Amid a system in chaos, a promise for Chris
By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Chris Congdon spent a glorious day in the park at the town's annual festival. There was a petting zoo, music and an arcade just for kids where they could win candy and trinkets for popping balloons with darts and tossing pennies into cups.
In the raffle, just before the fireworks, little Chris won a toy coveted by many a 5-year-old boy a remote-controlled car.
That evening, he took it to the back porch of his foster parents' home and smashed it.
No little pretend car crash, this was deliberate obliteration of an expensive toy. Plastic shards littered the concrete.
Chris had moved there that weekend. It was Memorial Day 1992. The crash gave the foster parents, Sue Luebbert and Christopher Hill, an inkling of what was ahead.
Luebbert would devote every minute of every day the next four months to this child who was not hers. He banged his head. He kicked and screamed. He tried to pull out his hair. In addition to wantonly destroying his own toys, he'd demolish those of playmates as well.
Luebbert was ever vigilant. "I panicked when I had to leave him out of my sight long enough to go to the bathroom. Showers were out of the question. It was like having a 2-year-old who could not be put in a playpen."
In those early days, she frequently had to physically restrain him, wrapping her arms around him in a technique taught by the specialized foster care agency that had placed Chris in her home. Each time, she'd have to report to the agency why she'd held him against his will until he calmed down.
Foster parents are permitted to restrain children only under certain circumstances, and they're absolutely prohibited from spanking, smacking, shaking or physically disciplining them in any other way.
Foster kids come from homes where they've been abused or neglected. That's part of the reason so many are so out of control. It wouldn't make sense to put them in new households where they'd be hurt again.
But what these children suffer at the hands of their parents doesn't fully explain their bizarre behavior or psychological scars.
They suffer also at the hands of the system the government child welfare system that is supposed to be their savior, their superman flying in to rescue them from violent or incompetent parents.
It occurs because the system is overwhelmed, underfunded and understaffed in every city, in every county, in every state. It's so bad in 20 locations that federal courts have seized control of the agencies.
Congress didn't want that. It had passed the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 to keep children from spending endless years in foster care. The legislation urged states to rehabilitate parents so children could be sent back home safely. If that failed, state agencies were to get the children new parents get them adopted.
Three years before that law passed, 502,000 children lived in foster care. The number began to drop even before the legislation took effect in 1980. By 1982, it was the smallest it would be in the century's final quarter 262,000. The following year, it began to rise again, and by last year, it was back above 500,000.
And the kids in foster care now come from families with problems that are tougher to resolve than before. Dads aren't an alternative placement anymore. They often can't be found. Parents aren't just alcoholics, they're also on crack. Moms aren't just addicted, they are also homeless and have AIDS.
Unlike Chris' car, the 1980 legislation wasn't deliberately destroyed. It was simply squashed by the weight of a half-million deeply troubled kids.
A lesson in patience
Chris was Luebbert's and Hill's first child, and like new parents everywhere, they had a lot of learning to do.
Luebbert, who had always been a good student, attended classes and read books about parenting. Soon she and Hill were surrounded by sticker charts rewarding Chris for goals met, tallies of points earned for good behavior, lists of consequences and rewards.
There were long talks about proper behavior, even after Chris was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and prescribed Ritalin to help him pay attention and control his impulses to do wild things.
Hard as she tried to be the perfect "Positive Parenting" practictioner, Luebbert confesses to some frustrated outbursts, more than she wanted, especially because of how they affected Chris. "He used to be terrified that yelling meant hitting. If I yelled, he used to jump back," Luebbert explains.
The closest Luebbert ever got to hitting was banging her fist on the counter. "He jumped across the room," Luebbert recalls guiltily. She didn't do it again.
One time that first summer Luebbert asked Chris to take the family's docile old dog outside for a walk. Minutes later, she found him throwing rocks at the pet.
Initially, Luebbert was shocked. She lectured and rescinded stickers and points. Later she asked Chris why he would do such a thing. He recounted a time when it had been done to him. An older boy had pelted him with rocks when he lived in McKeesport with his parents.
Like the rock throwing, many of the bizarre things that foster children do can be explained by what was done to them.
Holly van Gulden, a Minneapolis therapist and expert in adoption of foster kids, tells of a 4-year-old who feared her foster father's shoes.
