Claudia Felder lives in Chino, Calif., with her parents. It's a
wholesome scene: nice house, three dogs and a parrot and happy family
You'd have no idea that the composed, cheerful, articulate young woman got off to a rough start in life.
spent much of her childhood in foster care, starting when she was 3
years old. She's 21 now, and has been living happily with her adoptive
family. But memories of an abusive past still haunt her.
this day, every now and then, I'll have a nightmare," Felder tells NPR's
Arun Rath. "It's my biological mom getting the crap beat out of her in a
motel room. She had long hair, but her face is always fuzzed out, so I
never remember what she looks like, I can't recall that."
Claudia Felder, 21, was in and out of the
U.S. foster care system for nearly 10 years before she found a permanent
family. Her difficult story ended happily, but that's not always the
case for the 400,000 kids in foster care in America.
After that incident, Felder entered the foster care system, where she spent the better part of the next 10 years.
says she remember the homes and some of the names of the parents from
when she first went into foster care. This is all she knew; always
moving, never knowing when she was going to leave.
This tumultuous life mirrors that of other children in the U.S. There are about in foster care in the U.S. — roughly the equivalent of .
Preventing their precarious home lives would be ideal, but the system
itself still needs help, according to those who work in and research
'All We Had'
was in foster care, she was not completely alone. Her sister was with
her, too. Felder's sister is three years younger than she, just a baby
at the time.
"I raised my little sister through foster care,"
she says. "That's all we had was each other. She was a baby, [but] that
still meant more to me than anything. Somebody I at least knew going
through all these other changes in my life."
And there were
plenty of changes. Felder says they were moving in-and-out of foster
homes, not knowing where they'd end up next or how long they'd have to
"I had about six foster homes, and all but one were
physically and sexually abusive," she says. "So I experienced it with my
biological parents and then five other homes. It was like an ongoing
When Felder was adopted, it seemed like the nightmare
would finally come to an end. By the age of 6, she had already been in
five foster homes. She says it was difficult to adjust to home life and
she got into trouble in school.
"I had a lot of trust issues [and] a lot of abandonment issues," she says.
four years in that house, Felder says the family wanted her out. At age
10, they sent her back into foster care. But she left alone; the family
wanted to keep her younger sister. It was devastating.
A Meter Of Society's Problems
Cris Beam, the author of the book To The End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care, says this is the sort of life cycle of kids in foster care.
get pulled from their home at five or six and a van will come to them
in the middle of the night, they'll take the kid, the kid is terrified,
and they'll be put with a stranger," Beam says. "Imagine being five
years old and suddenly being surrounded by strangers. They don't
understand what's happening."
Beam has spent years researching
foster care in America and is a foster parent herself. She says that all
too often, these bewildered children will act out in various ways that
can scare off ill-prepared foster parents who might otherwise adopt.
says that the problems foster kids face are so intractable because they
are also society's problems. She says it is impossible to address the
foster care problem without tackling broader issues of drug abuse,
domestic and sexual abuse, and poverty.
"They are a meter of
our social problems," Beam says. "[But] not just a meter of how child
welfare is failing or succeeding, they're a meter of how we are failing
or succeeding as a society."
Not Enough Families
Morales, the CEO of the Children's Bureau of Southern California, says
the U.S. needs to focus on how it's going to prevent this problem in the
"How do you reduce the situation so that you
don't have 140,000 reports going on in a year?" Morales says. "You try
to start very early with families ... prevention is ultimately the
direction we need to invest in."
While prevention may be the
key, Morales says there's still a crisis going on with Los Angeles
Foster Care. There just aren't enough homes to take in kids, and that
ongoing crisis in Los Angeles is one that reflects a national problem.
"The issue is, there are
," he says. "Not more than about five years ago, there were twice as
many homes. The children have no place to go when they come into the
care of the government or courts. Where do we put them?"
answer is institutions and group homes. These aren't the old orphanages
out of Charles Dickens, but according to Morales, the conditions in many
group homes can be just as bleak. With overcrowding, kids end up
sleeping in cots in adoption agencies; essentially office buildings
Most social workers agree that even the best group
home is no match for a real family, and it doesn't need to be a
traditional one. Morales says that only a family can give these kids the
kind of support they need.
"They're the final defenders of a
child's future by saying, 'Look, the family has failed them, the system
has failed them, and we're going to try to step in and be the last
solution to catch this child before they go off the cliff into
homelessness and jails,' " he says.
The Value Of A Home
her first adoption failed, Claudia Felder spent almost seven months in a
new foster home. She says it wasn't perfect, but it's where she met a
new social worker. Someone she could trust. They talked about what
"I remember talking about ... kids at school
talking about sleepovers. What are they? I've always wanted to have a
sleepover with a friend," Felder says. "The little things that a lot of
people take for granted, it's like the things that a lot of kids and
myself at that age longed for."
That social worker turned her life around, and eventually became Felder's mom.
"I always say, I'm a really bad foster parent, because once they
walk into the door, that's it, they're not leaving," says Kim Felder.
could have adopted without the added difficulty of the foster care
system, but says that she and her husband liked the challenge.
when Claudia would pull some of her things, you would get frustrated,"
Kim Felder says, "[but] then when they do the little amazing thing like
the first band concert or they graduate from high school, inside you're
saying, 'Oh my God, have you seen how far this child has come? Can you
see what they can do?' "
Kim and her husband have had that feeling over and over. They have eight kids, including Claudia — six of whom are adopted.
Felder's story has a happy ending, but that is not the story for a lot
of kids. Researcher Cris Beam says that for many older kids who don't
end up with families, cynicism sets in, and around 12 or 13 years old,
they decide to run out the clock and wait for emancipation. Once they
turn 18, they can go out on their own. Beam says being independent
without strong family support is dangerous.
"The reality is
they need someone to fall back on. They need parents when they're 20 or
23," Beam says. "Think about when you had your first heartbreak, your
first job loss, your first crush, your first crash, your first anything.
When kids hit any little stumble at all ... they need to have someone
they can call upon. What we really need to be finding for them are
Today, Claudia Felder does outreach work with foster kids, and she's trying to help them understand why they need that support.
"A lot of these kids are just like I was. They don't want to be adopted," Felder says. "You need to have somebody in your life."