TOPEKA — In nearly 18 years of working close with foster children, Amy Otey has witnessed the emotional burden the system places on social workers.
Otey, the Wichita region independent living supervisor for Saint Francis Ministries, recalled how last year a foster child was hit by an automobile and sent to the hospital. The caseworker for the 17-year-old boy remained at the family’s side for several days and several nights
The boy recovered, but the impact on the caseworker was significant.
“My 20-something-year-old worker was terrified that her young client would not make it out alive,” Otey said. “When my workers walk alongside their youth through these experiences, or just after they have experienced one of these life-altering situations, it leaves behind secondhand trauma.”
Otey shared her experience Wednesday during a Special Committee on Foster Care Oversight hearing. Her testimony was part of a series on what a day in the foster care system looks like from the viewpoint of a caseworker, parent and foster child.
Independent living caseworkers often must balance their personal lives with spending time with their many clients, Otey said. Currently, her social workers manage about 25 cases each.
In many cases, Otey said, caseworkers must go above and beyond to ensure children are even guaranteed a safe place to stay for the night
In Kansas, there are only two secure care facilities, one for boys and one for girls. Even if caseworkers can convince a child to stay for the night, Otey said, they must be able to prove to a judge they have exhausted all other options — and then hope there is an open space at the secure care facility.
Often there is a waiting list, Otey said, and if there is not an opening immediately, the hearing may not be held at all. At the end of the day, caseworkers are sometimes left with more questions than answers.
“Hours later the caseworker may be told the youth has slipped away,” Otey said. “They will struggle to get focused on the tasks at hand and when they get home to their own family, they will think of the kid she served all day and wonder if they are safe.”
Confusion and misunderstanding
The experience of a parent whose child has entered the state’s child welfare system is full of confusion, pain and misunderstanding, said Nina Shaw-Woody, executive director and therapist for the Kansas Family Advisory Network.
“A lot of these parents don’t even know their kid was removed from school. Imagine if that were you and what you would feel if you did not know where your child was,” Shaw-Woody said. “So the kid has not arrived at home — they’re wondering what happened, and then they get the call.”
In those first moments alone, emotions may range from anger to upset to anxiety, Shaw-Woody said. After a temporary custody hearing, the child is placed in a temporary foster home or kinship setting, and parents are given a court-appointed attorney.
The burden parents must overcome to be granted custody of their children again once they are in the system is significant. Families are expected to meet several requirements, such as drug and alcohol assessments, psychological evaluations, parenting classes, therapy and drug testing, Shaw-Woody said.
Every three to four months, parents and families will undergo a review hearing where the judge will determine if the parents have made progress in these areas. Within 12 months, a permanency hearing will determine the direction of the case and if reunification is possible.
“A birth parent whose child ends up in the system must work harder and reach a higher standard than the average family to get their children back,” Shaw-Woody said. “Once denied the ability to reintegrate, the agency no longer contacts them, and the family is left to figure out how to move forward. Unfortunately, some parents fall back into hard places due to no resources to help them mentally deal with this new state of mind.”
Stormy Lukasavage, who entered the foster care system in 2010, told legislators his family and parents were already too far gone for any of the services available to help increase the chance of reintegration.
Lukasavage spent his time in the system hopping from home to home, from caseworker to caseworker. Often time, he said, he would stay the night at the foster care office because there was nowhere else to go.
It is commonplace for children to go through several caseworkers and several homes, Lukasavage said. During his time in the system, he interacted with more than 30 caseworkers and spent time in several congregate care locations.
He recalled an internship working with adult inmates that he felt best framed the way this erratic and inconsistent lifestyle impacts many foster care children.
“One of the students I was teaching comes up to me and says, ‘Do you remember me?’ ” Lukasavage said. “To me, it was the most jarring evidence of a failed system my student in jail was my best friend during my time in congregate care.”
Lukasavage, now among the less than 3% of Kansas foster care children who graduate a four-year college program, spent two years in congregate care facilities. He said every day was a hectic, violent and trauma-inducing experience that could have derailed his life.
“There was no continuity for me. I didn’t have those adults that you go to when you struggle,” Lukasavage said. “The sad fact was if I had failed any of my goals would have probably been the end of the line for me.”