By Anna Merlan
By Keegan Hamilton
By Albert Samaha
By Darwin BondGraham
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By Anna Merlan
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.
Jennifer Falk, press spokesperson for ACS, says many positive changes have occurred under Scoppetta's command. "We're very concerned that children aging out of the foster care system leave the system with the support to function on their own. We've made Independent Living (IL) programs a priority here," says Falk. The Independent Living programs Falk mentions are offered to kids in foster care when they reach 14. She says the IL staff has doubled to 40 in three years. They offer college counseling, mentoring, and SAT prep courses as well as increased training to 68 foster care contract agencies throughout the city. Falk says the workshops and instruction sessions teach the foster care agencies how to properly discharge the youth and how to inform them of housing subsidies.
But how effective are these programs when only 16 hours of IL classes per year are required? Falk says, "The 16 hours are the bare minimum. All this stuff-classes teaching kids how to balance a checkbook, to manage their finances, and to live on their own-goes above and beyond those requirements."
Although improvements have resulted from increasing the number of IL programs, advocates and former foster care kids argue that there are still serious problems with transitional services at ACS. Hank Orenstein, director of Child Planning and Advocacy Now (C-PLAN), an agency within the Public Advocate's office, says, "We've definitely had complaints about IL programs and the lack of planning." Since C-PLAN's start in 1996, they've received more than 200 complaints against ACS. While most of those criticisms stem from parents fighting ACS's decision to remove their children from their home, many charges come from kids like Tanisha who believe they were discharged without follow-up services.
Tanisha is currently waiting to have her case heard by the State Supreme Court. Since she is 21 years old, she has no chance of returning to foster care. But her lawyer, Michael Williams of the Door, argues he "wants to get her as close as she could be if she hadn't been discharged improperly from foster care."
As for Tanisha Richardson's alleged improper discharge, Falk responds, "A child can only stay in foster care after the age of 18 if they are enrolled in school or if they just cannot live on their own. We're talking about someone who is a graduate of NYU who studies abroad. This is not a destitute child."
"We have a legal and moral responsibility for these kids," says Falk. "But we also have a legal and moral responsibility to best spend the taxpayers' money where it best serves the kids who need it." Even though the NYC Family Court ruled last June-after a seven-month delay-that Tanisha is not eligible for the housing subsidy, she's confident she can win at the State Supreme Court. "I've had problems with ACS for years. Most kids take their lumps and walk away. ACS thinks they can do this because so many kids won't challenge it, but I'm challenging it."