Almost everyone reading these words grew up safe and secure within the comfortable care of at least one dependable parent. For those of us so blessed, it is hard to imagine anything but a childhood defined by consistency, more than anything else. Some children, however, exist in a different world altogether.
The adults in such a world are a turbulent concoction of unemployment, mental illness, addiction, and violence. In this harsh place, a child’s needs are an afterthought, and sometimes almost entirely neglected. Children here move frequently, often from motel to motel. Many lack healthy nutrition, clean clothes, and medical care. Some are physically abused. The law fixes upon these young inhabitants of this world the apt label “children in need of protection.” Protection, indeed, they lack. But so much more. Self-esteem. Guidance. And above all, consistency.
In extreme cases, children are physically removed from their home. Removals typically occur with very short notice. These kids scurry to throw a few belongings into a trash bag, and then they are driven away from everyone, everything, and every place that is most familiar. Those who execute the removal are professionals, sensitive to the child’s psyche and trained in techniques to minimize the fear and stress involved. But there is no way to eliminate the inherent trauma of a child’s removal experience.
Except for the very worst cases in which parental rights are terminated, the ultimate objective is reunification with a parent once the child’s safety is reasonably assured. But a parent so broken as to have become an extreme case is not fixed quickly. The reunification process always takes months. Sometimes it takes years.
That’s the challenge. Meanwhile. Meanwhile, the child who has been removed … what? Ideally, there is a responsible relative with whom the child can stay. More often, however, placement with a relative is not an option for one reason or another. As of October, 64 Carson City children were in the custody of the Division of Child and Family Services; 28 of them were with a relative, 36 were in a non-relative foster home. Now the problem: only 15 of those 36 remained in Carson City. The other 21 were taken to foster homes somewhere else, because Carson City had no open placements. Occasionally, even siblings must be separated.
Our shortage of foster homes has sad consequences for a removed child’s “meanwhile.” A connection to a teacher or coach or mentor or friends or church or program may be the most important, perhaps even the only, source of consistency in the child’s life. A safe home elsewhere beats an unsafe home in Carson City any day.
But when we are forced to relocate a child out of our community, we double down on trauma. Our foster care shortage is a solvable problem. If you are willing and able to open your home to a child in our community, contact Laurie Nichols, DCFS Foster Care Recruiter at 775-684-1967 or visit dcfs.nv.gov for information.
Jason Woodbury is Carson City’s District Attorney.