Crystal Martinez’s possessions are more precious than the average teenager’s. The 18-year-old, who as a child was abused and neglected by her biological family, has not had a permanent home since entering foster care at 7.
Especially with teens, kids may enter foster care--or be moved from foster homes to institutional placements--because of alleged risk to property for the public. States create laws and rules to protect the possessions and property of foster parents, and to compensate them when their property is damaged or turns up missing.When she was sent to a San Antonio residential treatment center in July 2009, she had to leave almost everything she owned — books, stuffed animals and mementos jammed into boxes and shopping bags — with Texas Child Protective Services.
But when she went to claim them six months later, Ms. Martinez made a heartbreaking discovery: Most of what she had stored was gone.
The same regard does not hold for foster kids. Sometimes foster parents took away my son's things. An evangelical Christian couple objected to a book I gave him about the Supreme Court and took that; it was replaced by a Tim LaHaye rapture novel. A residential treatment center routinely emptied my son's room of his possessions as a disciplinary measure. I think the idea was to use the room as a seclusion method without having to put it on the books as seclusion or because the seclusion rooms were always full (there were ongoing seclusion and restraint issues). Many items, including Christmas gifts he'd never been allowed to use, vanished forever. Once a foster father had gone on a tear while my son was with me for a family funeral, checking my son's room for contraband. My son had learned the glories of hip-hop and rap from other foster youth (as a decidedly unpopular kid with geek parents, this was not in his listening repertoire pre-foster care), and they all had a few forbidden Dr. Dre and Eminem in their underwear drawers. The other boys' drawers were not searched that day. Besides hidden food (chips and candy bars), the foster father found my son's music stash. That night he gouged all 7 CD's with a fork. The rules for the placement were that if my son was upset about the foster home, I had to talk to the foster parents first. The foster father admitted what he had done. After a pause, he asked if I thought he had done the wrong thing. I told him about a contradband book my mother confiscated when I was 11--A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, which a neighbor had told her was not appropriate for a child to read. She didn't destroy it, she put it on the highest shelf in the living room bookcase. I found it a year later when I stood on a chair to dust the shelves. I snatched it to my chest, hid it under the mattress, and read in bed until nearly dawn. Then, when the foster care agency became involved, he--and they--denied it, while assuring me that what he had done was contrary to policy, which called for giving the items to his father and I to keep for him until he returned home. Then we could decide whether he should have them.
The music had been an ongoing issue for the foster father, who initially allowed the boys to buy whatever music they wanted. Later the foster father became squeamish about rap music. We had actually talked about this a few times. I reminisced about trying to get my dad to listen to my Jefferson Airplane album. I asked the foster father what he listened to when he was the boys' age. "Acid rock," he replied. He'd grown up with parents who were too busy drinking and fighting to pay much attention. My theory was that I wouldn't make a big deal about the music, but balance it with a diet of Bach and the Beatles. Anyway, what happened to the CD's wasn't about the music. The foster father was going through a lot of stress in his own family, while the agency had decided to waive restrictions on the number of special needs foster children placed there. Instead of one teenager, or a sibling pair, there were three. The oldest became a permanent placement. The middle acquired a history of serious criminal violence after returning home at 17, including a stabbing that sent him to prison at 18. My son was the youngest and smallest, and more than once the oldest would shove him or punch him, saying sotto voce, "Nobody saw it, so it didn't happen." He had also taught my son--10 at the time--to smoke pot from a bong.
When my son first entered care--suddenly and unexpectedly--I brought a bag of personal items to social services for him. Besides clothing and other necessities, the bag contained items I felt would help him link with home during those first weeks in a shelter facility (not a foster home) as a terrified 10-year-old. The bag languished in the caseworker's office for a week. Ever since then, I am incensed when I read about projects to provide foster children with teddy bears and fleece blankets--since, as we all know, they are routinely forced to flee the scene of their abuse with nothing but the clothing on their backs. That makes a better story, of course.
We gave our son a white gold ring, a match to the wedding rings his father and I wore, as a symbol of our unity as a family. His ring was stolen by a foster brother and lost. Other items he had--an mp3 player, toys--were also stolen by that foster brother. The foster parents in that home replaced the mp3 out of their own pockets. I knew the foster brother was very troubled (he was eventually institutionalized), I knew my son was entitled to the protection of his own possessions--but I also thought that the system should compensate my son the same way they officially compensate foster parents for property damage or loss by foster children. That compensation is enshrined in state laws. No laws exist to protect what belongs to foster children.