"On the plains of Oklahoma, with a windshield sunset in your eyes like a watercolor painted sky, you'd think heavens doors have opened."
Fly Over States

Sunday, December 7, 2008

When Staying Home Becomes an Option

When we first moved to this area in 1998, the housing market was exploding. Houses sold before they went on the market and people would frantically bid on them above and beyond the already obscene initial asking price. This trend continued until about 2005 and then things began taking a dive.

In my area, foreclosures are at a record high. Moreover, in the next few months, we can expect a lot of folks whose jobs were connected to the previous administration to have to relocate and sell their homes in a very depressed housing market. There are so many empty houses in the area that supply exceeds demand. My own home's assessed value has dropped like a rock. Today, it is assessed at only 72% of its assessed value in 2005.

So where am I going with this?

Property taxes. In addition to sales tax, it is the life's blood of a county's coffers when it comes to services to children. Think schools, foster care, residential treatment, counseling, etc.

With the crash of the housing market, the money has dried up.

Not so long ago, if I had a troubled child, we'd go to court and the judge would routinely order home-based counseling (frequently paid by Medicaid - no worries there) for the child and his family. They are limited to 26 weeks of counseling per child but in a home with upteen children, you just open another case under a sibling's name and keep on going. Sometimes the Courts would order some anger management and usually a parenting class. The Holy Trinity, as it were. No one asked who was going to pay for these things. Payment for these services wasn't even an issue (frankly, it still isn't).

If that didn't turn things around, either because the family was utterly dysfunctional or because the child was seriously mentally ill, had a hard case of oppositional defiance disorder (a conduct disorder) or had a significant substance abuse problem, residential treatment was always an option. ALWAYS. Money could always be found, even for programs that cost six figures a year and were on the other side of the state.

As recently as a year and a half ago, we had a whole array of options depending on the child's needs. We had places that specialize in substance abuse issues or mental illness or conduct disorders. Some places were highly successful in treating children who had been sexually abused. We had Wilderness programs (boot camp) for those older kids who have a strong ego but need direction. For those kids who continued to run away or refused to work a treatment program we had a handful of more secure residential facilities where they could at least get an education and counseling and we knew they weren't running the streets (I don't like sending kids there except as a last resort). We had group homes. We had several places that are close to home where the kids could stay during the week but be home on the weekends, holidays and special occasions. I love these programs because they strongly stress the family component and the kids can still see their families several times a week. We also had places that are like a boarding school that I sometimes asked to send a child who was a good kid but had a family that was just too rejecting or dysfunctional to parent him. For kids who had reactive attachment issues, we had specialized counseling to help families rebuild (or initially build) the bond. We had specialized programs for Hispanic families. Programs for sex offenders. We had tutors. We had mentors. We had recreational vouchers so the kids in poor families could play sports or get involved in clubs. Parents couldn't make meetings or court or counseling sessions? No sweat. We'd send a cab.

For families who were simply unable to parent their child or who were significantly abusive or neglectful, we had foster care. However, short of extreme abuse or neglect, we tried to place a child outside the home without transferring custody if the parents would get on board. There were lots of services - see the list, above.

When the well went dry, the first thing that happened was that the kids for whom the counseling, parenting classes and anger management classes didn't work ended up sitting in the youth shelter for months waiting for approval for payment for a residential placement. They'd sit there getting next to no treatment with meager visits from their parents an hour or so a week (no visits from their siblings or pets). I could jump up and down and complain frantically but it didn't really go anywhere. Had the kids been in foster care, I could make the argument that the county was responsible to FIND the money. In the right case, I'd file something and get them into foster care but you have to have the right situation for that to fly.

Unfortunately (at least from a financial standpoint), most of the kids WEREN'T in foster care. Rather, they were in the custody of their families, running the streets, engaging in promiscuous sex with older strangers, using drugs with abandon or racking up assault and battery charges filed by their parents when they'd get into it with the child (charges filed and convictions levied against the CHILD so foster care was not really an option).

As a guardian ad litem, my choices are limited - sure I can argue that they need to go home from the shelter after a few weeks if I want to run the very real risk that they will promptly run off for weeks at a time; chronically depend on the kindness of strangers; continue on a crime spree with the neighborhood gangs; die of an overdose; get a 3rd or 4th assault and battery conviction (and get sent "downstate" to juvenile prison); get pregnant; or get infected with an STD. The alternative is to let them sit in the shelter where at least they are safe, going to school and getting some counseling while they wait.

