Kiandra Finnie was 14, her mother turned the TV up loud in their Bronx apartment so the neighbors couldn’t hear the crying and gave Kiandra, five months pregnant, two options: get an abortion or go into foster care.
So Kiandra moved to Rosalie Hall, one of New York City’s four group homes for pregnant teens. She was lonely, frightened and angry, but also determined to be a good mother. She soon became friendly with three other residents, all of whom were due to deliver around the same time. The four girls picked baby names, compared their swelling bellies, and discussed, endlessly, where they hoped to end up living–they and their children together.
But when the teens gave birth, they and their infants had nowhere to go. Their caseworkers had not found any foster homes willing to take them in. Most group homes, meanwhile, can’t accommodate children. So the young women returned to Rosalie Hall. And their newborns, though perfectly healthy, remained in the hospital.
“Leaving her in the hospital,” Kiandra remembers, “that was painful. Being a new mom, you just want to go home with your baby and watch your baby while she’s sleeping in the crib.” Instead, her daughter, Keoni, was sleeping in a bassinet in Our Lady of Mercy Medical Center, as doctors and nurses walked in and out. Kiandra spent as much time as she could with Keoni, but each time she left she felt anxious and overwhelmed, not knowing who would be caring for Keoni or where and when they would live together.
After nearly three weeks of this, Kiandra’s social worker found a place for them to live. But it was in Brooklyn, over an hour away from Kiandra’s school, family, and her boyfriend, who wanted to help raise Keoni. Kiandra refused, until she learned that Keoni would remain in the hospital unless she went to Brooklyn.
“I felt trapped,” Kiandra remembers. “They’re telling me that if I don’t go someplace that I don’t want to go, they’re going to snatch my child from me, a child I haven’t gotten to really hold and spend time with.”
Kiandra and Keoni moved to Brooklyn the next day, leaving behind two of her three friends at Rosalie Hall–still waiting for a foster home, still without their children.
About 12,000 teenage girls gave birth last year in New York City. Some of those girls were among the 38,000 young people in the city’s foster care system–how many, no one knows, because the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) does not keep count. But staff at the private foster care agencies that help house teens do know that too many young mothers spend their vital first few weeks apart from their infants.
Nedda de Castro, who until recently was a social worker in the maternity ward of New York Hospital, has seen the predicament again and again: Young women in foster care give birth, then have no homes to bring their children to. “It would take one month, two months, sometimes three months to get a placement for a mother and baby,” says de Castro. Some infants were in the hospital for an entire year.
The waits have recently gotten shorter in recent years, dropping from an average of six weeks a couple of years ago; today, the wait is about two weeks. But New York’s foster care system continues to routinely separate teen mothers from their newborns. Social workers who work with teens in foster care say the delays squander a crucial opportunity to give teen moms in foster care-who have already been through abuse, neglect, poverty, and in many cases serious emotional problems–the running start they need to be responsible parents. “We’re really testing these kids and testing their endurance,” says Steve Parker, associate director of Rosalie Hall.
And so the very institution that is supposed to promote stable families finds itself in the awkward position of getting in the way, and even encouraging a history of family fragmentation to repeat itself. “On the one hand, we’re telling the young mothers we want them to be good parents,” says Elie Ward, executive director of Statewide Youth Advocacy. But, she observes, “we’re not giving them the option to learn how to do that. It’s the worst possible thing we could do to these girls, who have so much ambivalence about being parents in the first place.”
The first few weeks of a child’s life are instrumental in a new parent’s education, says Christopher Watson, coordinator of the Minnesota Infant Mental Health Project. When the two are separated, says Watson, “it’s not just the infant deprived of the parent; it’s the parent deprived of the parenting experience. They’re two strangers meeting.”
Some young mothers all but forget they’re parents. That’s how 16-year-old Gina Mikels felt when her son Tommy was born a year ago. “It was like, you go the hospital, you have a surgery, you return to your group home, and then life goes back to normal,” she says. “It’s like you aren’t really a mother.”
Gina didn’t think much about leaving Tommy in the hospital. Her group home was only blocks away, and besides, she wasn’t used to having a baby around. She returned to a busy school schedule, cheerleading practice and hanging out with friends. For six weeks, her time with Tommy was limited to a couple of hours after school and in the late evening, all of it in the hospital.
When they finally found a foster home, she was relieved but panicked. Gina realized that she had no idea what her son wanted when he cried, and he had no idea she was his mother. “He couldn’t tell me from the nurses,” she says quietly. “Your child doesn’t know you and you don’t know how to be a parent.”
Things once were worse for girls like Gina. Until the early 1990s, many young mothers and children were condemned to live apart for months or years by a quirk of state law: Teen moms could stay in foster care together with their infants, but only if they agreed to give legal custody of their children to the government. The arrangement meant that many infants stayed on in foster homes even after their young mothers grew too old to stay there, and mothers would have to fight in court to get them back. Living separately, they typically only spent a few hours a week together.
Under pressure from advocates for children, in 1993 New York State agreed to guarantee teen mothers legal custody of their kids. But the change failed to put an end to unnecessary separations. Social workers say that part of the problem is the bureaucracy endemic to the foster care system; at least two or three caseworkers must coordinate with each other and with the city’s placement office. Compounding the situation, an increasing number of young girls don’t arrive at a group home until they’re seven or eight months pregnant.
Recognizing that there still aren’t enough homes for teen moms and their infants, ACS has recently increased the number of group home slots for mothers and children, from 343 to 567. It has also encouraged the private agencies that place children in foster homes to recruit more households willing to take in a mother and her child.
But many of these girls have serious problems–particularly histories of emotional troubles and violence–that demand the kind of intensive supervision most homes can’t provide. (Just one group home, a 12-bed house in the Bronx, specializes in these problem cases.) Group homes frequently refuse to accept these teens and their infants; if a girl has a checkered case file, her caseworker must contact home after home until he or she can find one that will accept the pair. Many end up being sent to private foster homes, only to get kicked out from one after another.
“The girls are coming in with psychiatric histories, drug histories, violent backgrounds, and we’re not set up to deal with those types of kids,” says Mariam Sammons, director of residential services at Louise Wise Services. “The current beds available were not created for the current population.”
Opening new homes is also easier said than done. In June, Inwood House, which runs a residence for pregnant teens in Upper Manhattan, was authorized to open two group homes and recruit 25 new foster families for mothers and children. “That looks great on paper,” says executive director Gladys Carrion, “but it’s very difficult.” Inwood House tried to locate affordable spaces to buy or rent, but community resistance and the high cost of real estate are both obstacles. Recent reforms requiring that new homes be located in an assigned neighborhood have made the search even tougher.
But finding and retaining private foster homes for mothers and their children is not simple. Since June, Inwood House has opened 10 such foster homes, but it also lost perhaps seven existing ones, often because the foster parents burn out.
The girls burn out, too. Gina and Tommy just got moved to their fifth home this year. Their last foster parent thought that Gina didn’t watch out for her son, and that she talked back too much. Gina’s caseworker has told her that if she gets kicked out of one more home she will be put in a special home upstate for problem cases–and Tommy will stay in the foster home.
What does Gina think about going away? Of Tommy staying behind? She shrugs and rolls her eyes, which soon fill with tears. “I don’t care anymore,” she says, not even convincing herself.
Kendra Hurley is coeditor of Foster Care Youth United, a magazine written by and for teens in foster care.