Sunday, October 18, 2009


By Diana L Chapman

I’m ashamed….for all of us.

What happened to those children in the county system – all 268 that died in less than two years, many of whom were either murdered, killed in accidents, suicides or of other undetermined causes, should embarrass everyone. How long will it take us to get the system simply doesn’t work?

The time for these fatalities to stop and for a drastic overhaul to begin is now.

We owe that much to Miguel Padilla, 17, – an amputee who disappeared from a group home for nine days before anyone even seemed to notice and hanged himself – and a girl, Lazhanae Harris, 13, who was apparently murdered when she ran away from her foster home. The Los Angeles Times broke the number of fatalities in mid-October and used Miguel and Lazhanae to illustrate the breaks that exist in the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. This doesn’t even mention the scores of other kids abandoned to a dysfunctional agency where wide cracks, are so prolonged, children drop off daily into an abyss of rotating homes.

In the past, the Times has revealed other children who died in a system that is so overburdened, quite frankly, that is seems it can no longer rescue its wards even when it tries. The time for change clearly must be accomplished now, before more children die – and both the county and city leaders need to jump in and lead – not grandstand.

Start with this: We can all continue to blame the parents, or move on and accept the cold truth: many of these parents could care less about their children. That’s not the child’s fault. And unfortunately, leaves the rest of us.

Three overhaul concepts that could happen immediately include:

--Building permanent foster care homes for all the children who are likely never to leave the system, where they can live in the same setting their entire lives, attend the same schools and doctors, maintain their friends, use the same social worker and keep their health records intact – rather than tearing them out and moving them around from foster home to foster home. Staff members and volunteers should be nurturing and trained to guide children to find and define their future career goals – since they are kicked out of the system at age 18. Siblings should be kept together whenever possible. My sister adopted a two-year-old in San Diego’s county system (which has similar problems). He lived in six different foster homes. The harm could not be undone.

--Scores of potential resources exist out there for children in general that are not successfully linked or tapped to the most important place to help them -- school. School is a child’s second home. Having myself discovered this world of often untapped resources – such as Top Sail, a non-profit, which helps struggling students find themselves through sailing -- it was a pity no one had linked this program to two nearby junior highs – especially since the program had grant money. In Miguel’s case, he was humiliated by the taunts that he had no right arm from the elbow down. He wore giant jackets in a blazing sun to hide it, suffered from depression and asked for a prosthetic arm he never received. There’s not a single doubt in my mind that a non-profit, like the Shriners, would have provided this for him. The reason he didn’t receive it, the Los Angeles Times explained, is that he missed repeated appointments for measuring. This was the minimum the county should have done.

It isn’t any wonder why Miguel committed suicide. Not only was he virtually abandoned by his mother who took all three of her other children but not him, a father who left repeatedly for Mexico, and a grandmother who couldn’t raise him, he would have been released at age 18. Where would he have gone, an unloved boy with no arm from the elbow down?

--Last, many Americans have expressed an interest in supporting children like this. Adoption and fostering for some people simply is impossible for many reasons, such as not having the additional room, or finances. This does not mean, however, they don’t want to help. With proper training, volunteers could become a support system for a child, to back up social workers, and make sure they receive the things they need, like getting to the doctor’s for an eye exam – or say a prosthetic arm. Children in the system desperately need advocates to help. Start working up a training program now.

Foster care and group homes were supposed to replace orphanages to give these children a sense of family life. But in case anyone hasn’t noticed, it’s not working. These youth get kicked out or tossed around to different homes like puppies at a puppy mill. They can be moved for reasons such as the provider couldn’t get along with them. It’s a continuous stream of being thrown in the trash can again and again. “No one wants you,” might as well be stamped on their foreheads.

After going through so much of this with my sister, we clearly realized that “stability” was not offered to most of these children. One morning, I was deeply moved reading several letters to ‘Dear Abbey” from adults who were raised in an orphanage in the mid-west – one that actually worked. The writers were grateful to the orphanage, because the staff had provided them with consistency, a stable environment and nurturing. All three writers explained they bonded like a family, which the staff encouraged. The staff also prepared them for their futures, many becoming doctors, nurses and lawyers.

These children weren’t shifted from school to school, house to house or tossed back to relatives who really didn’t want them. They were not given to foster families who did the deed just for money.

For Miguel and Lazhanae, their entire lives were overlooked. All the adults involved failed them in every direction they landed. Honestly, I believe that many people would have stepped up to help had they only known of their plight. Maybe a good mentor, or advocate, would have prevented Lazhanae running away from her foster home, because someone – at last – cared about her. A reunification with her mother, who had many other children in the system, failed.

This is why we so desperately need our leaders in the city, county, juvenile law enforcement and school district to come together and build a network of all the fabulous agencies and non-profits out there that exist to help children – and link them directly to the schools.

Violence amongst teenagers has brewed locally and nationally. We have teenagers killing each other in the streets of Chicago – and five teenagers lighting another child on fire because he reported them for trying to steal his father’s bicycle.

Adults sit around questioning whether kids are more violent and less compassionate today. The answer, is yes, because they take their lessons from the very people teaching them -- all the adults that surround them in their lives – who often do nothing.

That unfortunately includes us.