Featured in Foster Focus Magazine

Proud to have a story featured in the July issue of foster care alumni Chris Chmielewski’s Foster Focus Magazine, the nation’s only monthly magazine devoted to foster care.
Rose Barn
In June 2004, my adopted daughter Rose received not one, not two, but three letters of commendation from United States senators. “It has come to my attention that you have been selected to participate in the 2004 Youth Leadership Forum… This outstanding achievement demonstrates your proactive attitude towards your education,” wrote Senator Ron Wyden. “I believe there is nothing more valuable than a good education. Your impressive record indicates you share that view.”

To appreciate my (then) foster daughter’s accomplishment, one must consider how little others expected of her when she was young. Read the rest of the story at Foster Focus, July 2014

Jennifer Pastiloff Features “The Way Things Overlap” on Manifest-Station

Those places in us we hide in shame? We can stop hiding. We can forgive ourselves. We can move on. Maybe we won’t be great, but we’ll be better. Maybe not even good, but better. Believing in others is ultimately about believing in yourself.

To read more, click The Way Things Overlap.

Then follow me on Twitter @iwritedeb and Jennifer @JenPastiloff.

New York Times Motherlode Gives Deb Stone’s Foster Care Essay Thumbs Up

My essay U.S. Foster Care: A Flawed Solution that Leads to More Long-Term Problems in STIR Journal got a yes vote when New York Times Motherlode writer KJ Dell’Antonia linked to the essay with this quote: “Thousands of kids roll through the foster care system every year. What if it would be better to leave them at home? – KJ Dell’Antonia”

Essay Questions the Efficacy of Foster Care

I have new essay up in STIR Journal about foster care.

In rural Oregon, an 11-year-old girl wearing a pair of plastic sandals walked 13 miles to a local tavern and convinced a man she didn’t know to drive her two and a half hours north to Long Beach, Wash. She was sick of foster care. She wanted to go home.

A 2011 survey reported that 13 percent of all foster children run away at least once, and another 9 percent abandon their foster homes to live with friends. When 22 percent of any child population flees the system which adults have provided to keep them safe, something is wrong. These youth may have insights the rest of us fail to see. Studies show foster care is a highway to health problems, homelessness, early pregnancy, arrest, incarceration, and sex trafficking. And those are the lucky kids. Foster care alumni are five times more likely to commit suicide and eight times more likely to be hospitalized for a serious psychiatric disorder.

Then again, decades of research show that childhood maltreatment interrupts healthy emotional, behavioral, and cognitive development, so we can chalk up the poor outcomes to abuse that occurred before these children were rescued, right?

Click the title to read the rest of the article:U.S. FOSTER CARE: A FLAWED SOLUTION THAT LEADS TO MORE LONG-TERM PROBLEMS?

Love and Loss Entwined

For nineteen years, I’ve been a Court Appointed Special Advocate, a CASA. My role has been to be the eyes and ears of the court, the voice of the child. It’s an awesome responsibility to speak for a child: their hopes and dreams, their need for loving days and safe nights. In one of my early cases, I recommended a little girl in foster care return to live with her mom. State workers disagreed. The judge ordered Children’s Services to return the child home.

Three months later, just before her second birthday, she was dead. Drowned or strangled, medical examiners could not agree. Buried in a fancy dress, white lace panties, and a gold cross her mother was too poor to afford.

CASA contacted an attorney to protect me from making statements in my grief that could insinuate civil liability. My attorney was the kindest hero, but he did the cruelest thing: he forbade me to talk. For a CASA empowered to be “the voice of the child”, silence is a terrible thing. Nights were intolerable. When I tried to sleep, I dreamt of her fair skin slipping off tiny bones. One night, unable to sleep, I wrote a letter to the judge asking where he found the courage to go on.

“We are not God…” he replied.

Many nights, I read his letter over and over, waiting for sleep to come: “It is appropriate to feel sad. It is wrong to feel guilty. It is truly inappropriate to speak of blame.”

Caseworkers and attorneys went on to other cases. The mother was sentenced. The judge retired. I took a leave of absence. Walking through Nordstrom that Christmas, a pair of small red patent leather shoes caught my eye. “She will never get to wear red shoes…”

That spring, a friend invited me to a writing retreat at Sylvia Beach. Cynthia Whitcomb was discussing how to sustain your spirit as a writer. My spirit was broken. I couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t write.

“Find a consistent time to write,” Cynthia said. “Whenever you can, even if it’s 3am.”

“No way,” I thought. “I barely get through the days.” Ironically, the Thursday before I’d gone to the retreat, a caseworker from the state called. Would I take in a foster baby?

“I don’t do babies,” I said.

“We need you to work with the mom,” she said. “She’s seventeen…and he’s a drug-affected baby.”

97180006Two hours later, I held a five pound, twice-resuscitated baby in my arms. His name was Jonathan. His first and last names were the same as the judge who had shared my heart-wrenching case. The name coincidence felt like an omen. I called Children’s Services back. “Come get him,” I said. I was terrified he would die.

As I waited for them to come, I held him close. Rocking. Whispering. Finding my mother-legs again. Hours passed. I called Children’s Services back. “Never mind,” I said.

Jonathan woke me at 2:00 a.m.. Tiny lips too weak to seal on the nipple, he gasped for air between choking swallows. By the time I fed him and changed his diaper–raw where the drugs coming through his system made his skin peel and bleed– it was 3:00am. I stood over his crib, wide awake.

I sat at my computer and stared at the blank screen. Sometime during that first night, I typed FADE IN.

