Mr. Stout, a free-lance journalist, lives in Chico, California.
This article appeared in the Christian Century September 28, 1977, p. 849. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Runaway kids may be locked up for offenses that are not punishable if committed by adults. Unfortunately, the tendency among charitable and church-related organizations has been to duplicate tax-supported efforts to institutionalize and professionalize means of child care and treatment.
Marie, a 14-year-old runaway, stumbled into a San Francisco-area all-night restaurant and begged the night manager, “Please let me call my church.”
She thumbed through the Yellow Pages, found the number, deposited the two dimes the manager had given her, and dialed. The minister of a small Pentecostal church answered. She explained that she was alone, hungry and broke. She had spent seven months hustling rides, food and places to crash since rushing out of her parents seaside southern California home after a fight over her 15-year-old boyfriend.
The minister, a young man in his 30s, seemed confused. Marie apologized — tersely. “I’m sorry, I had no one else. I guess I shouldn’t —
“Where are you?” the minister wanted to know.
She gave him the name of the restaurant and its address.
“Stay right there. I’m coming to get you.”
The pastor, married and the father of two preteen boys, took Marie into his home, fed her, called her parents and arranged for them to come and pick up their daughter. To his surprise, his own children seemed to find the situation unremarkable and rapped with the runaway on her own terms. Later he questioned them and learned that welfare checks, child abuse and criminal parental negligence were, among some of their acquaintances, a familiar way of life. They each had schoolmates who had run away and others who had been shunted from one foster or group home to another by the courts and law-enforcement agencies.
His interests aroused, the minister visited the local probation and welfare offices. In the previous six months, he was told, the courts had processed more juvenile than adult offenders in the county. The majority of the juveniles were noncriminal runaways and “out-of-control” children whose parents had turned them in. The average detention time for a child who had committed no crime, but had been the victim of wayward (and often alcoholic) parents, was seven weeks. The average detention time of children who had been arrested for robbery, drug possession or grand theft was four and a half days!
Juvenile law in California, as in most states, stipulated that detention should be based on “the defendant’s possibility of endangering himself or others or fleeing the jurisdiction of the arresting agency.” Runaways, naturally, posed the threat that they would run again. Consequently, they were kept behind bars. Those arrested for actual crimes were released to the custody of their parents. Had the juvenile criminals been adults, they might not have been granted bail. Had the runaways been adults, they would never have been arrested in the first place.
The Pentecostal minister probed a little more deeply. Why were the runaways — and the victims of unfit or absent parents — kept in detention for such a long time? From a law-enforcement point of view, the answer was simple: there was no place to send them. Every foster home in the county was filled. Both the probation and welfare departments were advertising, at county expense, for foster parent volunteers. Two-thirds of those who applied were rejected either by the local welfare examiners or by a state licensing authority, which set certain minimum standards for housing and income. Nearly 90 per cent of those who did qualify refused to accept children with behavioral problems or court records.
Nor were there, among those who maintained foster homes, many altruists. California counties pay $150-$230 per month per child for foster parent care (the rates in most other states are similar). In a large percentage of foster homes, one of the parents was partially disabled. Many had already raised families of their own and were nearing retirement age. If they undertook the care and supervision of three foster children, they would receive $450-$700 a month from the county. Out of that sum, they had to provide food and clothing, plus transportation, school and entertainment expenses. Anything left over would he just enough to make their “jobs” as foster parents profitable.
Naturally, they preferred easy-to-control children from white middle- or working-class backgrounds. Most of them imposed “no smoking” and “no profanity” codes. If a newly placed foster child ran away or became unmanageable, they turned him or her back to the courts, to be placed in detention in juvenile hall until another needy foster parent prospect was willing to take the child.
Welfare placement supervisors candidly admit that a hefty percentage of the foster homes they approve for licensing have had children who have, gone through the court system. An equally large percentage are former welfare recipients who have opted for foster parentage as a means of self-employment. Nor do all foster homes have two parents. A large number of girls are placed with divorced or widowed women who have children of their own to support.
