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Philadelphia has the highest rate of family separation, and kids in foster care need mental health support

Philadelphia Inquirer - 10/16/2020

Oct. 16--Steven "Speedy" Yates was separated from his mother when he was a 5 1/2 -year-old and placed into Philadelphia's foster care system. The traumatic experience caused him to act out in anger and confusion, throwing frequent temper tantrums. At age 6, Yates was put on medication for his behavior, at the recommendation of a physician.

"It made the situation worse, actually," said Yates, now 24. "I was taking high doses of medication until I was 9. It caused me not to pay attention at school. I wasn't sleeping."

Philadelphia has the highest rate of family separation in all major cities in the country -- three times the rate of New York City and four times the rate of Chicago. The Philadelphia City Council announced Thursday that a special committee was being formed to better understand the issue of child separation in the city, after hearing complaints from over 100 family members and children.

Youth in foster care often experience trauma from being separated from their family members, and the transiency of the foster care system can exacerbate their poor mental health. To address this concern, Youth Fostering Change, an advocacy program at Philadelphia'sJuvenile Law Center, focused on strengthening mental health support for youth in foster care in its annual project, published Friday. The project included a "road map" that will help young people reflect on their interactions with the juvenile justice and child welfare systems in a way that might help improve their lives.

"The justice and child welfare systems need radical reform," said Marcía Hopkins, senior manager of the Youth Advocacy Program at Juvenile Law Center. "These project reports offer real, tangible solutions from youth who have been in these systems."

The project also provided actionable recommendations for policy makers in the Department of Human Services and caseworkers on mental health. One is requiring a screening for behavioral health needs upon entering the foster care system so the child can be connected with a mental health professional and help them access services, like art, music and play therapies. Other recommendations included determining what mental health resources are needed, and providing all social workers within the child welfare system with a series of trauma-informed and addiction-based training sessions.

"Having quick and thorough access to mental wellness and therapeutic support for youth who are not only already in care, but also youth who might be more susceptible to getting pulled into care, really helps them with stability," said Cathy Moffa, Youth Advocacy Program manager. "Coming into the child welfare system, even if you left an abusive home, can be a very traumatic experience."

Yates, a member of Youth Fostering Change, said he believes the most important recommendation is advocating for youth to be connected with mental health professionals.

"It's not good to remove a child from the home if they don't know anything about it and force them to live with strangers for the rest of their life," he said. "Many end up struggling. I believe if I had therapy during that time, it would've helped me understand a lot better what was going on around me. It would've helped me deal with my emotions in a more positive way, rather than start to build up anger issues and trust issues. I would've been less scared."

Brit Christopher, a 21-year-old member of Youth Fostering Change, said that when she was first placed in a residential care program at age 13, staffers gave her Abilify -- a medication typically prescribed to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder -- despite the fact that she had never met with a doctor.

"They just gave it to me like, 'Hey, you need this,'" Christopher said. "And I'm like, 'No,' so I pretended I was taking it and never actually took it. But there was a lot of youth inside my placement that did actually take the medicine that was given to them."

Like Yates, Christopher said therapy would have been helpful during that period of her life. That's why it was so empowering to focus on the need for mental health while putting the project together with her peers, she said.

"If I were to have a therapist or even a youth mentor, basically someone to talk to, about the issues I was having, it would've been beneficial and good," Yates said. "Once we all sat down and talked about our own different mental health needs or our experiences, a lot of it was similar."


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