By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Tanisha Richardson left her mother's home in the Bronx when she was 14 years old. She doesn't like talking about the circumstances surrounding her decision to run away and admits there is no love lost between them; she hasn't spoken to her mother since her departure seven years ago.
Tanisha lived in the home of a high-school friend until she turned 15, at which point she voluntarily placed herself under the supervision of the Administration for Children's Services, the city's foster care agency, effectively severing all ties-emotionally and legally-from her mother.
According to Tanisha, this was the start of a seven-year feud that has included two court appearances and a case currently on appeal at the New York State Supreme Court.
The foster care agency placed her in a cramped one-bedroom apartment turned into a three- bedroom apartment in the Bronx along with four other foster kids.
"It was really crowded," says Tanisha. "I wasn't happy about it, but I only stayed with them for six months. I thought to myself, 'Just do the time and get out.' " Tanisha is used to moving around. She came to the United States with her mother at age seven from St. Thomas in the Caribbean. They first tried Boston, but moved after several years to the Bronx when she was entering her teens. When asked about her father, she says that she's only spoken to him once, adding, "He's never been a part of my life."
Tanisha, now 21, graduated last year from NYU and currently is planning to pursue a master's degree in sociology. She lives alone in a small one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. Asked about her difficulties with ACS, her usually calm demeanor changes. She rattles off a list of grievances that starts with the agency's failure to comply with state laws that require that she receive money to live on and ends with her accusation that ACS owes her a $2800 housing subsidy and literally kicked her out of foster care when she finished college.
"On July 28, 1998, I ceased being a student and ceased being in ACS's care. I was out of ACS's care with no money, no health care, no job, and no home at 20 years old," says Tanisha. It angered her enough to take legal action against ACS.
Child care advocates argue that more is at stake than the few thousand dollars owed to Tanisha. The Door-a nonprofit organization offering legal services to young people in NYC-is currently handling three cases similar to Tanisha's. The three cases center on ACS's alleged failure to discharge young people-generally between 18 and 21 years old-from foster care with appropriate follow-up services. Two persons were discharged without the required 90-day notification and two were never given the aftercare services promised by ACS. In all three cases, kids weren't given the six-month trial discharge.
"If you have a young person in care for any period of time, you've assumed responsibility for them, regardless of whether they are nine or 19 years old," says Steven Jenkins, an attorney with the Door. "You should treat them like any other kid in foster care. They shouldn't be discharged to homeless shelters. They have a right to follow-up services, in accordance with state law."
The state Social Service Law was strengthened after a groundbreaking 1985 legal case in which several groups, including the Coalition for the Homeless, sued New York State, revealing that 2000 18-year-olds leaving foster care weren't prepared to live on their own. Tragically, one of the plaintiffs in the case, 19-year-old Reggie Brown, was murdered before the case was settled. Brown had spent most of his life in foster care and was homeless after he left the New York foster care system at age 18. A year later, he was shot in the back while living on the streets in Harlem.
Child care advocates say kids who age-out of foster care are on a fast track to homelessness. The Institute for Children and Families recently surveyed 400 homeless parents in New York City and found that 20 percent lived in foster care as children.
Last August, the Door won a New York Supreme Court case against ACS involving Mario Vassell, an 18-year-old released from foster care without follow-up services or support of any kind. Mario was shuffled through three group homes during his yearlong stay with ACS, moving between the Bronx and Queens before he was finally released to the Emergency Assistance Unit homeless shelter for families in the Bronx. Although ACS was ordered by the court to place Mario back into foster care, ACS officials say they couldn't find him.
"The irony of cases like Mario's and Tanisha's is that many kids aging out of foster care won't challenge their discharge either because they don't want to return to an overcrowded group home or they just don't know their rights," says Jenkins. Last year, more than 1300 aged out of foster care.
Since commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta was appointed by Mayor Giuliani three years ago, he has come under fire for pulling kids out of their parents' home prematurely and understaffing his agency. Most recently, based on a Children's Rights, Inc. study, The New York Times's Nina Bernstein reported that 36 abused or neglected children whom ACS identified and made "reports" on died, up from 30 in 1997.