Many of the children assigned to foster parents are already in junior high or high school. Coming, as they often do, from families with a history of child and wife abuse, alcoholism, promiscuity, poor nutrition, a lack of discipline and low academic achievement, they find adjustment to stricter, often fundamentalist standards difficult. Many of them resist leaving their parents’ home.
A 12-year-old taken from her prostitute mother in Ohio cried and prayed to be permitted to rejoin her. Her mother’s life, to her, was “normal”; hers was the only home the girl had known. Even counseling failed to reconcile her to her foster parents’ values; she ran away and eventually had to be committed to a state girls’ school, though the only “crime” she had committed was running away from a life style imposed on her by the courts.
Unfortunately, the tendency among charitable and church-related organizations has been to duplicate tax-supported efforts to institutionalize and professionalize means of child care and treatment. When the Pentecostal minister inquired among his own congregation, he found that only a few church members were aware that the scarcity of foster parents was so great that children abandoned by their parents or removed from undesirable homes were incarcerated in prisonlike circumstances for as long as five months while public agencies sought acceptable placements. He also learned that few members of his congregation were able, financially or emotionally, to take children from antisocial backgrounds into their homes, even when they were guaranteed reimbursement.
What can the churches do to help find homes for this country’s unwanted children? A first step is to recognize the problem for what it is. A second is to examine the local situation: How many foster parents does the community have? How many does it need? The county welfare child-placement center is the first place to call.
What are the requirements for licensing in the area? Some states have different requirements for various categories of children; i.e., those who need mental-health guidance and counseling, those with backgrounds as juvenile offenders, etc. In most states, single persons may qualify as foster parents. Temporary foster homes are needed in many areas. Church organizations can serve as motivating forces to help potential foster parents acquire the necessary credentials to give homes to problem children or children from criminally negligent backgrounds.
What can the church do to upgrade the quality of foster homes and encourage responsible couples to accept the challenge of taking a child from a non-Christian background into their care? To suggest offering money is venal — or, put another way, practical. Suppose that a church with a large suburban congregation were to offer to supplement the county’s minimum payment per child? Or set up a fund for special education, books, clothing and tutoring? Or underwrite, by loan, mortgages on buildings large enough to enable established foster homes to accommodate additional children?
A San Francisco-based organization is attempting to organize foster parents into a lobbying force. One of their primary goals is to upgrade the quality of foster parent care by seeing that those who undertake the challenging, and sometimes emotionally painful, occupation of foster parenthood are adequately rewarded and that corporately they have enough political clout to help shape legislation beneficial to both the children involved and the men and women who are willing to care for them.
In California the era of incarcerated noncriminal children is over. A law that took effect January 1 prohibits any law-enforcement body from locking up a runaway. Opponents of the measure in the state assembly claimed that it would open the state to an invasion of teen-age and preteen drifters, drug addicts and prostitutes.
The bill’s backers insisted that runaways are a social rather than criminal problem, and that receiving homes, crisis centers and mental health agencies are better prepared to handle abandoned children than punishment-oriented law-enforcement agencies. Other states, including Oregon, had already put similar laws into action and had experienced little if any increase in youthful lawlessness.
But whether criminal or social, the problem remains. Tutored in the skills of shoplifting by his older sister; taught to roll a tight joint of marijuana by his mother’s boyfriend; hyperactive, acne-scarred, a Saturday-night drunk, 11-year-old Raleigh isn’t equipped for adapting to a 50-year-old foster parent couple who are members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and whose idea of indulgence is to permit him to select one 30-minute period a night for watching television in their living room.
At the first opportunity he’ll run. Sooner or later, he’ll get into trouble — steal a tire or a bottle of wine; snatch a coat or a purse; hot-wire a car. Some other foster home will house him for a few weeks or months. When a discipline problem develops, he’ll bolt. Next time he’ll be sent to a boys’ ranch; then to Youth Authority, where he’ll apprentice for a career of hard core criminality. Can this chain of events be halted? Its time to try.