February 6, 2003 in News

Tormented kids frustrate state

Washington foster care system struggles to handle increasingly difficult charges
By Ben Shors Staff writer
 
Torsten Kjellstrand photo

Rusty Stout, 19, lived in foster care for much of his childhood, with an occasional stay with his mother. At age 15, he ran away from his social worker and spent the next few years getting in and out of trouble in at least three states.
(Full-size photo)

By age 12, Rusty Stout had earned a dubious distinction: one of Spokane’s most difficult foster children.

He cycled through psychiatric hospitals, group care centers and foster homes. He poured bleach on carpets and destroyed a collection of antique model airplanes.

As he grew, so did his problems. As a high school freshman, he took a knife to school and stabbed a classmate in a fight.

He exhausted a string of foster parents. He threatened a teacher, then tussled with his foster father, who sat on him to restrain him until social workers could arrive. The state quickly removed the foster children from the home, stripped the foster parents of their license, and found itself faced with a familiar problem - what to do with Rusty Stout?

“You quickly lose the savior complex as a caseworker, because you can’t save the kids,” said Melisa Sanders-Majnarich, Stout’s caseworker. “You just help them play the cards they were dealt.”

Today, Stout is 19 and unemployed. He has been in and out of jail for minor offenses. He’s lost a string of minimum wage jobs and dropped out of college.

“Once you’re in the system, your life becomes it,” he said. “You aren’t somebody’s kid. You’re a foster kid.”

Stout’s case is echoed by hundreds of other foster children in the state’s child welfare system. Neglected, abused and witnesses to violence, foster children have become increasingly difficult to deal with. They burn out foster parents and social workers as they bounce from one placement to the next. They suffer from high levels of mental illness and behavioral problems.

“The children who were in institutions 25 years ago are now in foster care,” said Jim Mahoney, executive director of the Foster Parent Support Network. “You have children who have no conscience, no guilt, are cruel to animals, set fires, threaten other kids and desperately need a home.”

Today, more than 70 percent of Washington’s foster children suffer from severe emotional or behavioral problems that shock even the professionals assigned to handle them.

One boy strangled a cat with his hands. Another spread feces around doorjambs and windowsills like caulk. One pulled the toenails off an elderly, disabled family member. They have wrapped nooses around the necks of siblings and pulled knives.

Not all of the state’s 10,000 foster children are severely troubled. Only 600 are classified as Level 4, meaning they require almost constant supervision.

But they appear to be getting more difficult to handle, experts agree, placing a tremendous burden on a system designed to provide basic services like food and shelter - not function as a safety net for mentally ill youth.

“We’ve got a foster care system from the ‘50s and ‘60s that is dealing with kids in 2003,” said Nancy Taft, supervisor of foster care for the Department of Social and Health Services. “Foster care was not set up to deal with mental health problems. The system is creaking along the way it was conceived. But it needs repair.”

On his own, Stout stumbles

Four years ago, Rusty Stout leapt from the state’s foster system and landed in a world without rules.

After the fight with his foster father, he escaped from a social worker’s car while being transported to juvenile detention.

For a week, he said, he stayed in a one-bedroom apartment he shared with a group of teenage prostitutes, dabbling in sex and drugs. He traveled halfway across the country, landing in juvenile detention in Illinois, getting fired from a series of dead-end jobs in Spokane and dropping out of a community college.

At 19, he is slight, with a pierced tongue and glasses with tape over the nosepiece - he has no health insurance for new eyewear. Last fall, he spent a month in jail for malicious mischief. He has pawned everything of value.

“I’m 19, but I feel like I’m 40 years old,” he said. “I’ve seen so much. I pretty much know what’s going to happen with the rest of my life.”

In 10 years, he predicts, he’ll be flipping burgers for minimum wage.

Yet Stout is articulate and creative. In junior high, his reading skills matched those of a college student, according to his former foster parents. He writes poetry and sketches elaborate pen-and-ink drawings.

For his former foster parents, Jim and Nancy Plourde, Stout’s downward slide has been painful to watch. Though no longer licensed by the state, they frequently allowed him to stay with them after he turned 18.

