In Andrew's aftermath, troubled children of Dade County find things can get worse

September 18, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

MIAMI -- By the time foster children reach the safety of Joel Price's doorstep, they have endured just about every kind of horror that can haunt a child's sleep. Some have been beaten, others sexually assaulted. Some lost their parents to the stupor of crack addiction. Then there were those who were simply abandoned.

So by the time Hurricane Andrew blew in through Mrs. Price's windows last month, the six teen-age girls living there weren't inclined to be intimidated -- even when plywood came down on their shoulders from the collapsing roof, leaving them huddled for hours beneath fallen debris in the rain and shrieking wind.

It was the uncertainty afterward that scared them most, when it seemed that the devastation might force them to move.

"That was the biggest trauma for them," Mrs. Price said. "They were afraid they might be taken away. Even in the storm, I didn't see them that scared."

Such has been the case all over south Dade County, as Andrew's aftermath has created more disruption for thousands of already-troubled children while also stirring a wave of domestic violence that threatens thousands more.

There are about 2,000 foster children in Dade County, living in 801 homes. Andrew destroyed at least 65 of those homes and severely damaged another 120.

Then there are the 6,000 additional troubled children who are one step down the ladder of the foster care system. Those are the children in "protective supervision," most of them living with relatives after having been removed from their parents' houses or abandoned.

Meanwhile, the system built to take care of such problems, fragile and overextended to begin with, is now just as broken and splintered in its own way as some of the county's demolished homes.

"The hurricane belted us very hard," said Jim Towey, district administrator for the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. He and others say they don't know how long it will take to rebuild.

Just about all they do know is that there is little hope for emergency aid from the government. Although President Bush has showered the county with billions of dollars in pledged federal aid in this election year, neither he nor Congress offered a penny toward the $100 million that Florida officials say is needed for children and family programs such as abuse counseling, foster care and emergency day care.

But the greatest immediate needs may be psychological rather than financial.

"Some of them have had it very rough in life," Mrs. Price said of her charges, "and all they are looking for is someone to love them and be interested in them. If they feel that is threatened, then they get upset."

In addition to being a mother to six foster children, Mrs. Price runs a shelter home next door where four other girls shuttling through the foster care system were living.

That house also lost its roof in the storm, and county building inspectors condemned the property. They were about to do the same to Mrs. Price's home, which would have sent all 10 girls someplace else.

The urgency prompted the girls to take matters into their own hands. "They took hammers and nails to go right up on the roof and help patch it up," Mrs. Price said with a proud smile. "There were lots of busted fingers, but they didn't stop."

They now exist in conditions not much better than primitive. A gasoline-powered generator provides some electricity along with a lot of round-the-clock noise, and a rented camping trailer provides some extra shelter.

Eloise Jackson also found that the foster children in her home -- six girls, ages 9 through 15 -- bore up much better during the storm than they did later.

"For a while I thought I was going to have to go back to Georgia -- that's where my family is from," Ms. Jackson said, standing outside her gutted home. "That's the only time they cried. They would have had to go back to a temporary shelter."

So Ms. Jackson stayed, and they now live in two camping trailers parked beside her house.

The 27 children of the Baptist Home weren't so lucky. They had to move upstate for three weeks to another Baptist facility in Lakeland, Fla., although they returned to Miami last weekend.

"You take kids who have generally not had a lot of stability in life, and when you move them you know it's going to cause a certain amount of trauma," said James Soles, head of the Baptist Home.

Officials have yet to locate many of the 8,000 children in foster homes or protective supervision since the storm. It doesn't help xTC that only 44 social workers were assigned to keep tabs on all of them, especially when some of those workers have had to cope with losing their own homes.

"Many of the social workers have been so distressed that they've been unable to do their own work," said Ethel Gilman, a Tallahassee social worker coordinating a volunteer aid effort by the National Association of Social Workers.

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