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March 24, 2010

A place to belong

Former foster child recounts a painful past that is all too common

Shanta Hughes was starting to panic.

A week ago, she’d come home from school to find her family’s apartment deserted. It wasn’t the first time this had happened: Her mother had disappeared before on drug binges. But when seven days passed without the return of a caregiver, Shanta realized she was in trouble.

This time, Shanta knew where Mom had gone. She’d watched Louisville Metro Police officers take her away in handcuffs. The real mystery was the whereabouts of Mom’s boyfriend: For a week after the arrest, he had looked after Shanta and her two younger siblings. He was abusive when he drank, but at least he restocked the cupboards. Now, he was gone without leaving a note.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Shanta admits. “I realized food was dwindling in the refrigerator, and I didn’t have means to buy more.” Only 14 years old at the time, she was running out of ideas.

Finally, Shanta’s aunt happened to call. Desperate, Shanta explained the situation. The aunt called the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, and that same day, a social worker came to retrieve the three children.

It was a familiar experience for Shanta. This was her second time in state custody in less than two years, the culmination of a series of upheavals in her life. She’d already been dragged through three states and countless “homes.”

Yet this time, there was one key difference: Mom wasn’t coming back. Shanta was stuck “in the system” for good, and would never again have a place to belong.

“Happy families are all alike,” wrote Leo Tolstoy, “(but) every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Stephanie Stone sees a wide range of those unhappy families in her work as program director at Home of the Innocents, a Louisville nonprofit that provides shelter and services to abused, abandoned or neglected children. Struggles like poverty and substance abuse often play a role in the lives of troubled children — they certainly did for Shanta (pronounced shawn-TAY) Hughes. But kids can be abused and neglected anywhere — from East End McMansions to Section 8 housing, and everywhere in between. “The (only) common denominator,” Stone says, “is a lack of support.

“A lot of abuse starts accidentally,” she explains. “My stress levels (as a parent) get so high that I take it out on my kid — and it escalates from there. Average families that come from all walks of life can fall on hard times and (experience) multiple stressors.”

Neglect like Shanta experienced doesn’t always begin as an intentional choice. Maybe it begins with Mom leaving for a night out to feed her addiction, a habit that escalates. Perhaps Dad suddenly finds himself under arrest. “These people love their kids,” says Gordon Brown, Home of the Innocents’ CEO, “but the problem is, they never had good parenting role models to follow.”

Of course, that’s cold comfort to the 19,000 young victims whose maltreatment is reported to the commonwealth each year, not to mention the thousands more who suffer in silence. Good intentions don’t heal the 12,000 Kentucky children taken into state custody annually because they are in such dire straits. Kids like Shanta grow up before their time, forced to “mother” their younger siblings while trying to protect themselves from someone’s drunken rages.

“Over the years (at Home of the Innocents), we have seen the worst of the worst that adults do to children,” Brown says. “And every time we think we’ve seen the worst, something new walks through the door.”

Yet Shanta Hughes never expected to walk through Home of the Innocents’ door, and her parents never meant to send her there. In fact, there was nothing in her early years to indicate Shanta would become a victim of abuse and neglect. Her childhood was surprisingly normal.

“All my memories (of early childhood) are happy memories,” says Shanta. “Until third or fourth grade, my life was pretty much OK.” Growing up in Chicago with her mom and dad, Shanta remembers being cared for and nurtured.

But around age 5, her father left. When Shanta was 9, things changed even more dramatically. “We started moving around a lot,” she remembers. “My mother had different boyfriends.” Then came her mother’s abrupt mood swings and increasingly long absences, indicative of addiction.

Shanta was slow to pinpoint the cause: “(As a kid), you just start to notice people’s behavior changing,” she says. But when she grew older, Shanta realized her mother had a drug problem.

The situation worsened when the family moved in with Mom’s latest boyfriend, who apparently was not very fond of Shanta: “He didn’t really like me,” she says matter-of-factly. “I guess because I took so much of (my mom’s) time, and I wasn’t his (child).”

For a brief time her mother faded out of her life completely, and Shanta — still in elementary school — landed at the home of the boyfriend’s sister, someone she hardly knew. “She had a son, so I noticed I was being treated differently, like an outsider,” Shanta recalls. “I don’t remember her being around much. But her son would pull out knives and threaten me with them.”

Then Shanta’s Mom drifted back into the picture. Before long, she had a new boyfriend — the man who would father Shanta’s two siblings. At first, living with him was a welcome change. “He was nice,” Shanta says, “and he seemed quiet.”