“He’s got a ton of potential, but he always seems to trip himself up,” said Nancy Plourde, who cared for a dozen other children in eight years as a foster parent. “He just has years of scar tissue built up.”

Stout entered foster care at age 10, after his mother attempted suicide. He did not go quietly, shooting a police car with a BB gun.

He arrived at the Plourdes’ home at 12 with a reputation as a severely troubled child. But for the first time, Stout said, he felt like he belonged to a family.

He completed two years of uninterrupted schooling. He joined the band, playing tuba.

“They were more of a family than anywhere I’d ever been,” he said.

He and Jim Plourde say the altercation that led to Stout’s removal - and the Plourdes losing their license - was minor.

“I sat on him,” Jim Plourde said. “I think he lost a lot when he was officially removed from our placement. Tempestuous or not, this was a place where for 2-1/2 years, he had thrived.”

Curiously, the state seemed to agree. Three years after revoking the Plourdes’ license, a state worker found they had done a “commendable job” in caring for a child from an extremely dysfunctional family.

Foster parents are a much cheaper solution than some of the state’s other options in caring for troubled kids. Group homes charge as much as $7,000 a month. The state caps payments to foster parents at $1,300 a month for its most difficult children and typically provides just two weeks of training.

“The state treats foster parents like human Kleenex,” Suzanne Zinke, a foster parent advocate, said. “Use them up and throw them away.”

New approaches to a growing problem

It is Mark Meyer’s job to find homes for 35 of the state’s least adoptable foster children each year - part of a recent push to find permanent places for the state’s most troubled kids.

“Nobody would want to adopt them at the stage they’re at,” said Meyer, a specialist with the Foster Care Assessment Program in Spokane. “Regular people don’t understand what these kids have been through. You don’t want to believe it. You don’t want to deal with it. It’s traumatic to hear the stories even.”

The trauma experienced by the children has spread to the support network designed to protect them. Social workers in the program routinely drop out. Seasoned doctors have broken down in tears.

The state’s inability to find permanent homes for foster kids has led to a class-action lawsuit now before the Washington State Supreme Court. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 3,500 foster children who had been moved at least three times by the state’s Department of Social and Health Services. The state estimates that if a lower court’s order is upheld - requiring 500 new foster homes and better mental-health access - the cost would be at least $60 million.

Some experts argue that the key to finding permanent homes is preparing foster parents for the types of children they’ll be caring for.

“The foster parents really are front-line mental health workers for these kids,” said Dr. John Landsverk, a national expert on mental health and foster care at the University of San Diego. “They need to be much better trained on how to respond to these kids 24-7. There isn’t nearly the emphasis that’s needed, given the high rates of problems they see.”

Few Spokane foster parents can afford to take on the most troubled children. Only one foster family out of the 136 surveyed by the Foster Parent Support Network made more than $100,000. More than half made less than $41,000. Some 1,200 foster families quit each year - about a 100 percent turnover rate.

To stem the turnover, the Foster Parent Support Network hired five mental health specialists, paid for by a federal grant. The specialists provide inhome care for Spokane’s most troubled foster children and are on call seven days a week. The network said during the past year only eight families out of 136 quit.

“What we’re offering is the solution,” said Zinke, who helps coordinate the specialists, “because the system doesn’t have an answer.”

Stout’s future

“I’m broke,” Stout said recently, sitting in his 1980 Cadillac El Dorado. “I don’t even have enough money to put gas in my car.”

He earns a little money taxiing friends around town. He has an upcoming interview at a pizza delivery company. Most mornings are spent restoring the electronics in the El Dorado, which was broken into in January. Through the Plourdes, he has joined a church where he volunteers his time, working on the janitorial staff.

Otherwise, not much going on. Except that his 23-year-old girlfriend may be pregnant.

“Cool,” he said of the possibility of being a father. “I’m excited. I want to be able to give them what I didn’t have.”

He’s determined to raise his own children.

“If the state comes through my door?” he asks, his voice rising. “I plan on pulling out my .45 and shooting them right in the damn head.”

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