DHS slashes number of kids in its care by fostering new ideas
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BEFORE WE marvel that there are 30 percent fewer Philly kids in foster care or delinquent placement today than three years ago, let's marvel that Rashan Clarke survived the system at all.
From the age of 3 months until he aged out of foster care last year, Rashan, 18, bounced from placement to placement. A few of his caregivers were well-intentioned, he says, but those relationships were short-lived. Mostly, he endured abuse or neglect by people who were supposed to protect and care for him.
"Too many of them are just in it for the money. They don't care about you. I ran away a lot," says Rashan, who also did time in a juvenile center for assault - a result, he says, of his anger at being so thoroughly unwanted.
"Once I got old enough to protect myself, I stayed in my room with the door locked, so no one could hurt me," he says.
Now on his own, he has a supermarket job and stays with friends while he tries to find a permanent home. The thing is, if the Department of Human Services had worked to keep Rashan with kin or in his own neighborhood long ago, he might be better off today.
For too long, admits DHS Commissioner Annemarie Ambrose, foster placement in Philadelphia has been used as a first-time response to family crises instead of as a last resort. Indeed, Philadelphia has the highest rate of foster placement in America, beating out even Los Angeles and New York in the number of children removed from their families. The outcomes can be especially miserable for those who age out of the foster system and wind up back with family anyway.
"They have to try to rebuild relationships, because placement cut their ties to family. They're like strangers. It's heartbreaking," says Ambrose, whose department meets regularly with Rashan and other former foster kids to learn how DHS can improve services to families in jeopardy.
The good news is that DHS has slashed the number of children it removes from families. In 2005, 6,482 children were removed. By the end of 2011, the number had dropped 35 percent, to 4,182.
In its place, the department is focusing on providing services to children and families right in their communities.
Ambrose says the cost of placement is about $150 per day, compared with $50 per day to keep the kids at home.
Meaning it's cheaper to help a family stay together than it is to rip it apart. And the long-term consequences are better for all.