But as months passed, she realized he was an alcoholic. “His personality changed. When he would drink, he’d get angry. He would get abusive towards my mom — and sometimes towards me, but only when I was trying to protect her. I’d get in his way.”

Shanta was in middle school before Mom finally decided to leave her abuser. She had given birth to Shanta’s brother and was pregnant with her sister when the family packed up and moved to Florida to be near relatives. Though glad to be free from the abusive boyfriend, Shanta didn’t care for her new school and missed Chicago.

It was in Florida that Mom began to run seriously afoul of the law. She supplemented her on-again, off-again telemarketing income by raiding the neighbor’s mailboxes for checks.

By Shanta’s freshman year, her mother knew the police were catching up with her. One night without warning, she suddenly packed their belongings, bundled her kids into the car, and drove north. As Shanta remembers it, Mom didn’t even have a destination in mind. That’s when they landed in Louisville.

In hindsight, it seems obvious Shanta’s mother was steadily ruining her life — and taking the kids down with her. Couldn’t something have been done to stop it? Couldn’t someone intervene?

Perhaps, but solutions for broken families are hard to find. In Shanta’s case, a dysfunctional childhood marked by an addicted mother, abusive boyfriends, and unstable living arrangements were all she’d ever known. Children don’t react well to being forcibly removed from their homes — even if foster care is a vast improvement.

“What a child wants more than anything is to be with their own family,” says Brown, adding that kids frequently act out against foster parents who seem to have stolen what little stability they had.

So the best solution is often to intervene in troubled families and find a way to keep them together. Home of the Innocents offers a 12-week, court-ordered program called P.A.S.S. (Parents Acquiring Strengths and Skills) for parents at risk of losing their kids. “If you teach (people) how to be good parents,” says Brown, “they are responsive.”

Yet many neglectful parents won’t admit their struggles, or don’t realize the depth of their problems.

Although teachers, physicians and other professionals who work with children are required by law to report suspected mistreatment, unfortunately for Shanta, no one ever noticed. In any case, it’s possible an intervention wouldn’t have helped — Shanta’s Mom had been cashing other people’s checks for years; the police were going to arrive with a warrant eventually.

But it’s impossible to know what might have been, because no one reported the problem. Nothing was done until the family was beyond repair, and all three of the children were taken into custody by the state of Kentucky.

Like many abused and neglected children, Shanta was forced to grow up before her time. As soon as her brother was born (when she was about 11), she was thrust into a maternal role. For years she did everything for her siblings — fed them, bathed them, changed their diapers.

“I had a friend who always said, ‘This isn’t how it’s supposed to be,’” Shanta admits. “But in my eyes, I couldn’t really change the situation.”

When the family moved from Florida to Kentucky, Mom didn’t even bother enrolling Shanta in high school. Instead, she kept her eldest daughter at home to care for the preschoolers while she worked.

But that arrangement didn’t last long: Within months, the police tracked Mom down and escorted her to jail. Shanta and her siblings ended up at Home of the Innocents.

Shanta’s first days in state custody were a mixture of anxiety and relief. “In my mind, it was like I was still taking care of (my brother and sister),” she says. So when she was housed with teenagers and her siblings were sent to another part of the facility, she worried like a parent. But at the same time, “It was a relief,” Shanta says. “Maybe (my brother and sister) wouldn’t go through some of the things that I did. And maybe (Mom) would learn her lesson.”

Shanta started attending Shawnee High School. After two weeks at Home of the Innocents, she and her siblings were sent to a foster home, where they stayed for more than a year.

“It was OK,” Shanta recalls. “I went back to the world of taking care of my brother and sister, (and our foster mom) ran a daycare. A lot of times it was like I worked there.”

But at least Shanta was getting caught up in school and living in a stable household. Her placement lasted until Mom was released from prison.

Unfortunately, her mother did not “learn her lesson” from incarceration as Shanta had hoped. Mom quickly reunited with her abusive ex-boyfriend, the father of Shanta’s siblings, and asked for her children back. “I didn’t want to go back if he was there,” says Shanta. “They told me I didn’t have to go, but my brother and sister would.”

For their sake, Shanta — who still felt like their de facto mother — agreed to return. But her foreboding was justified. “It was the same,” she says, with a trace of bitterness. “In the beginning, (Mom’s boyfriend) was Mr. Nice Guy. Then I started to realize he was drinking again, and he was still violent.” Mom and her companion would disappear for hours at a time.

Within a year, the police came for Shanta’s mother again, this time arresting her on an old warrant dating back to their years in Chicago. For a week, the boyfriend cared for Shanta and her siblings. Then came the day when Shanta arrived home from school to an empty apartment.

