Camille Landry is a writer, activist, and social justice advocate who lives in Oklahoma City. This post is part of our “Neglected Oklahoma” series, which tells the stories of Oklahomans in situations where the basic necessities of life are hard to come by. These are real people and their stories are true (names have been changed to protect privacy).
It was the best of times. Two days before Christmas last year, Juan Carlos Jackson’s foster mom helped him pack his things, strapped him into his car seat and drove him to the offices of the Missouri Department of Social Services where his birth mom waited to take him home.
“It was one of the best days of my life,” foster mom and mentor Jackie Lorenzo said. “The Intensive Family Preservation Service (IFPS) in Missouri manages to help the majority of foster children to be successfully reunited with their families.” Jackie had no small part in this success story. In addition to fostering Juan, Jackie acted as a mentor to Jalinda, helping her through the process of treating her drug addiction, finding a job, passing her GED exam and generally being a supportive presence in the young mother’s life.
It was the worst of times. Kim Arnold could barely get her story out between sobs. She had just signed the documents that terminated her parental rights regarding her two youngest children.
It had been more than three years since OKDHS and the police had come to her door and took Denisha, then 8 months and Nathan, 2 years old, into the foster care system. Her teenaged daughter was sent to Ohio to live with her dad. DHS claims that the children were neglected due to Kim’s addiction to prescription drugs. Of note, Oklahoma ranks #1 nationally for the nonmedical use of pain relievers for all age categories. Oklahoma saw a 67.5 percent increase in the misuse of prescription medication between 2005 and 2010.
It was the age of wisdom. With her mentor’s help, Jalinda figured out ways to handle the stresses of being a single mom without resorting to drugs. “I’m like an auntie or a godmother to her,” Jackie explained. “We talk on the phone every couple of days. She asks my advice. Sometimes we just touch base to let her know somebody’s in her corner.” Jackie helped Jalinda learn to budget her money, plan and prepare meals and handle her son’s discipline problems. “Everybody didn’t have a mama to teach them these things,” Jackie explained, “and not having these skills can cause huge problems.”
It was the age of foolishness. Kim continued to test positive for prescription drugs. “I started using them after I hurt my knee and hip in a car wreck. I got hooked. Without the drugs I just hurt all the time and can hardly go to work and take care of my kids. If I use the drugs then I’m an addict and the state takes away my kids.” Kim had been sober for 3 months when she went to a birthday party for a friend’s daughter who is the same age as her Deni. “Afterwards I felt so low, I got high just so I could stop crying.” Did it help? “No. I just cried more.” Two days later DHS called her in for a random drug test. She failed it.
It was the season of light. Jackie says that Jalinda learned new ways of thinking and living. As a result, Jackie feels that Jalinda and her son will have better lives.
“We had a whole team of people to help Jalinda get her family back together,” Jackie said. “The Social Services staff, the folks at Lutheran Family Services and more. Without the support of those people and agencies, I don’t think we would’ve been as successful.”
It was the season of darkness. Kim cycles between tears and rage. “I feel like I got hit by a truck. I can’t believe the law lets the state do this to people.” Kim researched the child welfare system. What she learned was a real eye-opener: Although prescription (and other) drug abuse is very common in the US across all socioeconomic groups, it is mostly the children of poor families who end up in foster care.
“I feel like I’m on my own,” Kim said. “I tried to get into a drug treatment program that would allow me to have my kids with me. There were no openings.” Kim ended up attending NA meetings but it wasn’t enough. She started using again. “I tried. I really tried.” No criminal charges were filed but DHS petitioned the court to terminate her parental rights after Kim failed to overcome her drug habit.
It was the spring of hope. According to Jackie, “Jalinda is clean and sober, got her GED and a job, took parenting classes. She is ready to be a great mom to Juan Carlos. I know they can make it.”
It was the winter of despair. Meanwhile Nate and Deni were switched from one foster home to another after they displayed troublesome behaviors. Nathan started soiling his pants. Denisha wouldn’t stop crying. Finally Denisha’s grandmother told her father that she’d help with the baby if he took custody of her. Now Deni lives with her father and his fiancé. “Nate’s dad is in New York and doesn’t want custody so Nate is still in foster care.” A formerly alert and happy little boy, Nathan is now taking medication for ADHD and behavioral problems and struggling to keep up in his kindergarten class.
We had everything before us. Despite shortfalls in revenue due to tax cuts and a depressed economy, Missouri has maintained its foster mentor program. Currently about 60 percent of Missouri foster children are eventually reunited with their families of origin.
We had nothing before us. “My babies are gone. I gave birth to three of them and now I have none.” Kim hung up the phone. OKDHS had 3,577 reunifications in FY 2013, a steep drop from the 6,146 foster kids reunited with their families just five years earlier in FY 2008, as show in the chart below.
We were all going direct to heaven. Jackie is excited about welcoming a new family into her fold. She recently became foster mother to two boys, age 6 and 9, and mentor to their dad who wants to gain permanent custody of them.
We were all going direct the other way. “I don’t really have much to live for,” Kim said. “Why bother? My daughter is grown and gone and hardly speaks to me, Deni and Nate are being raised by other people. Pretty soon they won’t even remember me.”
Oklahoma continues to experience significant shortages of resources to cope with the growing child welfare crisis. Mental health and substance abuse treatment options, especially for poor and/or uninsured people, are minimal. OKDHS staff face huge case loads and limited resources to assist families in building stable environments to raise their children. Oklahoma families do not have access to the foster care mentoring programs that have proven effective in other states and foster parents are desperately needed.