On May 4, 2009 a small crowd of about 100 citizens – social workers, politicians, child advocates, and children – gathered on the lawn of the Minnesota State Capitol to bring attention to Minnesota’s “Forgotten Children.” The 187 children placed in foster care each week in Minnesota all have unique circumstances but they all share one thing in common: They need advocacy in the legislature to address not only their current needs but the future issues they will face as they transition into adulthood.
CASA Minnesota partnered with the Dr. Phil Foundation for Monday’s Rally to bring attention to foster children in Minnesota and draw attention to the need for more volunteer guardians ad litem, foster parents and adoptive families. When a child in foster care turns 18, many of them lose the safety net of the system that was created to protect them. Without services to help them achieve independence, many of these young adults get swallowed back into the system through a different avenue, quite often the adult corrections system.
A diverse group of speakers brought attention to the issues facing foster children from a variety of perspectives. Two young adults, members of Our Voices Matter, who have gone through the foster care system, shared their experience with the audience. Genaysia Love is involved with Our Voices Matter, an organization that provides a platform for teenagers in foster care and those who have transitioned into adulthood to share their experiences and advocate for change. Genaysia shared that “home” to her was multiple foster homes, shelter homes, hospitals, and even a youth detention facility when there wasn’t a “bed” available for her in a more suitable environment. Genaysia, now a mother herself, never did find a permanent adoptive family.
Like Genaysia, Tina Rosenthal was also a child in foster care. Unlike Genaysia, Tina was adopted by a family before she “aged out” of the system. Now a young adult and Miss Minnesota 2008, Tina has made it her mission to bring attention to the issues facing foster children. She said that during her reign as Miss Minnesota, she pledged that every time she entered a room, she informed everyone in her presence of how many children enter foster care in Minnesota each week and what challenges each of those children would face.
Mary McGowan; foster parent, adoptive parent, volunteer guardian ad litem, child advocate and National Speaker, shared her stories of raising her five adopted special needs children and the scores of foster children who have come into her home. She told the crowd that without a system of support, she “crashed and burned real hard” for a period of about two years. Since this time, she has been able to not only find the systems that exist for supporting foster and adoptive families, but also be a part of creating those systems. She sees that, while meeting the needs of the children is of the utmost importance, without addressing the unique needs of the people who care for those children, we are missing a critical link in the chain of service.
Another foster and adoptive parent, Sarah Shannon, shared her gift of poetry with the crowd. Her poem, I Wish told the story of life through the eyes of a child experiencing abuse and neglect. In her poem, the child wishes that they were various things that they see as being loved and honored by their parent more than they are. The child wishes they were a crack pipe, a bottle of alcohol, even a scary movie just so they can know how it feels to be cherished by a parent.
Second Judicial District Judge, Judith M. Tilson, told her story through the eyes of a decision maker in the system. She shared a letter written by a young man, now a member of the armed forces, who found “family” through two of his workers who went above and beyond in their level of care for him. The result of level of love and care shown by these women could have made the difference between this young man being a successful, contributing member of society or being an adult caught up in the correction system. She also shared the story of a young woman who was repeatedly failed by the system in getting her need for a permanent family met. In hindsight, the Judge could see how this young woman’s life could have had a happy ending sooner if different decisions had been made on her behalf. At one point, the judge took responsibility for her role in this child’s life by sharing how a wrong decision was made early on that delayed this child’s opportunity to be adopted. The judge said “that would be me” when she shared who made this decision. Fortunately this child was eventually adopted by the family who had wanted to adopt her as soon as she was placed in foster care. After the adoption was completed, the judge said “we finally got it right.”
Michelle Johnson, was also an adopted child. As an adult working with the Fourth Judicial District Guardian Ad Litem Program, she is helping youth in foster care share their stories through dance. She led a group of young dancers who shared their message to legislators that adopted children should be allowed to receive their original birth certificate. As the words of DMC’s “I’m Legit[imate]” played, the children danced. In the end, a large “Birth Certificate” was passed among the children. This represented a piece of their identity that is currently being withheld from them through legislation that protects the identity of the biological parents.
Joe Kroll, founder of NACAC, addressed with the crowd a current issue affecting adoptive families. Currently adoptive parents have a system of support established through a group of parent liaisons across the state. These are individuals who are adoptive parents themselves who are in a position of providing support and a connection to additional resources that adoptive families may have challenges meeting on their own. As a result of changes in the Department of Human Services budget which would redirect the funding toward clinical support, adoptive families may lose this network. This would be a devastating loss to the families that receive this service and the children in their care.
A number of politicians graced the stage and shared their voice on behalf of children in foster care. Senator Mee Moua told the story of her own children. Fortunately they have experienced stability in their family life and they are thriving because of this. Senator Moua keeps them in mind when making decisions on behalf of Minnesota children. Senator Patricia Ray Torres also shared her experiences as a policy maker on behalf of children. The final speaker of the day seemed to be a surprise even to the event coordinators. Senator John Marty came to the podium and shared how deeply moved he was by the display that was placed on the front lawn of the Capitol. As he faced the crowd, looking back at him were the faces on 187 life sized billboards of children – each one representing the life of a Minnesota child placed in foster care each week. After the rally closed, Senator Marty was given a billboard photo of a young boy holding a sign that read “Twelve foster homes.” Senator Marty said that he will have the voices and lives of these children in mind as he promotes policies that will affect them.
The Forgotten Children Rally shared the voices and told the stories of the children in foster care. Participants and spectators could hear for themselves the challenges faced by these children and former children who were once a part of this system and realize the need for more volunteer guardians ad litem, foster homes, and adoptive families. By bringing attention to the unmet needs of these youth and young adults, service providers and policy makers can develop a system to better meet their needs and assure a brighter future for today’s “forgotten children.”
Submitted by Amy Rostron-Ledoux, KARA volunteer
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