Having the kids be safe is high on my list of priorities. That only goes so far, however. I had one child there for four months while we wrangled with a hospital to get funding for his severe mental health problem.

Never did get the funding, by the way.

As the money situation has gotten worse, the kids' situations have gotten worse. Kids aren't even going to the shelter, anymore. Back in the day, we'd send them to the shelter thinking it would be for a couple of weeks (and in our innocence - we thought THAT was too long!). As the financial situation worsened, two weeks stretched to two months. These days, we usually don't even send them to the shelter. The kids stay in horrible family situations and we lay awake at night worrying. I can tell the court that the child is going to get more delinquency charges, or pregnant or dead, but the child begs to go home and the parent insists that THIS time, they will let the home-based counselor into the home and they'll cooperate. The social workers or probation officers (the ones left - they haven't been able to hire replacements for the ones lost through attrition) truthfully tell the court that it will take months to get the funding for residential services and there is no guarantee that it will even happen. So the Judge typically sends the child home and I can't blame the Judge.

It hasn't been pretty. The problems that led to the children running the streets in the first place don't go away when the child is right back in the same environment and parenting patterns.

Part of me is not unhappy that we aren't sending so many kids to residential facilities. Frankly, I am never comfortable with sending them to one unless I am reasonably convinced that the child will be unsafe if left in the home. Unfortunately, we have a very large group of parents who don't know how to parent and who, once the kids get big and scary, are willing to throw away their children to whomever will step in and take over. These are parents who frequently created a monster and - news flash - are the least equipped to clean up the mess they created and get Junior back on the straight and narrow. But I still hate to see the kids placed in an institutional environment.

At this point, at least we still have medicaid money for counseling. Moreover, the counties can usually find the money for parenting classes and anger management. The feds will often help with substance abuse issues. So for your garden variety cases, we are treading water. Strong families will make it through with education and counseling and their adventure with the courts will one day simply be a side trip they took on the road to Junior's adulthood. It is the harder cases that are falling through the cracks, in my opinion.

Money is not going to "solve" the problem. I know that. All the same, I sure miss the days where we had enough money that we had more options for the hard cases.

On a happier note, the breeder tells me that "Angel's" temperature has dropped a bit more and she can feel the puppies moving. She raised the question of whether we might want to get a show girl instead of a companion dog. That is not something we'd planned to do but we'll mull it over.

Evelyn had another good day and it has been fun to watch her learn to do things that Jezebel used to handle. Getting us in the proper room is apparently a trait that any Alpha worth their salt must master. We wonder if Evelyn will be interested in being Alpha when the baby gets here and gets a little bigger. Ah, something to look forward to.

No quilting, today. I worked on Christmas cards, instead. I can't believe it took so long. No wonder I quit sending them out a few years ago.


Anonymous said...

As usual, another interesting post. I so enjoy reading about your work.

Question: How do breeders pick the show dogs out of a brand new litter?


Penny said...

Mar, they need to observe a pup for awhile as they get older to be able to tell whether they are show quality. They look at their confirmation, how they move, their temperament, etc. The little darlings look a lot like fuzzy larvae in the beginning. Because of that, even if they get a slew of little girls, we won't know who OUR pup is for awhile.

Suzanne Kistler said...

Thank you for visiting my blog. big smile.

I ache for you and your loss of Jezebel, and hope that your new baby arrives soon and helps ease your pain...

Anonymous said...

Penny - Your comment about Evelyn possibly not being interested in being alpha could happen. We had Skylar for about 4 yrs before we brought Chase home. In her 'younger' days, she was very protective of us and didn't take anything from any being! (We found her and she had been horribly abused and abandoned.) She morphed into a big old sweetie. Along comes Chase. He is a smaller dog, but he is definitely in charge. He is the mouth piece of the two of them too.

They all have such different personalities...It will be interesting to see what your baby will be like! Also, it will be interesting to see what Evelyn does with her. I think Skylar would prefer her 'only puppy' status!


Karen Joy said...

Love the dogs.

I ache for your problems with children as a guardian ad litem. I know that many shows joked about Nebraska's old Safe Haven law. It just brought out how much help is needed for older children.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your predicaments as GAL. It must be a tough and sometimes rewarding position, one where the long term results of your efforts aren't always known.
I do appreciate the education as well, there's much more to advocating for kids & teenagers with the complications of family, mental illness & drug abuse involved.

Evelyn seems to be adjusting well. Hope you are too. Can't wait to meet Pearl...

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