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'Kansas City Star' Probe Uncovers Failures In Foster Care System

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many things can happen when a kid goes into foster care. Some stay only a few days, as I did, and find a stable family. Others remain for years and age out of the system at 18. Reporter Laura Bauer has been meeting young people wounded by that experience.

LAURA BAUER: What is happening to these kids is when they're in foster care, they're being moved from home to home, to home. And what emerging science is showing is that placement, actually - if you get 10, 20, 30, up to 100 times that you're being moved, that that can actually harm your brain.

INSKEEP: Having done that to young people, the system often drops them. With another reporter, Judy Thomas and a team from the Kansas City Star, Bauer traced foster kids into adulthood. One they met was Dominic Williamson, who was in prison. The Kansas City Star found many former foster kids there. When he was 3, authorities took Dominic from his troubled home.

BAUER: They found drug paraphernalia in a crack pipe and removed both he and his brother from the home. They never were reunited with their mother. And after a couple years in the same foster home, they were separated. Dominic moved 80 times between the time he was 3 and 14. And he wasn't able to graduate high school. What he will tell you is, yes, he was angry as a kid, and he acted up. This is a child that was set to be adopted three different times and was basically thrown back each time. He just never felt like he belonged.

And when he turned 18, he had never had a job. He didn't have a driver's license. And he really didn't know what to do in life. And what he ended up doing is turning to drugs, which what his mom and - biological mom and dad had done. And within the first year of aging out, he was facing an eight-year prison sentence.

INSKEEP: What commonly happens to a foster child when they age out?

BAUER: You know, it can be across the board of what happens to them when they age out. But one thing that we are finding is some will be in a home. And a foster parent will come to them and say, you're almost 18. You got to go. Then they're on their own. And sometimes the first stop is the homeless shelter.

But it's really difficult for them because they don't have that forever family to support them, to call and say, hey, help me with a college application. Many of these kids have told us that they felt so upset when they left, when they turned 18 that they just wanted the system to leave them alone.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about the reality that many, many young people get parented well past the age of 18. They stay at home for a while. They go off to college but with help from their parents. And they keep their old bedroom at home - any number of ways that they're still parented. Is there any equivalent for the young person who ages out of foster care?

BAUER: No. And I don't think it's something that most people think about. They think about foster - 1 to 18 and what happens to them. But, you know, I have a 23-year-old son still living with us as he gets on his feet and often coming to us for advice and guidance. And these kids don't have that. They don't have those natural relationships.

We have one source who basically said everyone in their life until that point when they age out has been paid to help them, has been paid to guide them and give them advice. But now they're not there. And they really are on their own. And what some states are trying to do is make sure that they have those natural relationships when they age out. But so many of them don't.

And then they turn to crime as a way to get by - not an excuse. It's what happens. And that's what Judy and I found when we talked to, you know, foster kid after foster kid. And they just said, you know, we didn't know what to do. Nobody was telling me how to apply for a job. Nobody was telling me how to do a resume. And I was on my own.

INSKEEP: When you had an opportunity to look back on some of these cases from years after the time they were taken out of their birth homes, did you conclude that in some cases maybe it would have been better for them to stay with their biological parents even if it was a horrible, horrible situation?

BAUER: You know, we can only go by what we are told by the people that we're interviewing. But there were several that had said that. I do think when you put in the poverty issue that - we had a source tell us that when a social worker goes into a home and they can see the mess and the chaos and the dirt, but they can't see the love. What we heard over and over again from inmates or former foster kids, they all had said that they just wanted that bond back with their family.

And that's why one thing people are hopeful that Congress in 2018 passed the Family First initiative, where allows them to spend money on family preservation that before they could only spend on foster care services and maintenance.

INSKEEP: I want to make sure I understand this. The state might spend thousands of dollars on foster care. And they are saying it might be better to just give that money to the biological parents even if the biological parents are doing things we disapprove of right now?

BAUER: The average foster care payment is about $25,000 a year per kid. And when you're talking about family preservation services, that can be anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000 for the family. And, you know, 25 years ago when I started writing on this topic, that was discussed back to then. Let's make the family stronger, because when you remove a child, oftentimes a child thinks they're the one that did something wrong.

INSKEEP: But you understand the politics that causes the system to be that way, right? The $25,000...

BAUER: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...For foster care is the way that it is. The $5,000 in family preservation is welfare to someone that we may think doesn't deserve it.

BAUER: A hundred percent. And we had a source basically explain that to us, you know? It's this philosophy that it does look like welfare. Years ago, after there was a tragedy in the foster care system in Missouri where a little boy in foster care had been killed, I traveled to Alabama to see a child welfare system that was working. And I shadowed a social worker for a day. And what that social worker did for the big portion of her day was sit at home and watch the child when mom went to a job interview.

And there was just a different philosophy. And the philosophy was on preserving the family. There are children every day that need to be in foster care. There is physical abuse, there's sexual abuse. And those children need to be removed for their own safety. But when you're looking at families that don't have enough food when the SNAP runs out at the end of the month or have trouble with an electric bill, we're saying, what does your family need to be stronger? And that's what states are starting to focus on.

INSKEEP: Laura Bauer, thanks for your reporting.

BAUER: Thanks so much.

INSKEEP: Her team reported on kids who age out of foster care for the Kansas City Star. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.