Everyone's Children 

Who will fight for those who cannot fight for themselves?

There are more than 11,000 children in the custody of the state of Tennessee today. Some of them are in foster care with the state or with private agencies, and it is sad to see them characterized as "Nobody's Children," as in the Flyer's recent cover story.

They are "Everyone's Children," and we know that they face enormous obstacles. When a child is removed from his or her home for whatever reason, the odds of success in adult life begin to diminish.

Six years ago, Youth Villages partnered with the state of Tennessee to design a new service model that helps to reduce the length of time children are in out-of-home placements. It also allows millions of dollars to be used for prevention and reunification efforts -- services for the entire family that give children a better chance for long-term success.

Private donations have also made a difference. A grant from the Day Foundation has allowed Youth Villages to begin a Transitional Living Program to help children who mature in state custody learn to live independently after age 18.

It is simply wrong to think that no one cares about these children. There are countless dedicated foster parents and counselors who work tirelessly. Many of these children have serious emotional and behavioral problems that would create extreme challenges for even the best parent. Those of us who have devoted our lives to this work know how difficult it is to re- shape the way a troubled child perceives himself and the world around him, to change his values and behavior.

Surprisingly, many of these children show amazing resiliency and are capable of beating the odds when they have help and support. In many cases, the key is a foster parent who refuses to give up.

Here is the story of two children and the woman who made a difference for them.

Cassandra, 14, had been in foster care for six years when she moved to another new home, a therapeutic setting to address her special needs. She didn't know what to expect from this new place. So she covered her head with her coat and sobbed.

Derrick, only a month old and classified as "medically fragile," entered the foster care system in tears, too. A moment of violent abuse had left him with a skull fracture, two broken arms and a broken leg.

Carolyn Kendrick, a therapeutic foster parent since 1995, opened her home to both Derrick and Cassandra. Derrick wasn't the first foster baby she nursed back to health. After months of her constant care, he went home to live permanently with his grandmother.

Cassandra was a special case. Kendrick saw in her a sweet, kind- hearted child who desperately needed the security of a real family. There will be no more uncertain moves for Cassandra. Kendrick adopted her and is now fostering two young girls and another medically fragile baby. Part of her job is helping them transition from foster to permanent homes.

We should work toward the day when no child will grow up in state custody, where help is provided for troubled birth-families before a child must be removed from the home, and where adoption is pursued earlier for children who have no viable birth-family options.

In the meantime, we need more people like Carolyn Kendrick, more people who will stop talking about the need to help troubled children and actually do something.

I hope that the recent media attention will nudge good-hearted people to action. Foster and adoptive parents for children with special needs are desperately needed. There are many organizations in our community that have a long history of doing good work for the children whose needs should be in everyone's heart. To help, call Youth Villages, the Tennessee Department of Children's Services, the SNAP program, or other organizations that reach out to at-risk children.

There are hundreds of children like Cassandra and Derrick. They are "Everyone's Children," and they need our help today.

Patrick W. Lawler is the administrator for Youth Villages.

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