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Juvenile Court Journal: Teens often left behind

First in an occasional series

Sunday, February 10, 2002

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Melody Carter was abandoned when she was one month shy of 11. Her mother knew that a preteen was hardly as darling as a newborn in a basket, so instead of dropping Melody on a doorstep, she left her on the stoop of an agency that couldn't reject her -- Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families.

Melody Carter enjoys her African-American poetry class at the University of Pittsburgh. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

More Juvenile Court Journal articles:

State law is helping families struggling with teen addiction (3/24/02)

'You go into respiratory failure and you don't care' (3/24/02)

Taking on truancy (4/14/02)

'Couch kid' teens leave their homes and parents to hang out with friends and relatives, sleeping on the sofa (6/9/02)

Custody termination can be a bitter process (8/4/02)

Caseworkers can make or break a family (10/13/02)

Family values:
Court, CYF show preference for reuniting families over foster care (11/17/02)

CYF has broad powers to take children; parents have to prove their innocence (12/8/02)

A little lie tears a girl from her dad (12/22/02)

Related articles:

Supermom counsels client from maternity bed (3/16/02)

Judge closes hearing on custody case for Bright children (5/14/02)

Father claims mother is anxious to sell their baby (5/21/02)

Father loses custody of infant mother talked about selling (5/25/02)

Panel presses for open hearings (5/31/02)

PG asks open custody hearing (6/26/02)

Judge orders county CYF office to return baby to father (6/27/02)

Mother denied custody of baby (7/11/02)

Foster parents allowed others to watch toddler who wandered (7/16/02)

Toddler who went AWOL to stay in new foster home (7/18/02)

Judge to decide whether to open or close custody hearing (7/27/02)

Grandmother gets tot taken in car theft (8/8/02)

Appeals court urged to open juvenile hearings (10/24/02)

Custody hearing closed for boy who was stabbed in the skull (11/1/02)

Major changes urged for state child welfare system (11/21/02)

Panel wants to open hearings (11/21/02)

Court: Juvenile hearings are open (2/28/03)

Closed juvenile hearings overturned (3/12/03)

Eight years, a dozen foster homes and her childhood behind her, Melody recounted that day with startling aplomb: "I cried and I got over it."

The situation is simple, she explains, "Certain people can be parents and some cannot."

Neither of hers was up to the task. Unfortunately, they're not that unusual. Parents increasingly are abandoning youngsters Melody's age and older. A couple hundred are deserted in Allegheny County every year. Adolescents are the fastest-growing group in foster care here and nationwide.

For these teens, an agency like CYF substitutes as mother and father. Much as government may try, it cannot wrap arms around a frightened teen. So these forced alliances rarely work well.

Sometimes the abandonment is the parents' fault, sometimes the children's; often they share the blame. The teen may be mentally ill, on drugs, violent, unruly, hopelessly truant. The parent may be mentally ill, on drugs, violent, chronically homeless, unwilling to cooperate with caseworkers.

Abandonment itself takes many forms. Sometimes it's absolute: The parent drops an adolescent off at a CYF office, then moves far away, never phoning, never providing a forwarding address. Sometimes a parent tearfully turns over a teen he can't handle, then visits faithfully.

Either way, more and more teens are growing up in group homes and "independent living" apartments. From 1998 to 1999, the most recent year for which national statistics are available, the number of teens in foster care rose more than the total number of children in care did. The total, 581,000 children, was up by 21,000. But the number of teens increased by 25,000.

Similarly, 10 years ago a third of Allegheny County youths in foster care in Allegheny County were teens. Now it's nearly half.

And a little more than half of them, about 500, have been in care for less than two years. So they're not the child welfare equivalent of lifers, youngsters who came in as infants and never got out. These days most little children are moved out of the system more quickly, either returned to reformed parents or adopted after a couple of years.

Teens are more troublesome. A parent, reformed or not, may refuse to take an adolescent home. And teens may refuse to be adopted.

There was no question of adoption with Melody. She loves her mother, and her mother loves her. She went back to her mother a couple of times over the years, but never for more than a few months.

Melody has it figured out now: "We get along when we are apart."

They remain a phone call away. "I can deal with her on the phone," Melody explained, "because I can hang up."

Now, at age 18, with the click of a receiver, it's Melody who can abandon her mother.

A two-way street

It all began when Melody and her mother argued at a fast food restaurant, Downtown.

Her mother put her on a bus and took her to the North Side office of CYF. "She told a caseworker to take me because we could not get along," Melody said.

She used to be angry about it. "I could not understand why my mother could not be a mother and everybody else's mother could."

But she has let the fury go and now talks benignly of her relationship with her mother and her ability to be a parent. "She just did not have the mental health or the patience," Melody says now.

CYF put Melody in foster care and went to court to get her officially declared dependent, which meant CYF could take custody of her because her parents couldn't care for or control her.

On any given day on which cases of abuse and neglect are heard in Allegheny County's juvenile court, half involve teens.

On Jan. 9, for example, two 15-year-olds found themselves in Common Pleas Judge Cheryl Allen's courtroom with caseworkers and lawyers but no parents. One was a 15-year-old whose parents had refused to take him home when he was released from a residential alcoholism rehabilitation center. The other was a girl whose mother couldn't be found. The teen had been placed in a group home in November when her mother told a caseworker she'd seriously hurt the girl if CYF didn't take her.

Also that day Allen reviewed the case of a 14-year-old girl deserted by her mother after she accused her stepfather and stepbrother of sexual abuse. Rather than kick out the accused abusers, the mother gave the girl to CYF. Later, Allen decided to keep in foster care the three teen-age daughters of a drug abuser who hadn't started treatment.

