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The 'revolving door' of foster care spins slower in a pandemic

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Screenshot / Zoom
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Each day in Erie County, the math doesn't add up for its foster care system. There are some 900 children in foster care, but only about 150 certified foster parents and 140 adoptions each year. Now add a pandemic, and the answer to finding forever homes for these kids becomes even more difficult.

"The system is broken, but it was made to be broken. They set you up for failure."

That is according to Pearlie Massey, who entered the foster care system at age 2 as what she calls the third "generation of chaos." Both Grandma and Mom grew up in foster care. Mom was 16 and already had a child when Pearlie was born, fathered by a man 26 years old and never around.

"The system is broken, but it was made to be broken. They set you up for failure."

Massey remembers a childhood of abuse and neglect, but as an adult came to realize that Mom did the best she could with the cards she was dealt.

"My life was not as, as normal as I would have liked it to be," she said. "Kids in my age bracket were more worried about small things, like on my birthday getting this toy. But I was more worried about my basic needs. You know, where I was going to sleep that night. Was I going to be able to eat at night? Was my mom safe? Or my siblings? Would I be able to live at this current foster home for six months, six days?"

Foster care was established as short-term assistance to help vulnerable children through a family crisis, but over 12 years, Massey said she lived in more than 10 foster homes and never felt her opinion mattered in any decision made about her life.

"It really sucked," she said. "When you are stripped from your voice, you're stripped from your, your rights. You tell me that I'm a child and I need to know my place, and you give me no room to express myself. You tell me that my emotions are not real. It almost seems like you're not human."

Children can sign themselves out of foster care at age 18 or stay in the system until their 21st birthday. But when the court ordered a 14-year-old Massey to again live with her Mom and -- at the time -- four siblings, who slept in the same bed, she decided to go it on her own.

Massey said the memory of one of her foster Moms, the late Diane Ashford, and her faith kept her strong, as she worked full-time "under the table," did a lot of couch surfing, stayed in shelters, but never missed a day of school, because school was her "safe haven."

"Where were the people who were supposed to take care of you and make sure you had a home?" WBFO asked.

"I guess we'll never know," Massey said. "I had a law guardian. Pretty much, they're the attorney for the child and they represent them when they go to court and so forth. And she knew I was homeless. She knew I was in the streets. And she never advocated on my behalf. It was kind of like, I fell through the cracks."

"Sometimes we just have a name and an age and sometimes we know a lot more, depending on the circumstance."

Foster kids range in age from birth to 21 and come from all backgrounds.

"All races, nationalities, male and female, no disabilities to mild to moderate to severe disabilities. They're just typical everyday kids that you might run into in the store or at school," said Lisa Noonan with Erie County Social Services. "They're all in need of safe loving homes while they're not able to be with their birth families for whatever reason."

Noonan supervises eight staffers who find homes -- ideally, forever homes -- for children in foster care. She said each staffer has a caseload of about 30 children.

"This year has been especially hard with a pandemic," she said. "Even certified foster homes are hesitant to take kids coming into care, because you might have an issue in your family with somebody you don't want to get sick. And we don't know a lot about the kids when they're coming into foster care a lot of the time and what they've been exposed to when CPS becomes involved."

The pandemic has also backlogged court appearances and restricted in-person family visits, isolating some kids from protective care and lengthening their time in foster care.

Since there is always a shortage of foster homes, Social Services contracts with other local agencies, group homes and facilities to utilize their foster beds. State law was also amended in 2017 to expand what are called kinship homes: grandparents, older siblings, other relatives or even family friends who can care for the children. That said, a child from Buffalo could end up very far away and siblings may have to be split up.

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Credit Heart Gallery of Western New York
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Some of the Western New York children awaiting a forever home.

"Luckily, somehow, at the end of each day, everybody has a bed, everybody has a home," Noonan said. "And if we don't have for whatever reason, Child and Family Services is contracted with us for emergency foster care. They have several beds that we can utilize for a couple days as well, while we look for a home. Some of these placements take a little bit to work out. Unfortunately, the older the child gets, the more behaviors or struggles or disabilities they have, the harder it is to find a lasting long-term relationship placement for that child. So they do tend to bounce around from home to home."

Just like the kids, foster parents come from all backgrounds and can be certified in as little as 90 days, although the process is extensive. Parents may foster one child or dozens over 20 years. All have to be comfortable navigating the many players and uncertainty in the system -- and probably saying goodbye at some point. About half of all foster children reunite with their primary caregiver at least once.

Massey said friendships growing up were difficult to keep because she could leave for another school at any time, but her speech therapist in elementary school made a lasting impression.

"I took what I could get and I made the rest work. I also recognize how this could have broken me."

"I got a taste of her lifestyle and I craved it ever since," she said. "She lived in a suburb, she had a clean home, she had a safe home, she had a quiet home, she owned a couple of acres. And she would take me and my sister out and she would expose us to different things, things so simple as fishing or hiking. It truly shifted my focus. I no longer knew just knew ignorance. I knew consistency. I knew a healthy style of living. Changed my whole perspective." 

About half of kids who age out of foster care without a forever home experience unemployment, homelessness and incarceration. But in Massey's case, adversity seems to have made her stronger.

Unlike Grandma and Mom, she graduated high school, "found a way" to finish college and today works at a foster care/adoption agency in Rochester. She advocates for kids in care as much as possible and helps develop policy as a member of the state Office of Children and Family Services Youth Advisory Board.

"My life wasn't perfect, but, you know, I took what I could get and I made the rest work. But then I also recognize how this could have, it could have broken me, as well," Massey said. "I don't want to be the example, right, because everyone has their different route. But I don't mind being a pillar and in motivating and encouraging youth in care to say, 'Hey, just because your life kind of sucked in the beginning, it gets better."

"If we can just find some trusting, stable adults, they're able to and willing to work with those kids through those feelings by taking them to counseling, by building a trusting relationship, hopefully, that placement will be that child's last," Noonan said. "These kids need trusting, loving adults that can care for them while they can't be home, and everybody deserves that."

There are nearly 16,000 children in foster care across New York State and nearly 425,000 in the United States. Children in Western New York for whom parental rights have been terminated and are available for adoption can be viewed here.

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