Middle schoolers rally against cuts to foster care funding
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY - There were approximately 600 middle school students packed into the gymnasium at St. Pius X High School March 11. It was nearly equal to the number of abused and neglected children for whom the six women sitting in the front row had provided foster homes over the last decade.
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
Nearly 600 middle school students rallied against proposed budge cuts in the Missouri foster care system on March 11. The students are learning Catholic social teaching in the "That's Not Fair" program, launched by the Bishop Sullivan Center.
The middle schoolers were there to tell the women - and a handful of state lawmakers - that they and the children are not alone.
Participating in "That's Not Fair," a program designed by Bishop Sullivan Center director Tom Turner to teach Catholic social teaching and apply it to a real world issue, the students told four state representatives and one state senator that proposals pending in Gov. Matt Blunt's budget to slice state support for foster families were "not fair."
Missouri has 11,000 children in its foster care system, and ranks 48th among 50 states in the support it provides to foster families, the students told the lawmakers. Each one of those foster children, they said, is a child of God who deserves the same chance at a good life that they have.
They also dropped nearly 5,000 letters of support, signed by adults from their host parishes on a table next to the lawmakers.
And they heard heartfelt thank-yous for raising the issue from foster mothers and from children who had gone through the state's foster care system.
Standing ramrod straight and wearing a crisp blue shirt and striped tie, 14-year-old Barron Richardson told the students and the lawmakers that he and his siblings were pulled from their home and their mother who abused drugs six years ago.
"I didn't feel frightened as much as insecure," Richardson said. "If I couldn't trust my own mother to take care of me, how could I trust a total stranger?"
Richardson said he got help, at state expense, at a treatment center where "they took the time to listen to how I felt."
He also said he lived in 13 different foster homes over the last six years before he was adopted permanently.
"We continue to learn and grow together," Richardson said of his adoptive family. "No child should have to feel helpless. Every child deserves to be in a stable home."
Toya Taylor, now in her early 20s, told the students and lawmakers that she grew up in the foster care group home system until she turned 21.
"Once you turn 21, the system just lets you go," she said. "When I got out of foster care, I didn't know how to do things a lot of people do" such as write a check, balance a checkbook, and find and hold a job.
"The reason is that there are a lot of kids in foster care and there aren't enough foster parents," Taylor said. "You need a mother to teach you how to be a woman and a father to teach you how to be a man. I've grown up, but it's been really hard."
Lori Ross, a foster mother who has cared for more than 400 children, told the middle-schoolers and the lawmakers that proposals to cut state spending on foster care will make it impossible for middle-class families like hers to become foster families.
She told the children that she has heard a lot of talk from lawmakers about how much they care for foster children, but has seen no action.
"I'm going to encourage you all to grow up and pay attention and elect people who really do care," Ross said. "And those people who say they care but really don't? We can tell them that we don't need their help any more and we can send them back to where they came from."
Answering questions posed by a three-student panel, each of the lawmakers acknowldeged that the state faces a serious problem with its foster care system.
Sen. Charles Shields, a St. Joseph Republican, said the state enacted legislation two years ago to reform the system in the wake of the death of two-year-old Dominick James of Springfield at the hands of an abusive foster father.
"You are just now seeing the effects of that legislation," Shields said. "The problems that you see will be fixed."
Another lawmaker, Rep. Susan Phillips, a Platte County Republican, told the children that the problem would be lessened if all the children in the room would take a "vow of abstinence" until they are married, and lead "morally upright lives."
"If you do that, and encourage all your friends to do that, we will have fewer children in foster care," Phillips said.
Rep. Cathy Jolly, a Kansas City Democrat, told the children that as a direct result of previous "That's Not Fair" rallies focusing on the foster care system, she has intregislation annually to begin a statewide advertising campaign and a telephone information system to recruit more foster families.
"I have sponsored this bill (House Bill 187) again this year because of these rallies that I have been to," Jolly said.
Jolly also told the students that she saw a two-year-old boy in foster care sick with the flu, and being cared for at Operation Breakthrough, a midtown day care center operated by Sisters of Charity Berta Sailer and Corrita Bussanmas.
"It made me cry to think this little boy didn't have a parent to take care of him when he was sick," Jolly said. "God bless you all for keeping this issue alive."
Rep. Kate Meiners, a Kansas City Democrat, also told the children to keep the state's foster care system in the spotlight.
"A lot of times as legislators, we lose focus on what is really important and we go down the wrong path," she said. "Would you continue to guide us to keep us on the right path to get solutions to the foster care system?"
"It seems totally obvious to me that we need to put more funding into the system. That should go without saying," said Rep. John Burnett, a Kansas City Democrat, who congratulated the students for speaking out on behalf of foster children.
"We allocate money based on the needs we hear," he said. "The one thing you can do is to speak out."
Following the rally, students assembled across the street at St. Patrick Parish for a Mass, celebrated by the pastor, Father Jerry Waris.
In his homily, Father Waris told the students that they are doing exactly what Jesus instructed his followers to do when they pick up the cause of the weakest and most vulnerable.
"You have been a great gift from the church in this diocese to those children who have no voice," Father Waris said. "This is about life. You put aside all your differences, and you worked together for life.
After Communion, foster mother Julie Ungashick once again thanked the students for making foster families feel heard and less alone.
"The children who have come to my house sometimes are little crack babies who shake," Ungashick said. "They need love. And they need your support.
"Thank you for working so hard," she said. "You give us the strength to carry on."
Diocesan schools represented at the rally this year were St. Patrick, St. Peter, St. Therese, St. Gabriel, Visitation, St. Stephen, St. Elizabeth, St. Thomas More and Holy Cross, all in Kansas City; Nativity of Mary and St. Ann, both in Independence; St. Francis Xavier and St. Patrick, both in St. Joseph; St. Charles Borromeo in Oakview; St. John LaLande in Blue Springs; and St. Gregory Barbarigo in Maryville.