I asked James’ case manager earlier in the day, “Is James OK with seeing us tonight?”
“About as excited as a 15 year old boy can be,” she answered, which did not comfort me.
We had gotten permission for Sue to do permanency counseling with James. His foster care file starting at age 4 was full of deeply disappointing encounters with adults. Too many had rejected him. His file also said that he had told his DFCS caseworkers to leave him alone, that he would ‘disrupt’ if he was pushed into an adoptive home. He wanted to “age out”.
His wishes appeared to be honored, but a review of his file seemed to show that while James had bad matches with adults, he still was making good grades, was very smart and had few behavior problems. A nagging question kept bothering us, why couldn’t our child welfare system find this young man a forever family?
In Sue’s counseling interview, James turned out to be direct and engaging, very adult. He had lots of detailed plans for his future. At first, he held on to his assertion of “leave me alone” but Sue pushed him without challenging him. She said, OK, we just want to make sure.
What about holidays?
They don’t matter.
What about an inheritance?
What about grandparents for your future children?
His face softened.
Finally, after a lot of frank conversation, he yielded. “I would love a family.” he said, “I just don’t believe it will happen for me.”
Sue very importantly acknowledged that his file indicated that the system had been careless with him as a child. But, she said, you are older now and can play a bigger role in choosing your new family. I want you to treat it like dating. Take your time, meet a number of families, choose carefully. There are families who really like teenagers, she assured him. We can work with people who can find them.
We ended with promises to try anew. I finally spoke and asked if James knew the attorney assigned to his case. He didn’t think he did, he wasn’t sure. I then asked if he was going to court regularly and he said no. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been to court.
“What do they do in the court hearings?,” he asked me.
“The court makes decisions about your life”, I answered.
“Then I should be there, right? I’m going to ask about that right away”.
Our meeting with James took place in November 2009. In November, 2010, James was adopted by a new family that he chose with help of his Court Appointed Special Advocate and his case manager. John Blend, founder of the Goshen Valley Boy's Ranch said, “this Christmas with the adoption final in November, James is doing wonderfully in his new family. As now the oldest child in the family, he is providing leadership and perspective to his much loved brothers, while building trust and understanding with his much loving parents. "
Last month, Ashley Rhodes-Courter, a former foster child for 9 years before being adopted as a teenager, spoke at our recent legal conference. In her closing message to the audience she said, "find one child stuck in the foster care system and help them move out. Don’t give up."
What a great charge for all of us for 2011.
*James is not his real name, but his story is real. This teen was part of a statewide review called the Cold Case Project that reviewed 214 cases of children who appeared “stuck in foster care”. This project was done by the Supreme Court of Georgia Committee on Justice for Children, in full partnership and transparency with the Division of Family and Children Services and the Office of the Child Advocate, and is currently paid for with Casey Family Program funds.
Michelle Barclay is director of the Supreme Court of Georgia’s Committee on Justice for Children at the Administrative Office of the Courts. Michelle and Andy Barclay founded and endowed the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic in partnership with the Emory University School of Law.