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Strained Foster Care System A 'Meter Of Our Social Problems'

Claudia Felder lives in Chino, Calif., with her parents. It's a wholesome scene: nice house, three dogs and a parrot and happy family pictures everywhere.

You'd have no idea that the composed, cheerful, articulate young woman got off to a rough start in life.

Felder spent much of her childhood in foster care, starting when she was 3 years old. She's 21 now, and has been living happily with her adoptive family. But memories of an abusive past still haunt her.

"To this day, every now and then, I'll have a nightmare," Felder tells NPR's Arun Rath. "It's my biological mom getting the crap beat out of her in a motel room. She had long hair, but her face is always fuzzed out, so I never remember what she looks like, I can't recall that."

After that incident, Felder entered the foster care system, where she spent the better part of the next 10 years.

Felder says she remember the homes and some of the names of the parents from when she first went into foster care. This is all she knew; always moving, never knowing when she was going to leave.

This tumultuous life mirrors that of other children in the U.S. There are about 400,000 kids in foster care in the U.S. — roughly the equivalent of all of the kids in Chicago Public Schools. Preventing their precarious home lives would be ideal, but the system itself still needs help, according to those who work in and research foster care.

'All We Had'

When Felder was in foster care, she was not completely alone. Her sister was with her, too. Felder's sister is three years younger than she, just a baby at the time.

"I raised my little sister through foster care," she says. "That's all we had was each other. She was a baby, [but] that still meant more to me than anything. Somebody I at least knew going through all these other changes in my life."

And there were plenty of changes. Felder says they were moving in-and-out of foster homes, not knowing where they'd end up next or how long they'd have to stay.

"I had about six foster homes, and all but one were physically and sexually abusive," she says. "So I experienced it with my biological parents and then five other homes. It was like an ongoing thing."

When Felder was adopted, it seemed like the nightmare would finally come to an end. By the age of 6, she had already been in five foster homes. She says it was difficult to adjust to home life and she got into trouble in school.

"I had a lot of trust issues [and] a lot of abandonment issues," she says.

After four years in that house, Felder says the family wanted her out. At age 10, they sent her back into foster care. But she left alone; the family wanted to keep her younger sister. It was devastating.

A Meter Of Society's Problems

Cris Beam, the author of the book To The End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care, says this is the sort of life cycle of kids in foster care.

"They'll get pulled from their home at five or six and a van will come to them in the middle of the night, they'll take the kid, the kid is terrified, and they'll be put with a stranger," Beam says. "Imagine being five years old and suddenly being surrounded by strangers. They don't understand what's happening."

Beam has spent years researching foster care in America and is a foster parent herself. She says that all too often, these bewildered children will act out in various ways that can scare off ill-prepared foster parents who might otherwise adopt.

Beam says that the problems foster kids face are so intractable because they are also society's problems. She says it is impossible to address the foster care problem without tackling broader issues of drug abuse, domestic and sexual abuse, and poverty.

"They are a meter of our social problems," Beam says. "[But] not just a meter of how child welfare is failing or succeeding, they're a meter of how we are failing or succeeding as a society."

Not Enough Families

Alex Morales, the CEO of the Children's Bureau of Southern California, says the U.S. needs to focus on how it's going to prevent this problem in the first place.

"How do you reduce the situation so that you don't have 140,000 reports going on in a year?" Morales says. "You try to start very early with families ... prevention is ultimately the direction we need to invest in."

While prevention may be the key, Morales says there's still a crisis going on with Los Angeles Foster Care. There just aren't enough homes to take in kids, and that ongoing crisis in Los Angeles is one that reflects a national problem.

"The issue is, there are only about 3,000 foster homes," he says. "Not more than about five years ago, there were twice as many homes. The children have no place to go when they come into the care of the government or courts. Where do we put them?"

The answer is institutions and group homes. These aren't the old orphanages out of Charles Dickens, but according to Morales, the conditions in many group homes can be just as bleak. With overcrowding, kids end up sleeping in cots in adoption agencies; essentially office buildings become home.

Most social workers agree that even the best group home is no match for a real family, and it doesn't need to be a traditional one. Morales says that only a family can give these kids the kind of support they need.

"They're the final defenders of a child's future by saying, 'Look, the family has failed them, the system has failed them, and we're going to try to step in and be the last solution to catch this child before they go off the cliff into homelessness and jails,' " he says.

The Value Of A Home

After her first adoption failed, Claudia Felder spent almost seven months in a new foster home. She says it wasn't perfect, but it's where she met a new social worker. Someone she could trust. They talked about what Felder wanted.

"I remember talking about ... kids at school talking about sleepovers. What are they? I've always wanted to have a sleepover with a friend," Felder says. "The little things that a lot of people take for granted, it's like the things that a lot of kids and myself at that age longed for."

That social worker turned her life around, and eventually became Felder's mom.

"I always say, I'm a really bad foster parent, because once they walk into the door, that's it, they're not leaving," says Kim Felder.

She could have adopted without the added difficulty of the foster care system, but says that she and her husband liked the challenge.

"Even when Claudia would pull some of her things, you would get frustrated," Kim Felder says, "[but] then when they do the little amazing thing like the first band concert or they graduate from high school, inside you're saying, 'Oh my God, have you seen how far this child has come? Can you see what they can do?' "

Kim and her husband have had that feeling over and over. They have eight kids, including Claudia — six of whom are adopted.

Claudia Felder's story has a happy ending, but that is not the story for a lot of kids. Researcher Cris Beam says that for many older kids who don't end up with families, cynicism sets in, and around 12 or 13 years old, they decide to run out the clock and wait for emancipation. Once they turn 18, they can go out on their own. Beam says being independent without strong family support is dangerous.

"The reality is they need someone to fall back on. They need parents when they're 20 or 23," Beam says. "Think about when you had your first heartbreak, your first job loss, your first crush, your first crash, your first anything. When kids hit any little stumble at all ... they need to have someone they can call upon. What we really need to be finding for them are families."

Today, Claudia Felder does outreach work with foster kids, and she's trying to help them understand why they need that support.

"A lot of these kids are just like I was. They don't want to be adopted," Felder says. "You need to have somebody in your life."

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