Locals take steps to help Memphis children in foster care system

Michelle Stevens is a foster care case worker at Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home and the adoptive mom of two children. Pictures of her daughter Danielle and her son Riley are all around her office. Families come to TBCH for temporary placement of their children, while the Department of Children’s Services comes to TBCH to place children in foster families.

 

Sarah Long and her family just returned home from a family trip to New Orleans.

They were exhausted, and the chore of unpacking luggage and settling in at home became even more difficult with the arrival of unexpected guests.

The doorbell rang.

Sarah opened the door to find a social worker and two young children on her doorstep. The unexpected guests confused and shocked the Long family not only because they weren’t expected, but also because the state of the two children.

“This poor little girl had a huge black eye, they were carrying big black trash bags, and they [smelled] so bad. You could tell no one was taking care of these kids,” said Long.

Long knew the children came to her straight from their home where they were beaten because the black eye and bruises were so fresh.

The only belongings the children had were toys from Goodwill and a pair of shorts and a shirt.

But this was all a mistake.

These kids need something to eat, they need a bath. They need to be settled in. I can do all that tonight, but then we’ll have to get up in the morning and they’ll go to a new home. That’s now what’s best for the kids. —Sarah Long

The Tennessee Department of Children’s services had the wrong Long family.

The social worker asked Sarah if she could care for the children that night until they could go to the correct foster home the next day.

“These kids need something to eat, they need a bath,” Sarah said. “They need to be settled in. I can do all that tonight, but then we’ll have to get up in the morning and they’ll go to a new home. That’s now what’s best for the kids.”

Like Sara, there are many families and organizations that understand the importance of putting children first.

As many as 863 children are in the Shelby County foster care system. This is highest number in Tennessee. Of these adopted children, 88 percent of them are African American according to data provided by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.

To guide and assist foster children, there are several organizations in Memphis that establish a safe zone like the Tennessee Department of Children Services, Bethany Christian Services and Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home among others. These programs offer a state mandated course for parent preparation called PATH or Parents as Tender Healers.

PATH is an eight week course that teaches adults and families to understand communication styles and different emotional experiences, which enables foster families to better communicate and provide for their house guests.

As many as 863 children are in the Shelby County foster care system. This is highest number in Tennessee. Of these adopted children, 88 percent of them are African American according to data provided by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.

Reports by the Center for the Study of Social Policy note that 37 percent of the children in foster care are African American despite African American children only accounting 15 percent of all children living in the United States.

Even though all foster children need a home, there are times when housing an African American child becomes a conflict.

Long receives several phone calls from DCS asking if she approves of fostering African American children. She said the question frustrates her every time.

“A child is a child,” Long said.

Some children may carry the burden of race while in the foster care system, but there are more important problems that they are dealing with.

Rhonda Sinquefield, an adoption specialist at Bethany Christian Services, said many of the children enter the system because of harmful family situations.

“Most children come into foster care due to neglect or abuse, which can be the result of poverty [or] unfit parents,” Sinquefield said. “Neglect can be anything from physical abuse, abandonment, loss of housing, etc.”

The foster care system tries to combat the neglect and abuse, but there are children who age out of the system with lasting effects.

While in foster care, some children are in and out of different foster homes, are never placed with a permanent family, and eventually age out. One out every five foster children will be homeless at the age of 18, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System.

This is a problem not only in Memphis, but all over the United States

Because the numbers for foster children are so high, the state of Tennessee is always in need for foster families.

Thirty-three percent of children adopted from foster care are by single mothers according to reports released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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Michelle Stevens is one of them.

Stevens is a single mother of two adopted children and a foster care case worker at Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home.

She said her only intentions were to foster, but plans changed.

Her daughter’s birth mother personally asked for Stevens to adopt Danielle after 19 months in Vens’ care in 2009.

One year later, Stevens decided to do a foster contract and adopted her son, Riley, after his birth.

Stevens’ sacrifices are ones that she said are worthwhile.  “When you have children, your life is not your own and it is the hardest yet most amazing sacrifice,” she said.

As a single parent, Stevens understands the difficulties that accompany her situation. “Parenting alone is hard. Even when it’s hard, it’s worth it,” she said.

Finding homes for foster children is an ongoing task. Once a child turns 18 years old, there are programs that help with life skills, college, and jobs.

As for minors in the system, Stevens said that Tennessee’s foster care systems are always looking for families.

 

Story, audio, videos and photos by Anna Joy Batchelor, Erika Draper and Kitaen Jones

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Memphis Mirror

The Memphis Mirror is a project of the Multimedia News Lab, which is the capstone news journalism class at the University of Memphis. The goal of the project is to hold a mirror to the city of Memphis and reflect the various cultures, religions, identities, abilities and truths the city has to offer. At the Mirror, we rely on various media platforms—like audio, video, maps, photography and infographics—to tell the stories of our city.

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