In those first three months–with my deceased CASA child’s skin slipping in my dreams and Jonathan’s peeling in the day– I typed. Every night, Jonathan woke me about 2 a.m. We struck a silent bargain. I’d be his mother. He’d be my muse. By the time I hit page 103, Jonathan was sleeping through the night. A few nights later, I typed FADE OUT.

It’s years later now. After finishing the screenplay, I’ve struggled to process the loss in poetry and prose. A dozen years later, in Karen Karbo’s classes, I found the courage to write the story as memoir. I’ve finished writing and editing the story that reveals these dark days, and the gift of Jonathan’s arrival.

This Sunday, Jonathan turns sixteen. I’m so grateful I get to be his mom.

ReMoved

This is the best video I’ve seen to capture the many issues in removing a child from his or her home and placing the child in foster care. It illustrates the child’s anger, fear, loss, and conflicted feelings about wanting to be with their birth family. It captures the devastating affect of multiple moves. The film also helps portray why it can be so challenging to foster a child whose history creates seemingly inexplicable behavior.

Life after foster care

When people learn I have been a foster parent for over 32 children, they often ask me why. I usually make some kind of flippant answer. It’s a question I’ve contemplated myself, and struggled to make sense of in my memoir Mother Up. When I see videos like this, there is no “Why?” There is only my heart fluttering in my chest.

Life After Foster Care from the Los Angeles Times

And Now, You’re a Sex Offender

 

It’s one week before Thanksgiving in Juvenile Judge Stephanie Reed’s courtroom. A baby-faced boy appears before him. Six adults are present to help determine his fate. None of them are family.

His name is Jeremy. He’s thirteen. The edge of courtroom table where he sits amid lawyers, district attorneys and juvenile court workers comes up to his chest. His head doesn’t reach the back of the plush chair. If he slouches—which he does today—his feet barely reach the floor.

Once the case is called, Reed reminds those at the table that of the people present, only she and the child have been on this case since the beginning. Jeremy was four, then. The State intervened because his family was not safe. His birth mother’s parental rights were terminated shortly thereafter, but Department of Human Services has failed to find him a permanent home.

What’s Jeremy’s biggest problem?

Maybe it’s the adults’ pesky ideas.

Jeremy moved through multiple foster homes in the first six years. Finally, he was placed in a home where he settled down. His behavior became manageable. He got along well with the other children in the home. He was so agreeable after two years, the adults in Jeremy’s life decided he should move.

Move?

Well, yes. His ability to integrate well in the current foster family demonstrated to the State that he was adoptable, a term that means he is adequately socialized and emotionally resilient enough to live in a family. But this family wasn’t an adoptive family. So without asking Jeremy what he thought about losing the one family he trusted, the agency social worker recruited adoptive  families. They found a potential home in Idaho. Then they told Jeremy the good news.

Only he didn’t see it as good news. He became anxious at having to leave yet another family, and at the possibility of living so far away from his birth mother and sister whom he hoped someday to see. His behavior escalated. For the first time in his life, he acted out sexually with a younger child.

Everyone agrees the way Jeremy showed his anxiousness was inappropriate. But there is contention among the adults about how serious the incident really was. It was, the caseworker said, “unfortunate” because it ruined the agency’s plan for adoption. It also meant he was immediately removed from the family he’d grown to trust.

He was placed in a program for boys who need supervision pending treatment. But that program was a limited-duration placement for emergency shelter care. They moved him to a residential program, but it was expensive and it mainly served older youths. Then, more pesky grown-up ideas.

Somebody decided that if Jeremy was adjudicated as a sex offender, there would be more therapy options available. Department of Human Services could relinquish control to the State Youth Authority. Then, they wouldn’t have to foot the bill to house and treat him. Someone at the district attorney’s office agreed. Without parents to stand up for his rights, Jeremy became designated as an adjudicated sex offender.

The residential program that Jeremy was housed in considered adjudicated offenders a liability risk, so Jeremy is in court today because he has to move. Again. Removed from his birth family as a preschool child, shuffled through myriad foster homes through his elementary school years, and taken from the only family he’d developed healthy attachment to, Jeremy is alone, apparently destined to grow up without a single adult that cares.

Unless the judge has her way.

As the professionals looked on, Judge Reed apologized to Jeremy for participating in a system that failed to find him a forever family. “If you could go anywhere in the world,” she asked, “or be with anyone in the whole world, where would you like to spend Thanksgiving?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

That sent the judge into tears.

“How is this okay?” Reed asked the other adults. “He’s been waiting his whole life for somebody to love him. While you and I are looking forward to turkey with our friends and family on Thanksgiving, he can’t think of a single person he’d like to see.”

Reed urged the adults to find Jeremy a permanent family, even if that meant reconsidering his birth mother, who is a decade older now, has a job, and lives in her own apartment. Perhaps she is in a better position to be a mom. When the social worker protests they can’t undo a termination of parental rights, Reed says, Who do you think he is going to go look for “when you toss him out at eighteen as cured?”

Such questions provoke others. Like, why known adult perpetrators aren’t prosecuted, but children can become adjudicated perpetrators after one incident of sexual impropriety.

Or why Jeremy was labeled a sex offender at age twelve in a state where grown men like Neil Goldschmidt aren’t held responsible for having sex with girls too young to consent.

Maybe Jeremy should have waited a few more years to act out the anger he felt at a system that taught him it isn’t safe to love anyone taller than himself.

 

 

Names were changed to protect the identity of the youth.  

If you don’t work or volunteer in child welfare, you may not know these kinds of decisions are made about vulnerable children. If you’d like to advocate for youth in your community, you can locate the closest advocacy program by entering your zip code in the Find a CASA Program box on the left sidebar of the National CASA for Kids page.