City's foster children should not be forgotten

December 01, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

Ray Winbush can spot them, even when they're as young as 7 or 8.

The Morgan State professor was speaking to an elementary school class in Philadelphia, when one boy kept acting out and got even more petulant when Winbush told him to sit down. When the students went around the room telling Winbush what they wanted to be when they grew up - the usual doctors and lawyers and such - the boy said angrily, "Policeman, so I can arrest you."

Later, he would ask their teacher, "Is that boy in foster care?"

He already knew the answer - and at least one solution for the bad day the boy was having, if not a more permanent one: "Come here," Winbush told the boy, enveloping him in a big hug and getting a smile out of him.

Winbush, who has long been concerned with the education of African-American youth - he is the author of the buzzed-about book, The Warrior Method: A Parents' Guide to Rearing Healthy Black Boys - said he began realizing that within that at-risk population, there was an even more vulnerable subset: the ones in foster care.

Winbush is a member of one of the two groups that have proposed starting charter schools in the city that would focus on Baltimore's foster children. The group he is with, Meridian Academy, is headed by a former city school principal and designed for middle school students, at least in its first year. The other group, Youth Barriers Removed Institute, would be for elementary students, and is the brainchild of a former group home case manager, Derrick Nixon.

Both are awaiting a decision from the school board, which is weighing 13 proposals for new charter schools and will decide later this month on which, if any, to approve.

Their proposals come at a time when it's becoming distressingly clear that there's a generation of lost kids in Baltimore who have been taken out of their homes - often for abuse or neglect - and have landed who knows where. Maybe they're in a foster or group home, maybe they're with relatives, maybe they've run away. Maybe they're going to school and maybe they're not, maybe someone cares, but maybe no one does, or at least no one capable of doing anything about it.

They've fallen through any number of the many cracks in an overburdened system, and the only time the rest of us notice is when they turn up in court, sullen-faced and charged with a serious crime.

This year, 21 people younger than 18 years old have been charged with murder. These are generally not kids from intact homes: There's Lataye S. King, the 16-year-old charged in the stabbing death of Nikki Edmonds last month near the North Avenue light rail stop; she previously lived in a foster home and had dropped out of school. There's Donavan T. White, the 17-year-old boy who was charged last week with the beating death in October of a man who was sleeping on a bench in West Baltimore; he had lived in a group home.

This rash of violent juvenile crimes has prompted State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy to order her staff to conduct a study of the backgrounds of these teenage defendants. She also plans to meet with officials from the schools, social services and police as part of the survey.

It's a start - it's obviously a problem bigger than any one agency.

"These are students with special needs, and you just know more needs to be done," said Staci Cannon, a former middle school principal who has proposed the Meridian Academy charter school.

She and others trying to create special schools for foster children are well-versed in the research that shows how badly, as a group, they do academically - they are more likely to be held back or not graduate at all, they score lower on standardized tests and have higher rates of absenteeism and truancy. And, no surprise, later in life, they're more likely to abuse drugs, be arrested, be imprisoned and be unemployed.

There are about 7,000 children in the city who are in what the city Department of Social Services calls "out of home" placements - they've been removed from their homes, often because of abuse or neglect, and sent to live with foster parents or in group homes. Baltimore has about 70 percent of the state's out-of-home children.

The idea of a special school for such kids is not without controversy. A "transition center" designed for a similar population of students by the Baltimore County school system drew opposition from child advocates who argued that such kids shouldn't be segregated from other students and the extra services they need should be provided by the regular schools.

But they're not, said Nixon, of the Youth Barriers Removed proposal. He has worked as a case manager at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School juvenile detention center and at group homes, and was frequently called to schools when they had a problem with one of the residents.

"What we have now is not working," he said.

As for the reluctance to segregate foster kids, well, it's happening anyway, he said.

"These kids are ostracized in the schools because they're in foster care," he said. "Let's put them together in one place; at least they have a bond."

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