TWIN FALLS — A social worker pushed Baylee Brown to seek reconciliation with her biological mother.
The teenager thought it was too soon. She wasn’t ready.
When Baylee had been hospitalized as a high school freshman, child protection workers didn’t allow her to return home. Her mother and stepfather did drugs, she said, and her stepfather was abusive toward her younger sister.
But when the social worker insisted, Baylee poured her energy into writing a five-page letter to her mother, explaining how she was impacted by the events that sent her to the hospital.
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She wanted an apology. The response she received instead: All the family can do is move on.
Baylee, a 17-year-old Buhl High School senior, doesn’t have contact with her mother now. “I don’t want anything to do with her.”
Reunification with biological parents is the ultimate goal in Idaho’s foster care system. But when parents can’t pull their lives together enough to meet the state’s requirements, their children might be adopted or age out of the foster system. Even a child reunited with a biological parent faces special challenges, such as repairing broken relationships. And without extra guidance, any foster child might enter adulthood without the needed skills.
Whatever the outcome of parents’ neglect, abuse or drug habits, their children experience lasting consequences.
‘Tired of going to different homes’
Biological parents’ rights can be terminated quickly if there is an aggravating factor like physical or sexual abuse. Parental rights can also be terminated if parents fail to successfully complete Idaho Department of Health and Welfare case plans within about two years.
In those cases, kids need something more than temporary care.
Brenda Hoover, a family friend who fostered Baylee for three years, became her permanent guardian in October. It’s a relationship that developed for years.
Though they aren’t biological relatives, Baylee called Hoover her “aunt” even before being her foster child. “My whole life, she’s known me,” Baylee said.
“I promised Baylee in the very beginning,” Hoover said, “that I’d be on her side and fight for her 110 percent.”
As Baylee’s letter to her mother brought a disappointing response, Baylee was considering whether to stay in the Magic Valley or move to Washington to live with relatives.
“I just chose to stay because I was tired of going to different homes,” she said.
David and Amanda Coach of Twin Falls became foster parents in 2002 after struggling to have children. Their first foster children were two brothers, a 5-year-old and an infant.
“We just loved everything about it,” David said. “It was awesome.”
Over the years, they adopted 10 children, nine of whom they fostered first. The children now range in age from 12 to 28, and the Coaches’ experiences as foster parents inspired them to become social workers for Health and Welfare.
Some people have told the couple they’re crazy for adopting 10 children.
“It was meant to be,” David said.
The Coaches have five children under their roof now: two 12-year-old boys, two 13-year-old boys and a 24-year-old. Their 15-year-old daughter is living at Hope House in Marsing, which helps with behavior that wasn’t manageable at home, David said.
Even adoption can’t guarantee a smooth future.
‘I didn’t blame her’
Of the 176 south-central Idaho children exiting foster care in 2016, 123 were reunited with parents. But even for those children the challenges continue: forgiving a parent, adjusting to new household rules.
By law, children must be returned home when their biological parents reach a minimum safety threshold, said Ellen Leavitt, a Health and Welfare employee who handles foster parent licensing.
“Usually, that’s not to the standard that foster parents can do it,” she said. “It’s hard to let kids go back, and they feel like they could have done a better job.”
Here’s how Jerome foster mother Anne Sharp put it: “I would be lying if I always felt comfortable when they go home, but I get to see that they love their kids, and they mean the best. It’s not because they don’t love their kids; they have other things in the way.”
Dayne and Terri Mortensen of Jerome keep in touch with many of the 60 to 75 foster children who’ve come through their home. They even go to birthday parties and sports games.
“It’s really, really nice,” Terri said.
The Mortensens get attached. When it’s time for their foster children to be reunited with biological parents, Dayne said, “it’s like tearing a piece of your heart out.”
Occasionally, they take a month or two off from fostering to decompress after saying goodbye to a child.
It’s going to hurt and you’re going to experience loss, Terri said, but “you’re building a lifetime relationship with them.”
Twin Falls foster parent Tina Baker stays in touch with two children she and her husband fostered for five months. Now the children live with their biological family in Burley.
