Growing Up Baltimore-Foster Care Survivor Works To Make Life Better For Those In System
This article is written by Karen Hosler (2009-11-06).
BALTIMORE, MD (wypr) – “Do you have medical insurance? You and your baby?”
“So, make sure as soon as you can, you go apply for that.”
“Is there anything you need for him? Any bottles or anything like that? Like pampers?”
“So, I’ll send you some bottles, all right baby? And don’t you worry. We’re going to get you settled. And then we’ll go from there. I’m going to make sure you have what you need, okay?
That soothing voice, offering warmth and reassurance to the homeless teenage mother on the other end of the phone line, belongs to Shalita O’Neale. She knows all too well how painful it is to be suddenly cast adrift.
Shalita never knew her father; her mother was murdered when she was two. She lived eight years with an uncle who sexually abused her. The rest of her youth was spent bouncing around Maryland’s foster care system.
But she overcame the odds and prospered. Now 26, she runs a program that reaches out to children floundering in similar circumstances.
“I grew up in foster care, and I aged out when I was 21 years old, and going through that process, I remember how frustrating it was to kind of gather resources that I was going to need in order to be an adult, because I knew at 21, I would no longer get support. I was actually stubborn and headstrong, and I was asking questions, but for those of my peers who didn’t know how to be that way, they fell through the cracks, and they didn’t get the things they needed.”
The foster care system in Maryland acts as guardian for nearly 9,000 children. More than 5,000 of them live in Baltimore. The quality of Maryland’s care, particularly in the city, has been under fire for 25 years ever since Congress gave advocates the power to go to court if the treatment of foster children doesn’t meet federal standards.
A new generation of reformers appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley has focused on moving more quickly to remove children from dangerous situations and settle them as soon as possible into new homes that will be permanent. In Baltimore, the number of children in foster care dropped to 5,000 from more than 6,000 just in the past year. Social Services director Molly McGrath called that a strong sign of progress.
“So, we have more reunifications, more kids going into guardianship, and we for the first time since 2002 beat our adoption goal last year, 384 adoptions in the last fiscal year.”
McGrath and state officials have also has worked to insure that while children are in foster care as many as possible are placed with families instead of in group homes.
“And right now we have 81 percent of the children in foster care in Baltimore city living in a family setting, which we think is one of the most important things that we measure. That’s higher than any other jurisdiction in the state.”
Shalita O’Neale sees improvements. But she is most worried about what happens to children when they leave the foster care system. Statistics are hard to come by. The federal government only recently started requiring states to keep track of them. But Shalita estimates that 40 percent of people in jail were in foster care at some point in their lives, and that 25 percent of those who age-out of foster care at 21 are homeless.
“I mean, these youth they’re falling between the cracks. When they age out of foster care, they’re homeless they’re becoming homeless, or they get incarcerated. They’re having early pregnancies, and then those kids end up going back into foster care.”
Brenda Donald, Maryland secretary of Human Resources who oversees the foster care programs statewide, said she is trying to address the age-out problem through an initiative called Ready by 21.
“I’m very passionate about older children in foster care. We have about 40 percent of our youth in foster care are 16 and older. And we have tremendous resources and support we can provide to these young people so they can be ready by 21 to leave our system and have the support, the training, the education, all of which we can pay for, so they have a strong likelihood to be successful after they leave our system.”
Education aid was a key to Shalita’s success. She went from a foster home in Baltimore County to the University of Maryland at College Park. Her undergraduate tuition was waived and she got also got help through a private scholarship program for orphans. She’s now working on a masters’ degree.
But beating the odds takes something more than access to opportunities, she says.
“It’s about perspective. I got mad, and instead of me using my anger to do negative things I got mad, and wanted to use it as motivation to prove people wrong. Everybody ever told me I wasn’t gonna be nothing, and that I’m going to be like my momma, and I’m going to be like this I wanted to prove them wrong.”
Shalita says she is now trying to develop that gritty determination in the troubled youngsters who seek her help.
“These are my babies, you know, they’re calling, Miss Shalita,’ I’m like, and I’m only like two years older than you, why are you calling ‘Nope, nope, Miss Shalita, how you doing?’ Just to know that just by me doing what I’m doing, I’m helping them to see that there is something better. That they are superstars, and that they have so much potential, and they do matter. That to me if that’s all I do, that’s all I’m here for, I’m happy with it.”
If all she does is inspire a few more Shalita O’Neales, she will have made a terrific contribution.
I’m Karen Hosler, reporting in Baltimore and Annapolis, for 88.1, WYPR.
© Copyright 2009, wypr