In Your Corner: Kaua’i foster children speak up about school, future

In Hawai’i there are nearly 1,200  children in foster care a month. The number always changes because the goal is for them to return to their own families as soon as possible. In 2006 the average was 2,717 a month, so the numbers are going down, and more families are getting help and staying together.  About 65 to 70 a month are on Kaua‘i.

It’s a challenging job being a foster child. Aside from the trauma of having to be taken away from a difficult, but familiar family situation and placed in a strange new living environment, some foster children stated that they believe that they are misunderstood by the general public. They wanted a chance to speak up, and that is what the “Corner” is for.

I was invited to the March 9 meeting of the Hawai’i Foster Youth Coalition (HFYC), Kaua‘i Chapter. From their brochure I learned that there are chapters on the Big Island, Maui, Kaua’i and O‘ahu. Their slogan is “Pupukahi I Holomua,” or “Unite to Move Forward.”

The brochure explained that the HFYC is a youth-led organization (ages 14-24) that advocates for current and former foster youth in the state of Hawai’i. “We assist youth in the foster care system to see the endless path and possibilities for their lives. We allow youth to enjoy a productive present and successful future,” the brochure states. This is what they do for members:  

• Work readiness training

• Youth outreach and community service

• Legislator education

• Activities and events

• Training and workshops.

The day I was there, a member was sharing with the group her transition plan for the next few years of her life, as she would soon be 18, and would be under a somewhat different program.

It included going to Kaua‘i Community College, how she would get there, where she would live, what she was going to study and what she wanted to become, community service projects she wanted to participate in and more. She had received counseling and guidance from different sources, and she was sharp.

Then there was a general meeting where the group decided upon a future community service project they wanted to participate in, fundraising ideas, advocating for others and outreach. One young woman had to leave for her job, but I was able to ask the young people the big question: “How do you want the greater community to see you?” The answers given are all anonymous.

As a group they came up with, “We know how to hold our own in the world. We’ve had the normal experience of kids growing up, as well as our obstacles and challenges that made us learn to deal with different personalities and different values. We’ve learned to speak up for ourselves.”

One young man stated that he’d been in five different homes in six years, all with different ethnicities, and he said that he’d learned about cultural diversity, and to like all different kinds of foods, except for one that made him ill. But his foster family asked him what he liked, and they got it for him.

A young woman stated, “We work, go to school, learn. I’m a success story, the first in my family to go to college. I go to KCC and get help with tuition. I do community service. Look at me. I’m not letting what happened in the past hold me back.”

Some people feel that they are prejudged as foster kids, and they said, “We want to say to everyone, ‘Hear my story before you judge me. You can’t judge me because you don’t know me.’”

While some kids faced challenges in their foster families, another was very grateful. He stated, “I’m happy with my [two] foster homes. It’s better there than with my broken family. It’s better to be loved by a foster family than not be loved at all. It’s our choice of how we want to live and get past the challenges.”

The group wants to increase community awareness about foster children, and also be mentors to children who are newly facing the challenges that these members faced, and dealt with. “We are working hard to help others learn to make good decisions by learning from our experiences.”

The foster mother of the girl presenting her plan was there, and she was given permission to share with them that it’s not easy to become a foster parent.  It takes six weeks to get certified, and a family history is taken. The family and home must undergo an evaluation, as well. She does try to consider the wants of her foster kids.

Some of the children felt respected, and some didn’t. One girl who had been a foster child on the Mainland stated that she felt disrespected. She was made to go to church every day in a religion that wasn’t hers, and she wasn’t allowed to have any visitors.

I’d like to thank Lucy Douthitt, section administrator for the Department of Human Services Child Welfare Services, for the numbers of foster youth in Hawai’i and Kaua’i, and for showing me the Child Protective Service laws.

I thought that Kaua’i young people might like to know the ones particularly important to their rights.

Guiding principles for children in foster care. (a) The department or an authorized agency, as resource family or permanent custodian, shall abide by the following guiding principles and ensure that a child in foster care:

1. Lives in a safe and healthy home, free from physical, psychological, sexual and other abuse;

2. Has adequate: (a) food that is nutritious and healthy; (b) clothing; (c) medical care, dental and orthodontic services, and corrective vision care; and (D) mental health services;

3. Has supervised or unsupervised in-person, telephone or other forms of contact with the child’s parents and siblings while the child is in foster care, unless prohibited by court order;

4. Has in-person contact with the child’s assigned child protective services worker, guardian ad litem, and if applicable, the child’s probation officer;

5. Meets with the presiding judge in the child’s case;

6. Is enrolled in a comprehensive health insurance plan and, within 45 days of out-of-home placement, is provided with a comprehensive health assessment and treatment as recommended;

7. May freely exercise the child’s own religious beliefs, including the refusal to attend any religious activities and services;

8. Has a personal bank account and assistance in managing the child’s personal income consistent with the child’s age and development, unless safety or other concerns require otherwise;

9. Has the right to attend school and participate in appropriate extracurricular activities and, if the child is moved during a school year, has the right to complete the school year at the same school, if practicable; and

10. Beginning at age 12, is provided with age-appropriate life skills training and a transition plan for appropriately moving out of the foster care system, as well as written information concerning independent living programs, foster youth organizations, transitional planning services, and independent living case management programs that are available to all children in foster care who are 12 years of age or older and their resource families.

If they feel that there is a problem, they can go to their social worker or contact Hale ‘Opio at (808) 245-2873.

Here are some closing “principles, policies and objectives” from their brochure:

• Make it safe to be real by being a good listener.

• Be yourself.

• Lead by example. Younger youth in care are always watching.

• Be irie (Jamaican meaning: excellent, great, good quality).

• Build each other up.

• Forgive, especially yourself (you are what you hate).

• Treat others the way you want to be treated.

• We love and accept each other the way we are.

• Be understanding. We all have been hurt.

• Be present. Stop underachieving, stop wasting the potential life given you, have some pride.

Thanks to these wonderful foster kids for opening my eyes to their beauty. Thanks to all of those who work with them and love them. The fruits of your work are awesome. I believe that they will help us all become more compassionate.

• The  In Your Corner team comprises the leadership of the island’s government, court, police, education, family and social services communities. Contact Annaleah Atkinson with your questions or comments at aatkinson@haleopio.org.

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