I pulled in to the Sonic parking lot, parked next to a blue minivan, and saw her for the first time. All I knew about Katelynn was that she was 17, she was months away from graduating high school, she engaged in self-harm regularly, she was suicidal, and her current foster family desperately needed a break.
She was dressed in a stained t-shirt, pajama pants, and flip flops. Her greasy hair was pulled back in a bun and she wore a scowl. When I greeted her, she barely acknowledged me. She said good-bye to her foster parent, whom she called “dad,” and got into my car. Despite the icy reception, Katelynn warmed up when we arrived home. She wasn’t chatty, but she answered our questions and played with our young children.
On our second day with Katelynn, I casually explained that I was comfortable talking about depression and suicide. I spoke openly about my struggles with anxiety and the severe depression I had witnessed in my family. I wasn’t inviting Katelynn to tell me her story. I didn’t expect it and I wasn’t prepared for it. When she asked me if she could share it with me, I didn’t know what to say, so I nodded and listened. She didn’t go into detail, but her summary was more than I could handle. I felt like I might throw up or pass out. I struggled to keep it together as we sobbed and I held her while her whole body shook and her tears soaked my shoulder.
We agreed to care for Katelynn on weekends for the next month. Things were going well, but were far from ideal. She was still on suicide watch and we had to gently prod her to complete basic tasks like showering, brushing her teeth, and washing her clothes, but she was doing better than we’d expected.
Katelynn had entered the system when she was 16. She had experienced varying degrees of abuse and neglect her entire life, the worst of it causing flashbacks and nightmares daily. Once in care, she weathered a difficult trial to put her abuser in prison. When our family and friends asked about her history, I should have simply stated that it was confidential, but I wanted them to understand how much she needed their love and support. I told them, “Think of the worst abuse you can imagine. Okay, now make it worse. That’s what she’s been through.”
Then the call we were dreading came. Her foster family wanted her removed and the agency asked us to take her. I was heartbroken for her but I didn’t feel equipped to care for her full-time. She had only been visiting on weekends but I was already feeling drained by the constant vigilance necessary to keep everyone in our home safe. She could never be left alone and everything sharp was locked up, along with all medications.
After a frantic search of two counties, at the eleventh hour, a group home agreed to foster Katelynn. She was removed after only two weeks. Again, we were asked to take her in and again I said no. A few days later, her caseworker called and begged me to reconsider. They had exhausted every possibility and if we didn’t take her, Katelynn would go into a residential facility. I feared that a residential facility would, at best, set her back in her recovery.
We were told that Katelynn was already approved to enter an adult foster home before her 18th birthday. The caseworker said she only needed to finalize the paperwork and find the right place for her. With a guarantee from her caseworker that she would live with us for a maximum of two weeks, we agreed to the placement.
The Broken System
Once I was privy to more information about Katelynn’s case, I was appalled by how the system was failing her. First, she needed glasses, but the glasses had never been ordered. Second, she was on a psychotropic medication, among others, which required close monitoring and regular blood testing but had not seen her psychiatrist in months. She also should have been in two types of intensive counseling, but due to red tape, she hadn’t been to therapy in over three months.
I was livid. I began making phone calls and I got her in to see her pediatrician immediately. Her doctor was as angry as I was that Katelynn was not receiving the treatment she urgently needed. The pediatrician wrote a formal letter to her caseworker, copying the foster care agency and the Department of Human Services. Her strongly worded recommendation was for Katelynn see the following specialists as soon as possible: gynecologist, psychiatrist, DBT therapist, specialized abuse therapist, and a dietician.
Four weeks later, Katelynn still hadn’t seen any medical specialists or counselors, and her difficult behaviors had progressed from nonexistent to unrelenting. She had developed an unhealthy attachment to me and stayed within a few feet of me all day long, she began to exhibit jealousy when I gave anyone else my attention, the self-harm returned, and we saw our first glimpses of her hidden rage, which would explode suddenly and without provocation.
The Turning Point
Katelynn was worsening every day. I believe the impending changes of adulthood triggered her swift decline, and consequently, mine as well. Her talk of suicide increased and I took her to the hospital against her will (our third E.R. visit in four weeks). She had been admitted to the psychiatric unit while in previous placements and she didn’t want to go back. She said she knew exactly what to say so they wouldn’t admit her.
