LOS ANGELES — Many of the nearly 21,000 children in Los Angeles County’s foster care system are put on prescription drugs with no apparent explanation of why they need them.
That is a major concern both locally and across the country, according to U.S. Rep. Karen Bass and City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who co-hosteda roundtable discussion Sept. 21 at the Right Way Foundation in Leimert Park on the welfare of children in foster care and young adults leaving the foster care system
More than 100 current and former foster care youth and advocates attended the discussion to suggest alternatives to over-medication and ways to otherwise improve the lives of foster children.
Lee Jimenez, an actor in “Know How,” a feature film about the foster care system, directed by independent filmmaker Juan Carlos Piñeiro Escoriaza, said she was drugged as a foster child.
“Drugs are making kids like zombies, not stabilizing them,” she said. “Kids can’t understand what drugs are or why they are being put in their bodies. [The system should] do something to support [children] instead of putting medications in their bodies.”
Filmmaker Juan Carlos Piñeiro Escoriaza, left, who directed ‘Know How,’ a new film about the foster care system, talks at a roundtable discussion Sept. 21 at the Right Way Foundation in Leimert Park on the welfare of children in foster care. With him are Lee Jimenez, who acted and co-wrote ‘Know How;’ Rep. Karen Bass, and City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson. (Photo by Aonya McCruiston)
Foster parents also receive a bigger rate of reimbursement if their foster children are taking prescription drugs.
Bass said that worries her.
“Lots of people are making decisions that psychotropic drugs are needed — and with a financial incentive,” she said. “We need to financially support foster care parents without this being a small business.”
A study by the University of Chicago shed light on the educational, legal and socioeconomic problems prevalent among foster care youth.
The study found that a few years after children age out of foster care, only half will have a high school diploma or will have passed a general educational development (GED) test. Significantly fewer — 6 percent — will have completed a degree program.
Three of every four will be receiving public assistance and 60 percent will have been convicted of a crime.
Panelists emphasized the need to provide foster care support services using a comprehensive and long-term approach — one that is currently lacking in the real world.
“There is no push in D.C. to make the system do what it is supposed to do,” Bass said. “We have to have protests and marches, but it takes a great movement of people so the change will stick.”
Earlier this month, the state Legislature passed Assembly Bill 403, foster care reform legislation sponsored by the state Department of Social Services introduced by Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Santa Cruz.
The bill’s provisions include transitioning children from group homes into home-based family care with resource families which boosts the chances of more positive outcomes. The governor has until Oct. 11 to sign the bill.
According to Stone, California’s total foster care population was 60,000 in 2014. Three thousand of those youth were in group homes.
The county Department of Children and Family Services reported 20,708 youth in its system as of August.
Jennifer Rodriguez, Youth Law Center executive director, considers the experience children have in foster care the most pressing issue. As a former foster care child, she said, “at the end of the day, they need to feel that someone cares about them, they’re safe, someone believes they are capable and that someone loves them.”
“The most important safety net is having a relationship with someone and [knowing] that person is going to be there,” she added.
“People need a stable place and adults in their lives, so they don’t bounce from place to place,” he said. “They need to have someone for the long term.”
Bass said California Youth Connection, Rodriguez’s former employer, generated many of the issues and solutions that became law in California when she was a state legislator.
The National Foster Youth Institute, a grassroots nonprofit and the forum’s co-sponsor with the Right Way Foundation, plays that role for the 500,000 foster care youth nationwide.
Members of the audience stressed the importance of finding community after leaving the system, understanding their responsibilities as adults, and being treated as individuals.
Sydney Kamlager, a trustee with the Los Angeles Community College District, criticized what he called the “one-size-fits-all” approach to foster care.
“That sets kids up for failure,” she said.
Bass said state and federal elected officials are considering legislation to improve the lives of foster youth across the country.
“Congress just passed the Youth Normalization Act to assist children who are likely to remain in the system until age 18. The law will ensure that they have regular, ongoing opportunities to engage in age- or developmentally appropriate activities.”
Following the panel discussion, participants attended the South L.A. premier of Escoriaza’s “Know How.” Foster children wrote and acted in the film, which is based on their lives and experiences as current and former foster children.
“It’s a story of redemption in a broken system,” Escoriaza said. “I made the film because the system does not work and the human cost of its dysfunction is too great to ignore. The system needs to change.”
Niquana Clark’s life took a turn for the worse while she was in foster care. “Know How”helped the screenwriter and actor to blossom.
“When people used to ask me about my future, I would say ‘yeah, when I had a future.’ I stopped going to school, I was holding myself back. But through this experience, I got my life together, graduated high school, and I am in my first year of college.”
Foster youth and community allies in attendance pledged to continue organizing, building momentum and working with committed legislators to make the policies a reality.