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Matthew Fraidin

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Is D.C.'s Foster Care System Preparing Children for Homelessness?

Posted: 10/18/11 03:28 PM ET

This is what passes for good news in D.C. social services.

The District government is congratulating itself because Denise Gibson finally has a place to live. According to a story in the Washington Post, Gibson will be one of the first residents of the newly-redeveloped Mississippi Avenue Apartments, a subsidized-rent apartment complex. Gibson has been homeless for six years and, as D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham said, "this is really a way to move up."

Yeah, but...

Yeah, but... the Post also explains how Ms. Gibson came to be homeless: she was in the District's foster care system! Since leaving the cozy confines of D.C.'s Child and Family Services Agency six years ago, Ms. Gibson has been riding around the city through the night on buses, and sleeping in stairwells.

(Maybe you're thinking that D.K. had it worse? As you may recall, he's the youth who lived in a homeless shelter while still a ward of the city. That's pretty bad. But just wait: Ms. Gibson's story isn't quite told yet.)

After six years, the city is patting itself on the back for finding Ms. Gibson a place to live indoors. After six years moving from pillar to post, Ms. Gibson would be forgiven if it occurred to her that generosity delayed is generosity denied. (To be clear, Ms. Gibson appears to be quite grateful for her bounty, and there's no indication at all that she has cast a skeptical eye at the decay in this gift horse's mouth.)

But the real kicker is that in the meantime, after Ms. Gibson exited the city's foster care for the city's streets, the same city took her daughter, apparently for being homeless, and -- you guessed it -- put her in foster care!

Let's recap. When Ms. Gibson was a foster child, the city was legally responsible for her care. The city's responsibilities included preparing Gibson for adulthood, widely understood as a condition best experienced in a rental or owned residence, rather than on park benches and steel grates. As with all of the youth in D.C.'s custody, an iron curtain of confidentiality shields D.C.'s top-secret child welfare proceedings, so we'll never know whether CFSA's efforts on behalf of Ms. Gibson were vigorous or... not so vigorous.

Of course, vigorous or not, we know that CFSA's labors were not effective in helping Ms. Gibson face the world, because Gibson has wandered the streets during her entire adult life. She's not alone, sadly, and it's not new news; CFSA itself reported in 2008 that more than one-third of the youth who left foster care at 21 did so with "few or none of the supports and resources necessary... to ensure stable and sustainable independent living." In March 2011, Nadia Gold-Moritz of D.C.'s Young Women's Project testified at CFSA's D.C. Council oversight hearing that the agency's optimistically-titled Office of Youth Empowerment, responsible for helping teens in foster care plan for the future, "has been failing older youth for ten years." Pointed and plain-spoken, Gold-Moritz framed the issue clearly: "Housing is a major obstacle for youth aging out of care," she said, "the majority of whom end up couch surfing or homeless."

Then, after sending Ms. Gibson to live in nature, the city grew deeply concerned when she had a child. Oh, said the District. Oh, no. No indeed! We certainly can't allow a child to be homeless. So the city took homeless Ms. Gibson's homeless child away, apparently because they were homeless together.

Again, secret child welfare records mean that you and I will never be certain of the reason this family was shattered, and whether, perhaps, something simple -- like an apartment! like a bed in a homeless shelter! -- could have prevented that trauma. Court files would reveal whether CFSA tried to keep the mom and daughter together, or didn't, and if they did, why it didn't work. Transparency and accountability could help the agency and court learn from experience, and avoid yet another unnecessarily broken family, a D.C. epidemic. As U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan said in 2010, "not having the means to obtain affordable housing is hardly a good reason for families to be divided."

But taking homeless kids from their families because they're homeless is part of the CFSA routine; the agency itself reported that 35 District children were taken from their families in fiscal year 2010 primarily due to "inadequate housing." So instead of Ms. Gibson taking care of her daughter, the poor little girl is now in the care of the same city that cared for her mother... by sending her into the streets.

So what can we expect for Ms. Gibson's daughter, herself now at the mercy of the District's neglectful caretaking? Maybe, after she leaves CFSA's care and, like her mother, roams the city, seeking shelter from its storms, the District will open an apartment complex, promise her a slot, and congratulate itself for finding a home for her, too.