Van Gulden learned that the little girl had been constantly kicked by her mother's boyfriend. The therapist urged the foster father to shed his shoes at the front door. Then the little girl warmed up to him.
Some other behavior is less easy to comprehend. Foster kids may cut themselves with knives, pull out their eyebrows, set fires, eat feces, run away repeatedly and ravage household appliances. "They should have vacuum cleaner salesmen at foster parent meetings," van Gulden says, because that's what foster kids universally seem to break first.
It's hard for a foster mother to love the kid who set her expensive Electrolux ablaze in the basement, but that's just the point, van Gulden says. These are deliberate efforts to prevent intimacy with foster parents. The children feel their parents, and earlier sets of foster parents, spurned them, and they don't want to let themselves love and be hurt again.
Unlike many foster children, Chris had no difficulty with love and quickly formed a strong attachment to Luebbert and Hill.
Luebbert says that is because Chris was always sure his parents Christine DiPerna and Frank Congdon adored him and his brother.
DiPerna is openly physically affectionate and recalls fondly tucking the boys into bed. Congdon talks of taking the boys everywhere because he and DiPerna wouldn't consider baby sitters.
But the parents had problems. DiPerna is mildly mentally retarded. Congdon has schizophrenia and serious health problems. They fought and split up frequently. They moved from household to household. Family today. Friends tomorrow. Public housing next week. Chris was bright and wild and drew his brother into trouble. DiPerna couldn't control them.
"The things these people did to their kids were done out of nothing more than not knowing any better," Luebbert says. "Neither were parented in a way that would have enabled them to learn adequate parenting skills."
The first time DiPerna lost her boys, she called Allegheny County's child welfare agency, Children and Youth Services, herself. She was living in a chaotic household with her alcoholic father, and there wasn't enough food. CYS placed the boys in foster care, and following the model of the 1980 legislation favoring family reunification, helped DiPerna get them back.
Chris was 2 then, and he bounced in and out several times before Luebbert and Hill got him when he was 5. National statistics show the typical foster child will be moved to three homes during three years in care.
Part of the reason foster kids are tossed around is they are hot potatoes angry, troubled and troublesome. Each move makes them worse.
What every child needs to thrive, experts say, is an enduring relationship with an adult who will consistently meet his daily needs: not just food, clothing and shelter, but love, hugs and affection as well. This is impossible when a child is moved frequently.
Foster children carry their pathetic worldly possessions from one home to the next in luggage by Hefty, says Gregory C. Keck, co-author of the book, "Adopting the Hurt Child." His foster son was in 35 homes before he got him. Each time, the boy became more sure he was worthless and unlovable.
Chris says the moves made him feel like a slave. No one asked what he wanted. No one cared what he thought. A caseworker he didn't know would pick him up and drag him to the next place. "I would be crying and screaming in the back of the car and she wouldn't even stop and talk to me," he remembers.
Caseworkers become so callous to these wails they must be ordered to do what any caring person would deem basic. Michael Wald's first directive when he took over San Francisco's child welfare agency in 1996 was that no caseworker pry a child's fingers from the door frame of his home until his security blanket or stuffed animal was placed in his arms.
Weighing the damage
Chris was lucky. He got foster parents willing to make an unusual commitment he could stay with them until he went home to his parents. To Luebbert and Hill it was a pledge as binding as their marital vows. Chris soon learned that Luebbert and Hill never break promises.
That first summer, Chris attended a day camp in Sewickley. One morning, when the campers were going on a field trip, Chris began asking Hill as soon as he climbed out of bed for the $2 he needed for the outing. Hill didn't want to hand it over immediately, knowing 5-year-olds have a way of losing money.
He promised Chris he would give it to him when they got to camp. But in the chaos of the congested parking lot, he forgot. As he arrived at work 20 minutes later, he remembered and sped back, handing Chris the $2 just before the bus pulled out of the lot. He kept his promise. That, Hill believes, is what fathers do.
Chris' brother wasn't as lucky. He got no promises. He was tossed out of three foster homes within a few months.
Rejection of foster children usually comes down to economics: Foster parents aren't paid enough to cover the emotional cost of caring for troubled kids.
Foster families in Allegheny County get $15 a day for most kids, $30 for children with special needs, children like Chris and his brother, who is mildly mentally retarded. A few states pay more; most pay less. For that kind of money, many foster families won't keep kids who break both hearts and household appliances.
