This week a 2-year-old boy died of head injuries while in the custody of a foster parent. The foster parents have been charged with murder and the biological parents live with grief. Stories of abuse and violence shock communities. And for some people the images of abuse make foster children appear to be damaged -- or too needy to be a part of a "normal" family. That image plagues teens in foster care more than other kids. The older you are the baggage you might bring. So two years ago the federal government intervened to help teens without families make it on their own. And as 90.3's Tarice Sims reports, advocates in Cuyahoga County are pushing for more financial support to better the lives of teens in foster care.
Tarice Sims- 27 years ago Quo Vadis Ellison got some news that would change her life forever. Her neighbor had died suddenly leaving 5 children behind. The neighbors daughter tried to step in and raise her siblings but she needed some help. Ellison stepped in becoming a foster mother to one of the children, a 13-year-old teenage mother.
Quo Vadis Ellison- It was difficult at first because I have a tendency to mother. So I had to let her learn that this was her baby and she had to take care of her baby.
TS- Unlike many parents, the difficulties dealing with a teenager with "baggage" didn't sway Ellison's desire to help. Over the years she's been foster mother to over 100 kids in Cuyahoga County. Even now she has a house filled with younger foster kids and teens she has adopted.
QVE- I started off with teenagers, and then a couple of cases I've taken. We used to have emergency placement and I would take teenagers with emergency placements. Teenagers are difficult because they get the reputation because of what's going on in the world today and they do come with a lot of baggage.
TS- Especially the older kids. The Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services reports there are 1,300 kids between the ages of 15-18 in the foster care system. 90 of them are in independent living programs, programs which offer an alternative to having a foster parent like Ellison in their lives. Some kids, especially older teens, prefer it, but it's not everyone's first choice. Bill Denihan is Director of Children and Family Services with the county. He says although he believes the teenagers in the foster care system still need families. He says the agency tries to provide the necessary survival skills so that certain young people who either cannot live within the guidelines of some else's home or those who have aged out of the County system become self-sufficient. Denihan says The John Chafee Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 is designed to help them do that.
Bill Denihan- Senator John Chafee, who passed this law federal level and that allows us to provide support to young people between 18-21. We could help them for housing, education, medical and also on a volunteering basis because remember, they are emancipated, we can help find them mentors to help them have some kind of adult support for at least 5 to 10 years. So now we have a little extra funding to do that. In Cuyahoga County the County Commissioners saw that as very important aspect of what we do and have put it into our budget for this year. and on the state level they're passing comparative legislation to implement this new independence act.
TS- Cuyahoga County has allotted half a million dollars for independent living programs for teens. Extra funding to expand independent living programs comes from the federal government. According the Ohio Department of Health and Human Services, Cuyahoga County got around $600,000 of combined State and Federal funds for fiscal year 2000. County Commissioner Jane Campbell says every level of government needs to do their part.
Jane Campbell- By us being willing to just step up to the plate and say this is a critical need we're going to help our children, we're going to get this started. It buys us time as we're moving forward.
TS- Campbell says the future of these programs depends upon the state support. State Senator Eric Fingerhut is Ranking Minority Member of the Senate Finance Committee. The Democrat from Shaker Heights says he realizes the independent living program needs more money and they'll get more -- in time.
Eric Fingerhut- There is legislation pending to expand the scope of what could be done with that money and there will certainly be more money in the next biennium.
TS- With Federal and State assistance, the county hopes to expand its independent living programs for teens in the next few years, but at the same time they still campaign to adults willing to open their home to these teens. In Cleveland, Tarice Sims, 90.3 WCPN.