Turning Tragedy Into Advocacy: Changing the Foster Care System

It is my hope that this foster care tragedy can be used as a catalyst for much-needed change.

Jeanette Green April 14, 2016
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Once upon a time there was a beautiful queen. Her name was Shellie. She and her king, Sundeep, were focused on doing Good. They loved all children. And for years they had dedicated their home and hearts to helping children who were in need. Oh, the hours they spent caring for these children who were medically fragile, who were in situations of confusion, sadness, and despair. With the simplest smile and gentlest touch, the King and Queen transformed lives . . . one by one. It was a marvelous work they did and many looked on with wonder and awe. Not only were they full of this magical, transformative love, but the children who shared their last name were as well. Yes, these princes and princesses delighted in sharing their love with the many children who came into their home. Over the course of time, 44 beautiful souls were fostered in their care.

(What if our story ended here? What would be your impression of foster care? What is YOUR role in the fairy tale? “My role?” you ask. Yes, your role. Because I am about to move forward, and I want to make something clear . . . you are in this story. And you have a really good part.)

What many do not understand is that all beauty comes at a cost. The beauty that shone through the eyes of these children—all of them—was because light filled the darkness they had experienced. So, you see, when Queen Shellie and King Sundeep’s family poured out their love, it was absorbed and reflected back out to the world. Others saw and felt it. They were made better for it. A person was not filled up immediately, of course. No. It took hours of hugs, tears, affirmations of worth. And many of the kids who entered their home had serious need of this. For Shellie and Sundeep, this was all the more reason to fill these little ones with unconditional love.

(The fairy tale still seems beautiful, does it not?)

(Stage right) Enter Kiki. Kiki is a young girl with DiGeorge Syndrome, resulting in, among other things, a compromised immune system. She is frequently ill and requires a large amount of time, attention, focus, and care. She has been removed from the home and care of her biological mother and father. She now lives with Shellie and Sundeep.

Kiki is one child transformed by their love. Early on, Shellie and Sundeep had been told that there was no possibility that Kiki would be returning to live with her biological parents. Adoption was discussed. Six months later, a new caseworker was assigned to Kiki. This social worker came, met Shellie and Sundeep, and again discussed adoption. Post-adoption visitation of biological mother and father was brought up. Both Shellie and Sundeep loved Kiki’s biological parents but questioned the safety of continued regular visits with individuals possessing such unstable mental histories.

(This is where the fairy tale abruptly ends. We now enter the foster care system. 2016.)

There was a quiet shift that took place during that meeting. Shellie and Sundeep weren’t fully aware of it, but their lives, and Kiki’s, would never be the same. One week after the meeting, they received a letter stating that Kiki would be returned to live with her biological father. Though they had a good relationship with him, Shellie was confused as to why they would place a medically fragile young girl with her biological father—a man who loved his daughter, but who also was a recovering drug addict and dealer, recently out of jail, living in a halfway house for men, and possessing a history of domestic violence. It just didn’t add up. It was a shock and a heartbreak.

After fostering 44 children and working harmoniously with the county, Shellie and Sundeep now faced dishonesty and falsehoods on many different occasions. They were shut out and not included in important meetings. They were not allowed to represent Kiki or themselves in legal hearings. They were dismissed and pushed aside often. Just before Christmas 2015, Kiki was taken from their home and placed in a different foster home. They were told their home wasn’t safe, yet other children had been placed in their care. It was confusing, hurtful, and the worst part was knowing that their little Kiki was in the middle of this mess without having her needs met. Kiki’s removal from their home didn’t seem to be in the best interest of the child at all, but rather it appears that the decision was a personal and emotional reaction to a foster family stating concerns. It was the wrong call.

On February 28, 2016, about 7 weeks after being reunited to live with her biological father, Kiki was found dead. Her death is still under investigation as they await the autopsy report, but it is clear that something went very wrong. (Let it be made clear that Shellie and Sundeep do not believe that Kiki’s father did anything malicious to her. They are waiting to find out results, but again, they do not feel there was anything intentionally done to harm her.) A little girl is dead, a foster family is grieving, a mother and father are dealing with their own grief, I’d assume a caseworker is feeling a great weight (though no action has been taken against her), and hearts of mothers and fathers are being stirred all over. This incident has caused quite a bit of commotion in the community and Shellie has had the opportunity to share Kiki’s story, as the media is interested in letting others know about this tragic case.