These kids, the most disturbed, the most difficult, end up in group homes, modern-day orphanages, which cost about three times as much as family foster care about $50,000 a year per child.
That's where Chris' brother landed, and it tore his mother apart. Although CYS contended she could not give him what he needed, she was sure the group home would not.
"They don't love him," she said of the people the child called "staff." There's no mommy at a group home. There's no daddy.
"He needs love and attention. He doesn't get either one there. He told me he misses me kissing him goodnight," she said, crying.
Luebbert believes she's right. "There's a core inside that kid missing that one central figure."
For that reason, among others, psychologist Keck and law professor Martin Guggenheim believe more care should be taken before children are stripped from their birth parents. Guggenheim is director of a clinic that represents parents at the New York University School of Law.
Society is right, of course, to remove children from parents who break toddlers' legs or forget to feed infants. But Guggenheim believes too many of the 500,000 now in foster care were taken because of empty refrigerators or filthy houses.
These children yearn for their parents as they are passed from foster home to foster home like library books, and sometimes treated as shabbily. "We ignore this because we want to think taking them away from their evil parents is something good we have done as a society," Guggenheim explains.
He and Keck say they're not convinced that the most serious abuse occurs within the family. The system itself injures children.
A system in collapse
Chris spent most of his sixth birthday in a car.
Luebbert and Hill drove him nearly 200 miles on Dec. 4, 1992, so he could celebrate with his parents and brother. They drove from their home in Franklin Park to Beaver Falls, where Chris' older brother was living with a foster family, to McKeesport, where his parents had cake, ice cream and presents. Then they made the trip back.
This was in keeping with the spirit of the 1980 law that promoted efforts to reunite families. Luebbert and Hill saw this as their duty as foster parents. But they got little help from the child welfare agency and its caseworkers.
Chris' parents, DiPerna and Congdon, complain of the same thing. Their children had been placed in foster homes so far away that they had to spend hours on buses to visit. Neither has a driver's license, let alone a car.
They speak bitterly of a caseworker's rejection of their request for help in securing an apartment. To get their kids back, they needed appropriate housing. To get a two-bedroom public housing apartment, they needed their kids. They asked the caseworker to send a letter saying they had a chance to get their kids if they had a two-bedroom unit. The caseworker refused.
It wasn't supposed to be that way.
Madelyn Freundlish, now director of a national adoption research institute, was a caseworker in Louisiana just after the 1980 legislation was passed. She says it was an exciting time, when caseworkers were able to provide parents with services so their children could be returned and when agencies completed adoptions for children who had waited in foster care for years.
But then, as Allegheny County Judge Max Baer puts it, some evil scientist went into his basement and cooked up artificial cocaine crack cheap, ubiquitous and responsible for the dramatic jump in neglect cases in the past decade. At the same time, the Reagan administration cut back social service programs that had helped reunite families. And the percentage of children living in poverty steadily increased, making them more vulnerable to abuse or neglect. The majority of foster children come from families with incomes lower than $15,000 a year. Fewer than 1 percent are from families earning $30,000 or more.
There were too many problems, too many children. Instead of working with 15 families, as recommended by the American Public Welfare Association, social workers had 30, 50, even 100. There was no way to keep track of the families, let alone serve them. Caseworkers, nationwide, quit in disgust.
Courts were so overloaded that judges begged for reassignments and accepted caseworker reports handed in on paper they didn't see kids, they didn't meet parents.
And horrible things happened as a result. Children died, both those wrongly left with violent parents and those wrongly placed with volatile foster parents.
The child welfare system was collapsing.
Despite all that, Luebbert and Hill refused to give up on the premise of the 1980 legislation that the best place for a child was in the arms of the couple who had given him birth.
They arranged for Chris and his brother to go to Kennywood with their parents. They picked up the parents so they could attend Chris' open house at school. They brought Chris' older brother to their house on holidays so the boys could be together and the older one wouldn't have to spend Christmas and Easter in a group home.
And Chris, whom they found to be intrinsically likable, improved. He didn't have to be watched every second now. Their initial four months of vigilance had paid off.
Luebbert and Hill were determined to be the perfect foster parents. They would make it all work.