By Larisa Karr
Failure to investigate abuse affects youth for a lifetime
Nyamekye Reynolds, a youth advocate at You Gotta Believe, helped run a panel at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center where current and former foster youth spoke about their experiences in care. (Larisa Karr)
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The Administration for Children’s Services in New York invests millions of dollars to help young people who are transitioning out of foster care access resources that will allow them to have healthy lives. However, a city Department of Investigation report showed that the agency has not adequately addressed issues of abuse within the city’s foster care system.
The 2018 report revealed that from 2016 to 2017, the percentage of private providers contracting with ACS to deliver foster care who failed to meet the federal maltreatment of care standard rose from 41% to 86%.
For youth aging out of the system in particular, the effects of abuse not being adequately addressed could be potent.
“When children are abused by those charged with caring for them, it’s a tremendous breach of trust,” wrote Jill Benson, the senior director at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, in an email. “They are often told that the acts of abuse and violations to their minds and bodies are for their own good or because they are loved, which creates great emotional conflict for the youth.”
Aged-out foster youth often struggle with homelessness, mental health issues, substance abuse and a higher potential for incarceration, according to a report by the Columbia Law School.
You need a crystal ball to figure out who’s going to be abused and who’s not. A lot of it unfortunately shows itself when it’s too late.Jeff Korek, attorney
The transition into everyday life once they are released from the foster care system becomes particularly difficult if a former foster youth has suffered abuse.
“I was abused when I was young and I wound up being in two domestic violence relationships that were very horrible and stunting to my growth as a person,” said Nyameyke Reynolds, a 26-year-old former foster child originally from Brooklyn. “I equated abuse with love because it was just something that was happening to me.”
Even though resources like mental help services are available to help them, they may choose not to access them because of the potential repercussions of dealing with their past.
“Therapy requires opening up wounds and trauma, and if you’re not in a safe place, you’re not going to want to do that because you leave 45 minutes of therapy with somebody and then you go out into the world and you’re going to have another week to deal with all of the stuff that just came up alone,” said Mary Keane, a foster parent and the executive director of You Gotta Believe, a Brooklyn-based organization that helps find permanent families for youth in foster care. “It can’t help them because they’re not in a safe place to get help.”
The DOI investigation revealed that the largest numbers of abuse complaints that ACS did not address were those involving lacerations, bruises and welts, followed by sexual abuse and excessive corporal punishment. It took a total of two years for ACS to apply consequences to providers with low scores, according to the report. The Department of Investigation proposed that ACS consider terminating contracts with the providers who failed to keep foster youth safe.
In its response, the agency said: “We are raising safety standards across the board. We plan to rebid our entire foster care system with stringent new standards, and there will be providers that may not make the cut.”
Once a child who is in foster care goes to the hospital for issues like broken bones or malnourishment, the hospital will call ACS and they will take the child out of that home, according to Jeff Korek, a foster care abuse attorney from Brooklyn.
Some experts believe that exit interviews are crucial in determining whether or not a youth had been abused when they aged out of foster care.
“The individual agencies in New York City are supposed to do exit interviews with youth leaving foster care, but the question is how many get an exit interview?” said Kathryn Conroy, the executive director of the Kenworthy-Swift Foundation. “That’s where you would pick up if a youth had been abused or not.”
According to ACS data from 2017, the neighborhoods where abuse and neglect allegations were highest for foster youth were Coney Island, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Sunset Park, all in Brooklyn.
“You need a crystal ball to figure out who’s going to be abused and who’s not,” said Korek. “I think the background checks and the limited checks that they do can only go so far and a lot of it unfortunately shows itself when it’s too late.”