It goes the other way, too. Some parents abandon their teens out of desperation when they see no other option. On that same day in January, Allen saw several of those teens.

One was a 16-year-old placed in a group home after running away from her mother's house 14 times. Two were chronic truants, including a girl who'd skipped so many days last year, at age 13, that her mother was fined. Now she was skipping school again and refusing counseling. She slouched and smirked in court.

  Juvenile court judges grant reporter access

Nothing that day shocked Common Pleas Judge Cheryl Allen. To her, the stories were typical, not particularly startling or frightening, not even depressing.

A man jailed for assaulting his youngest child wants that boy and his other two children returned to him. A 17-year-old who smokes pot daily and wrecks cars frequently doesn't want to go into treatment. A depressed, mentally retarded girl with a venereal disease who runs away routinely begs the judge not to place her in a group home.

Allen heard 18 such cases. Two other juvenile court judges decided a similar number. It was Jan. 9, an ordinary day. For them. To me, it was extraordinary. Though I had covered issues concerning abused and neglected children for nearly a decade, I had no real idea what was going on in these courtrooms.

That's because state law forbids the public from attending the hearings. The official purpose of secret hearings is to protect the privacy of abusive parents and their victims. But it also blindfolds citizens to the trouble surrounding them in their own communities.

I asked Allegheny County's juvenile court judges to allow me into their courtrooms to provide the community with a window into this secret world. The state law mandating secrecy also gives judges discretion to open hearings to those with a proper interest. All six judges have decided public exposure may be good for this court.

Common Pleas Judge Eugene F. Scanlon Jr. explained his decision, "The people of our county and our state have a right to know what is going on."

Allen, who is the supervising judge for juvenile court, said she felt past exposure had helped the court. For example, after politicians, community leaders and reporters were paraded through the old, crowded, dilapidated juvenile building in Oakland, a new juvenile court was built.

After that experience, Allen was more inclined to open her courtroom doors. "I have nothing to hide," she said.

Over the next several months, in an occasional series called Juvenile Court Journal, the Post-Gazette will use this access to shed light on the people and issues at the heart of this once-secret system.

-- By Barbara White Stack


While not countenancing such behavior from teens, Allen is less than sympathetic to many parents: "They do not discipline them when they are little, then they bring them in here at 12 or 13 when they can't. They want us to take the kid and fix him, then send him back home."

There is a cost for parents, however, beyond the emotional toll of losing custody of a teen. A parent who is not impoverished will be charged some or all of the price the government must pay to keep the adolescent, which ranges from as little as $18 a day in foster care to as much as $163 a day in a group home.

Most parents hold onto their teens as long as they can, says Eleanor J. Grainy, an attorney with the Juvenile Court Project, which represents impoverished parents in juvenile court. But there's a breaking point. That may be when younger children mimic the teen's bad behavior, when the teen hurts a little sibling or when a district justice threatens to send a parent to jail for the teen's truancy.

Sometimes CYF can get relatives, such as grandmas and aunties, to take these teens. But often they end up in group homes.

Road to independence

Melody Carter was a less-than-sweet 15 when CYF moved her from foster care to her first group home. She says she left that foster home crying and breaking things.

But she did well at the group home and graduated a year later to the Ward Youth & Family Services' Supervised Independent Living Center in Wilkinsburg.

At Ward, girls live in apartments in a building with 24-hour supervision. They are given independent living courses, which essentially teach them the skills they need to survive on their own when they are adults -- at age 18, when neither their parents nor CYF will be caring for them.

Ward helped Melody attain her goals, guiding her in completing applications and meeting deadlines. She graduated from high school on time. She earned a full scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh. And she got a job and won a grant to help pay college expenses.

All adolescents in the child welfare system, whether in foster care or group homes, are offered independent living courses beginning at age 16. This is partially a result of studies that found that teens who left the child welfare system at age 18 did not fare well. They have low rates of high school graduation and employment, and high rates of homelessness and unwed pregnancy.

Now, in addition to independent living courses, child welfare agencies offer teens after-care programs to help them navigate life to age 21. Melody is enrolled in one offered by the Hill House Independent Living Program. These programs assist teens who need jobs or apartments, or, in the case of a college student such as Melody, a place to stay during holiday breaks from school.

Some teens reject this help. To them, it's one more person telling them what to do when they are tired of hearing it. To others, however, the program provides a caring adult to hold onto in good times and bad.

Karen Clark, coordinator of the Hill House program, is an anchor for many young people. In her office she posts pictures of teens she calls "my kids." They call her frequently, sometimes bragging about their accomplishments, sometimes begging for a place to stay.

Her program can teach them to cook, budget money and ride a bus, but what these youths really need is the safety net a family provides when a young person breaks a leg or loses a job. What these youngsters need most, says Clark, is love.

"If it were up to me, I would be the old lady in the shoe and keep them all with me," she said.

Somehow, Melody Carter got what she needed. The workers at Ward and Hill House brag about her achievements and her attitude.

"There is nothing I can do to change my childhood," Carter says. "But you can still succeed even though you don't have two parents, or even one parent."

Her case manager at Hill House, Sandy Washington, is trying to determine what it was that enabled Melody to overcome so much. "When I figure it out," she said, "I am going to bottle it and put it on the market because a lot of kids could use it. Last fall, Melody moved from her apartment at Ward to a dorm room at Pitt. She says it's much the same since she still has to sign in and out. She's trying to keep her grades up so she can keep her scholarship and trying to figure out what to major in, maybe pre-law, maybe education.

As she left a class last week, a student asked why a Post-Gazette photographer was following her. Had she saved someone's life or something?

She didn't reply.

But the answer is yes. She saved her own.

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