In the E.R., the hospital social worker insinuated that I was overreacting and asked me to leave the room so she could speak with Katelynn in private. When I was invited back in, the worker said Katelynn “is okay” and gave me brochures. I excused myself and went to the parking lot to break down. I vented over the phone first to our caseworker and then to the president of our foster care agency. I told them that having Katelynn in our home had become unhealthy and detrimental to our family and that I could not keep Katelynn safe. Then, because I had no other choice, I took her home.
More bad news followed when Katelynn was denied for adult foster care. Her caseworker had lied when she said that Katelynn would only be with us for two weeks and that paperwork was holding up the move. In truth, the request for authorization of adult foster care had never been submitted until she had been living with us for four weeks. Then the answer came quickly: she was not disabled enough to qualify.
Katelynn had graduated from an alternative high school because she can read and she knows how to use Google. She had completed her self-paced courses one at a time with help. The alternative school was good for Katelynn in many ways, but calling her a high school graduate is a misnomer. Our nine-year-old was more responsible, more socially/emotionally mature, and had more life skills than Katelynn did when she graduated. When Katelynn attempted to help our daughter with her homework, we realized that she could not do fourth grade math.
My breakdown prompted the agency to search for anyone who would take Katelynn so they could move her as soon as possible. But, we’d been through this before—no one would even consider a 17-year-old suicidal girl with severe trauma and a host of mental health diagnoses. She remained with us for another two weeks, when time ran out, and legally the agency had to honor our request for removal.
On the day Katelynn left, the guilt I felt was staggering, but I was also completely spent. I had given her everything I had in the six weeks she lived with us, but it was not enough. She needed so much more than any one person could give. I hugged her and, through tears, told her that I loved her. My husband accompanied Katelynn and the caseworker to a respite home where she would stay for only two days.
Katelynn was shuttled from home to home until her 18th birthday. She was even placed in a motel for a short time. She was assigned a new caseworker (her sixth in two years) who helped her complete the necessary steps to enter voluntary foster care. As long as Katelynn was working or attending school full time, she would receive a monthly stipend and a caseworker would continue to check on her until age 21. Although she had been accepted to the local community college, she couldn’t attend because her scores on the placement tests were too low.
Set Up For Failure
Her caseworker helped her secure a well-paying, full-time general labor job and found her a place to live, rent free, as long as she was working. The foster care agency connected her with a program that helps individuals with everything from life skills to transportation, job training, budgeting, and more. They were willing to assist her with virtually every aspect of adult life, but her success or failure was in her hands. She would have reach out to them when she needed help. Katelynn called to tell us the news. She was excited to start her new life.
On paper the plan for Katelynn looked solid, but when I heard it, I was again disgusted by the vast holes in the foster care system through which kids like Katelynn are lost to homelessness, drug addiction, prostitution, and prison. I warned her new caseworker that the new expectations of Katelynn were exponentially more than she could sustain and reminded her that only weeks ago, the state had not allowed Katelynn to be left alone, to handle her own medications, or to use a knife without supervision.
I wondered how any logical person could believe that a severely traumatized and depressed 18-year-old, with the emotional development of an eight-year-old, could keep a job that required her to set an alarm, get herself up and ready, navigate the city bus system, arrive on time, and work for eight hours a day, five days a week. It seemed as though her team had completely forgotten that every one of Katelynn’s previous jobs had ended after only a few days and that in the past two years she hadn’t even mastered proper hygiene. When my concerns were ignored, my family and I continued to support Katelynn the only way we could—we prayed.
A short time later, we heard that she’d quit her job after only attending the orientation. Because she wasn’t working, the benefits and support of voluntary foster care expired and her case was officially closed. She moved out of the clean, safe home that had been provided for her and in with friends. She lost the phone number for her assistance contact and then she lost her phone.
Katelynn is still unemployed and sleeping on the couch in a tiny house with 10+ people and several animals. She doesn’t have a driver’s license or a phone and her only possessions are her iPod, her clothes, and a few mementos that have survived all of her moves. She has health care and she is able to get her medications for free. She is also eligible for free college tuition. She still has a goal of becoming a social worker to help kids like her, and one day she hopes to have a family of her own who eat meals together around the dinner table like she did at our house.