With a few children she has fostered, Baker didn’t agree with a judge’s decision to send them home. But even the other departures were difficult.
“It should break your heart when they leave,” she said.
Devon Larison, 18, entered foster care when he was 13; his father used drugs and was sent to prison. Five years later, Larison is back living with his father.
Larison was placed in two homes while in foster care — the first in Boise.
“I didn’t like Boise,” he said. “I was hanging out with the wrong people.”
Larison said he got into trouble and was sent to a group home. Then he transferred to live in Twin Falls with Susan Baca, a foster parent recruiter for Health and Welfare, for seven months. He liked that because it brought him back home and he got to see his father more.
“Just having someone you knew,” he said. “Having family there made it easy.”
Being reunited with his father is awkward sometimes, Larison said, because he’s not a child anymore but his father tries to set rules and curfews. But Larison said his childhood helped him become more compassionate and caring.
“We are more emotionally connected,” he said, despite his father’s absence from his teen years. “It was a difficult time. I feel more mature and knowledgeable about things like that.”
Amber Philippi went into foster care at 14. Now 16, Philippi was reunited with her mother in September.
Philippi said her mother was divorced, unemployed and depressed before she started using drugs.
“That’s when things started going downhill,” Philippi said. “I don’t want pity. I’m trying to show people even if you go down the wrong road they don’t always have to be down in the dumps.”
Philippi dropped out of high school as a sophomore but plans to attend Job Corps training.
She lived in a foster home in Hagerman with four other foster children for six months. She remembers getting into trouble a lot.
“As a kid, I was an only child,” she said. “I didn’t have rules.”
Philippi said she never hated her mom when she was in foster care — but told her mom it would take a long time to forgive her.
“I didn’t blame her,” she said. “Sometimes life is not all that great.”
‘Give these kids a little hope’
Foster children age out of the system when they turn 18. That brings big challenges: supporting themselves financially, paying for college, finding jobs, taking care of themselves.
If 18-year-olds are on track to finish high school, they can voluntarily sign themselves back into the foster system until they graduate. But many won’t.
And learning life skills is on hold when a family is in crisis.
“If we know the parents are not involved — let’s say dad is in prison, mom in the drug culture — the case plan is a lot different,” Twin Falls County Deputy Prosecutor Rose Emory said. “It focuses on longer-term placement, independent living skills, things like how to balance a checkbook. The worst thing is to age out of foster care and not know how to do anything.”
Youth who leave foster care are more likely than those in the general population to not finish high school, be unemployed and depend on public assistance, says Foster Club, a website dedicated to connecting former foster children with information and networking.
The site says many youth who age out of foster care find themselves in prison, homeless or parents at an early age.
Teenagers in the Independent Living Program of Magic Valley Youth and Adult Services are working to rewrite those statistics.
“They want to change the image of fostering teens,” Baca said. “The stereotypes are that they are troublemakers and you’ll be introducing that into your home. The reality is that they’ve had some trauma and they just need someone to help them work through that process. They are just like any other teen.”
The Independent Living Program’s motto: “Being an adult with some skills is scary but being an adult with no skills is scarier. It’s like riding a bike without a helmet.”
Enrolled youth need to be at least 15 and in foster care for a total of at least 90 days. The program can help until they are 21 — or 23 if they’re enrolled in school. They learn about maintaining employment, college preparation and scholarships, how to use community resources, how to obtain housing after turning 18, healthy relationships, and emergency and safety skills. During a recent visit to Boise State University, teens in the Magic Valley program met former foster children who are now students at the college.
Since joining the program, Larison has learned to write a cover letter and fill out a resume. He is taking GED classes and applying for jobs.
The sweet smell of syrup filled a Health and Welfare room March 22 in Twin Falls as two girls in the program made chocolate chip pancakes and blueberry pancakes on a griddle. A woman in a burgundy sweater poured syrup over a plate of pancakes.
“This is really, really nice,” she said. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” the girls said in unison.
March is Aging Out Month, and the two teens were holding a cooking demonstration while others manned booths to talk about aspects of the group such as volunteering or college preparation.
Amber answered questions for visitors near the community service booth. She joined the Independent Living Program to change peoples’ perspectives on foster children.
