but none more than special kids in foster care
Lewis, Dwight. The Tennessean, June 17, 2007.

"There is a man in my house/He's so big and strong/He goes to work each day and stays all day long/Comes home at night, looking tired and beat … I think I'll color him Father … I think I'll color him love.'' O.C. Smith, as reprinted in My Soul Looks Back, 'Less I Forget: A Collection Of Quotations By People of Color (HarperPerennial).

It was 12 years ago now, and twins Micheala, a girl, and Adrian, a boy, were just 2 years old. They were really just babies, special-needs babies living in a lovely foster care home. Not a permanent home but a foster-care home.

A short time later though, a middle-aged East Tennessee man named Samuel Vaughn Thomas Jr., and his wife, Rosa, adopted Micheala and Adrian and gave them a permanent home, like so many children in foster care would love to have.

"Why did you all adopt Micheala and Adrian?'' I asked Vaughn over the telephone recently.

"It was simple,'' he replied, "there are not enough fathers in our homes. There was a need, a void, and that void needed to be filled.

"Adopting children in foster care is great, but adopting special needs children can even be more fulfilling.

"They're loving kids. They're wonderful, and they've brought a lot of joy into our lives. If I had to do it over again, I would do it.

"There are so many things our children need, especially our boys. They need a father figure in their lives.''

In addition to Micheala and Adrian, Vaughn, who happens to be my cousin, and Rosa have another adopted son, Ryan, who turns 18 next month and earlier this spring graduated from high school with honors.

A few days before talking to Vaughn, who was in the early stages of muscular dystrophy when he and his wife adopted Micheala and Adrian, I received an e-mail saying, "With Father's Day coming up, it's easy to think about what to get Dad, but have you thought about how many children don't have fathers?

"In fact, in Tennessee, 1,717 children do not have permanent, loving homes or parents to call their own.''

The e-mail went on to say that:

• More than 114,000 foster children in the U.S. are waiting to be adopted.

• The average age of a foster child is nearly 9.

• The average time a child spends in foster care is five years, and that can be a lifetime for a child.

In recognition of this special weekend for dads and their families, Wendy's is introducing, "Father's Day Frosty Weekend.'' Today, participating Wendy's restaurants across the nation will donate a minimum of 50 cents from every Frosty product sold to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.

The goal is to raise $1 million for the foundation and its program, Wendy's Wonderful Kids (WWK). The program hopes to fill a "critical gap by funding and supporting full-time adoption recruiters at local agencies in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and two Canadian provinces to match prospective parents with waiting foster-care children."

My cousin Vaughn will tell you that adopting a child or children is a neat thing to do, and he has two grown biological daughters.

And can you imagine where Micheala and Adrian might be today if Vaughn and Rosa had not come along? Sure, they were living in a lovely foster home 12 years ago, but that might have soon run out.

Today, they're in a permanent home and are as happy and cheerful as can be. That's why it's important for all of us not to forget those children still in foster homes. They, too, would love to be in a permanent home with someone they can color Father and love as well.