Later, she found out Mom’s boyfriend had a good excuse for disappearing: The police had come back for him, and he too was behind bars. But all Shanta knew at the time was that her refrigerator was rapidly emptying, and there was no place to turn for help.

That’s when she ended up in foster care — permanently.

Most foster parents have good intentions: They are nurturers who do everything possible to help their charges adjust to a new life. But asking a child to suddenly move in with a stranger is like uprooting a rosebush, tossing it into the street, and expecting it to bloom on the cracked pavement.

“We often don’t have enough information on kids when we take them into our programs,” admits Stephanie Stone, Home of the Innocents program director. “That makes it really hard to get them into the right placement.” As a result, children bounce from place to place. The foster family might not be able to control a kid’s behavior, or the child needs clinical treatment due to past hellish experiences, or the birth parent takes a child back into their home, only to stumble again.

“Every move a child makes re-traumatizes her,” says Stone. “That’s what we need to fix.” Once they’re in the system, 75 percent of kids will remain a ward of the state for six months or more. Almost one quarter remain in the system for at least three years.

The ideal fostering outcome is to reunite the family. Nationwide, that happens for about half of all wards of the state. But when reunification proves impossible, a child’s only real hope is adoption. About 2,000 kids in Kentucky are waiting for a place to call home — and if statistics hold true, only 700 of them will find it this year.

As children grow older, it becomes even harder to find them a real home. About 10 percent of kids in foster care simply “age out” — they hit the age of 18 and are suddenly on their own.

“(These children) are grossly unprepared to make it on their own,” says Gordon Brown. “They’ll end up in prison and abusing substances. They’ll have children of their own who will end up in the system. A high percentage of the newly homeless are kids aging out of the foster care system.”

Some former foster children essentially remain orphans with no support system.

Home of the Innocents and other organizations are working to change this grim prognosis. The home’s “Aftercare” program provides mentoring and resources for former foster children who have reached age 18. And there is now a drive to find permanent homes for younger teenagers, instead of assuming they are unadoptable and housing them in a group home.

Unfortunately, the push to find a permanent adoptive family for Shanta Hughes came too late.

During her second trip to prison, Mom’s parental rights were terminated by the state, and her three children were put up for adoption. Shanta and her siblings were sent to a new foster home, where their foster mother adopted the two younger children. But Shanta — practically an adult — was considered too old for that.

Now, at age 23, she is alone in the world.

She visits her siblings frequently at their adoptive home, and is proud of how they’ve turned out. Her 12-year-old brother is a football player; her 10-year-old sister is a cheerleader. They’re active in school and doing well.

For Shanta, however, the road has been more difficult. The commonwealth generously paid for her to attend college, as they do for all foster kids who “age out” — a small recompense for more or less growing up without parents. But Shanta wasn’t prepared for the work, and she dropped out in less than a year.

Then she enrolled in a program designed to help former foster kids join the workforce — until she was kicked out for skipping meetings and not holding a steady job. Several years of instability followed.

Today, Shanta has made real progress. “I’m working and I have my own apartment,” she says. She hopes to go back to college eventually and study social work as a way of helping other kids in trouble.

Yet for all her surface polish — dark curly hair with blonde highlights, fashionable clothes and tasteful makeup — there is a noticeable sadness in the face Shanta Hughes. Hiding behind her vivid blue eyes is a little girl who never had the chance to be a kid.

“To this day, I don’t have a place where I belong,” she admits. “My brother and sister have been adopted, so they have a family. But if I’m in trouble, there’s nowhere I can go… Nothing beats having your own family and feeling like you fit in somewhere.”

Right now, 2,000 children in Kentucky are hoping their stories will end differently. They’re hoping to find a way out of the foster care jungle with an adoptive family that will give them a place to belong.

At the conclusion of her interview with LEO Weekly, Shanta gave her caseworker (who’d come along for moral support) a big hug. They chatted cheerfully about how their lives were going, and then it was time to say goodbye. Shanta was heading back to her apartment, and seemed just a bit reluctant to leave. After all, there wasn’t going to be anyone to welcome her home.

But of course, there hadn’t been for a long time. The state and various foster homes had provided Shanta Hughes with a safe haven that included three hot meals and modest living quarters until age 18. In the end, though, it came up just a bit short.

 

For more information about becoming a foster parent, visit the Kentucky Cabinet of Health and Family Services at http://chfs.ky.gov/dcbs/dpp/faqfostercare.htm. To learn more about the Home of the Innocents, visit www.homeoftheinnocents.org.