“People are so negative,” she said. “That just because we come from a bad background, they think that we’ll be just like our parents. I think sometimes they need to have a heart.”
Amber has also had a chance to mentor younger foster children through the program. At first, they were rowdy and didn’t listen well, but after a few weeks they started opening up.
“Some of the kids are sad,” she said. “I was always sad in foster care because I felt like no one knew what I was going through. No one would listen to me. I was sad. I was in a bad position. But once you give these kids a little hope — you tell them there is always good in the world.”
‘If I do social work’
Isaiah Palomo, 20, who entered the foster care system as a 13-year-old, started in the Independent Living Program during his junior year of high school and learned about budgeting and good nutrition.
“The independent living helped me get into my first semester of college,” he said.
Home life in Palomo’s teen years didn’t teach him budgeting and nutrition. When he was a high school sophomore, he and his siblings were reunited with their mother for six or eight months. They were removed again — this time, he said, due to his mother’s drug abuse. Finally, the family was reunited for good when Palomo was 16.
Palomo enrolled at the College of Southern Idaho to study social work in spring 2015 but dropped out. He wasn’t ready to be a college student.
He moved into an apartment with two roommates, but they ran into trouble paying bills. He asked for help from the Independent Living Program again.
Now he has lived in his own apartment for more than a year and has worked full time as a CSI cook for two years. Palomo stays in contact with his biological family and has relatives living a few blocks away.
Starting this month, Palomo will spend four months doing a Foster Club internship in Seaside, Ore. After that, they’ll call him for up to a year to do presentations nationwide about foster care.
He previously served in that role for part of a summer and traveled to places such Washington, D.C., and New York.
Baylee, meanwhile, is getting more plugged in at school and pushing toward her high school graduation. That’s a big change from the girl who pulled inside her shell when she first became a foster child.
“I stuck myself into a bedroom and didn’t want to come out,” Baylee said.
No longer. On a late-February afternoon, she had just finished a drama rehearsal at Buhl High School and walked in the snow with a friend to Buhl Public Library.
Her goal for the school year is good grades; she has mostly A’s. She’s also involved in Buhl High’s drama department, a bowling league and the school’s soccer and track teams.
Baylee’s senior project was a dodgeball tournament in early March. Instead of charging an admission fee, she asked attendees to bring new hygiene products and toys to donate. She planned to give the donations to Health and Welfare to distribute to foster families.
Hoover told Baylee she can pick whatever college she wants and doesn’t have to stay in the Magic Valley. After she graduates, Baylee plans a California trip to visit Disneyland and Universal Studios, then a summer in Oregon and Washington.
She turns 18 on July 22. Legally, she’ll be on her own.
She plans to live either with roommates in Twin Falls to attend CSI or with her biological father to attend North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene. She hopes to study either social work or criminal justice.
“If I do social work,” she said, “I’d be working with the foster kids.”
‘Help youth have a better time in care’
After their experiences in the foster care system, Baylee and Palomo want to pay it forward by advocating on behalf of current foster children and helping to recruit foster parents.
“I like to inspire people to be foster parents,” Baylee said.
Baylee, president of a local chapter of the Idaho Foster Youth Advisory Board, spoke at an Idaho foster parent panel in late February and has participated in a couple of local events.
“It brings tears to my eyes when she speaks at panels,” Hoover said.
Palomo, co-chairman of the Idaho Foster Youth Advisory Board, has been on the board for five years. He mentors foster youth, ages 15-18, through independent living classes and participates in panel discussions during foster parent trainings.
“To be able to help youth have a better time in care or transition is my focus,” he said.
Palomo would like to see transitional housing in south-central Idaho for foster youth who age out of the system and a sibling bill of rights to ensure communication when siblings are sent to different foster homes.
Another goal: helping foster families understand how to communicate with a child who’s lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
“That was something I dealt with in (the) system, but I never came out,” Palomo said.
And he wants to ensure there’s good communication between social workers and foster youth.
“That was something that lacked during my time in care,” Palomo said. “It was hard to feel safe and to feel my life was a priority. It was hard for me to advocate.”
Alex Riggins contributed to this report.