I wanted to share this story not to list all the untruths that were stated (and believe me, the case is littered with details that would shock you) or just to tell a tale of injustice and tragic lost. I wanted to share Kiki’s story—Shellie and Sundeep’s story as well—because her life matters and has triggered the desire to advocate even more for children who are unable to advocate for themselves.

Shellie has learned from her tragedy and is fighting harder because she must. And we must too. If foster care is supposed to protect children and families, they must be the priority. To do so, here are two items she feels needs to be addressed in foster care advocacy.

Rules for Reunification. The primary goal for foster care is to help families reunite. Most of the time, parents want to be with their children and need time to work on some personal matters and then they are able to move forward. It can be a very beautiful process in which parents are able to use their love as a tool to transform themselves and keep their family together. However, there are times when reunification is no longer an option. The rules for reunification need to be reviewed. Yes, the primary goal is to reunite families, but not at the expense of safety. A standard set of criteria must be set and followed. If it’s not, then we are putting our children at risk.

Foster Parent Support. Who advocates for these children? The foster parents. That is their role and responsibility. When a child is placed in a foster home, those parents have been selected because they have been deemed worthy of protecting and taking care of the child emotionally, physically, and medically when necessary. The load is sweet . . . and heavy. They learn the child’s sleep patterns, hear their cries, and advocate for accommodations to meet the child’s needs at home, school, and within the community. Their voices are important and need to be heard. That is precisely why they are a part of legal hearings, etc.

It’s time to give greater support to good foster parents and eliminate those foster parents who are NOT in it for the children. It’s time to do something about it. As in many situations, it gets political, but we can get past that. We truly can. It’s called common sense and most of us are blessed with it. And then, we can use our common sense to act politically.

I was shocked to learn how many millions of dollars were spent to hire people to recruit foster parents. What if those millions of dollars was spent on giving better training and support to foster parents? What if those millions of dollars were spent on hiring better, more qualified caseworkers? Perhaps if that was the case, good foster parents wouldn’t be throwing in the towel . . . because that is happening, and it’s sad. Many foster parents are tired from fighting a system. The children don’t wear them out…the system does. That needs to change on social and government levels. Luckily, Shellie has some people in higher positions wanting to hear more and take action. Take, for example, Yolo County Supervisor Matt Rexroad. He’s actively doing what he can to create change!

Earlier, in fairy tale land, I mentioned you had a role. Here it is: YOUR role is to stand, speak, advocate.

Educate Yourself. If you are new to foster care and the issues involved, educate yourself. Take time to read articles. Ask your friends. Join forums, Facebook groups, and ask questions. Form an opinion on the matters based on facts and knowledge.

Educate Others. In conversations that come up, correct misinformation. It doesn’t have to be confrontational; don’t worry. Help others learn the truth.

Get Involved. Find out how you can play a more active role. Maybe that means you become a foster parent. Maybe that means you spend time writing letters and attending meetings. Or maybe that means you share items on Facebook that encourage others to join you. Every piece of involvement helps keep the momentum going. Take a stand and do something about it. Shellie continually shares how people can get involved and, working with Supervisor Matt Rexroad, she will continue to share specific acts we can do to create change. You can find her here, here, and here.

Foster Hope. Foster care can be a fairy tale (trials included) or, quite frankly, it can be devastating. But there is hope. And there is hope because we are living, breathing, loving beings who want better. So this is a call to action! I believe there are more of us who want what is best and want what is good . . . we just need to do something about it. Have hope for a better future . . . and then share that hope with others. This is not hopeless. We are on a path to change, and it’s a good path.

Our story started with the King and Queen and their little Kiki. In many ways, it’s Kiki’s story . . . and yet, she is continuing to influence and change lives even in her death. Sundeep and Shellie are carrying her torch and enlisting others to join them in this journey, so maybe it is their story after all. Sometimes the happily-ever-afters aren’t so obvious, but I do believe there is goodness that comes from tragedy. We may need to search within our hearts, but goodness can be found. Perhaps the goodness here is the love Kiki shared with so many, and how her tragedy has turned into greater advocacy for change.

That’s a tale I’d like to have a starring role in.

If you want specifics on how to get involved, find Shellie at any one of these locations! Get INVOLVED!

Amazing Hope Radio

Redeem Childhood

Shellie Nichol

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Jeanette Green

Jeanette Green is a mother to three beautiful children--two through the blessing of adoption. She is a firm believer that we never walk alone, the sun continues to shine even when we can’t feel its rays, and you can’t get sick from raw cookie dough. Various life experiences have taught her that life never turns out like we expect. But if we’re patient, we learn that it’s better that way. To learn more about Jeanette and her crew, visit The Green Piece


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