Bella Watson Opinion Editor
Trigger Warning: Child abuse, foster care, self-harm
I was only 16-years-old when my mother left me at a BP gas station just north of 30th and Dodge. The man working handed me a phone charger, sent me to the bathroom and told me to call a ride. He knew that a 16-year-old-girl had no business being there at 3 a.m., but also that my mother was not coming back to get me.
It was this incident that landed me in the Nebraska foster care system. I had heard rumors that the system was broken, but nothing could have prepared me for the next three years.
While he was not on my birth certificate at the time, the state promptly placed me within the care of my father. While we did have off-and-on contact throughout my life, I had never lived with him. Doing this prevented them from having to pay anyone alimony to take care of me, and my case was quickly brushed beneath the rug.
At the time of entering the foster care system, I was on probation for drug and alcohol related charges. My supervisor had never followed through with any home visits, drug tests or check-ins, which allowed me to run the streets rampant. It is no secret that a vast majority of teenagers will dabble in alcohol, many of them may try marijuana, but the amount I was partying had far surpassed ‘normal.’
This behavior was only encouraged by my mother, who prior to losing parental rights, often supplied drugs and alcohol to me and my friends. Instead of being viewed as a victim of child abuse at the hand of a mother with addiction issues, I was quickly criminalized by my teachers, family and those who were supposed to be advocating for me. My probation officer verbally admitted to being suspicious that my mom was the root of my transgressions, but did not act on this.
Once I had entered the foster care system, my probation officer expeditiously began to follow protocol. I was enrolled in a weekly rehabilitation course, received bi-monthly drug tests and had an enforced curfew. It was not that he had a change of heart, but that he had feared repercussions now that the state was watching me closely.
As a child in the foster care system, I was assigned a case-worker, but the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has such an issue with staff turn-over that I had a new assigned worker at least every few months. The longest I ever worked with the same case worker was about eight months.
There was never consistency in any of our supervised meetings, which consisted of both of my parents, my father’s wife and a gaggle of state employees. The meetings were meant to promote growth as a family, but always ended in turmoil.
I do believe that my father was trying his best, but his care was far less than what the state said their standards were. The violence was seldom physical, but the emotional and verbal berating had reached a point to where I was genuinely contemplating taking my own life. When the violence was physical, it was in ways that never left a mark. My dad would scream profanities while throwing things at me, like bottles of laundry detergent, dishes or shoes — whatever was within his reach.
His anger was uncontrollable. I witnessed him consistently verbally abusing his wife, whom he had thrown a door at while she was pregnant with twins. One day, my father snapped worse than he ever had before. He tore my phone from my hand and smashed it into a trillion pieces as he screamed insults at me. I was often told how worthless I was, and how my accomplishments were never enough.
It was after this that I broke my silence and reached out to a case worker about the abuse I was experiencing. The woman I spoke to swore to me that she would not allow anyone to take me back to his house, and the weight of the world fell from my shoulders. Not long after, another state worker and two police officers entered the room I was sitting in. They told me that they knew I had lied about the situation, and that they would be taking me back to my dad’s.
After experiencing being gaslit time after time, I caught on to the fact that the Nebraska foster care system was not there to serve me. The intention was not to seek harbor for children, but to close cases as quickly as possible.
I prayed for so long that my situation was an anomaly and that I had somehow been pushed aside, but that other children were not experiencing the same treatment. This is far from the truth.
Jen Herting, a UNO alum, worked for PromiseShip and Saint Francis as a Permeance Specialist, meaning that she worked to reunify families after their children were placed into the system. Her main responsibility was overseeing children while they had controlled visitations with their parents.
“During my training I was encouraged to sympathize with the parents, because the abuse they received was ‘probably worse’ than what they were putting their kids through,” she said.
She said that the focus was not on the children, and that she would often feel empty after returning home from work.
“Parents were allowed to demand visitations whenever they wanted, and we had no power in terminating visits,” she said. “An example of this is nap time. We didn’t allow parents to visit during the kids’ scheduled nap times because we wanted them to have consistency, but then Saint Francis took that authority away from us.”
“I started to segue out of my career into preventative care, because I couldn’t stand to be involved in something like that.”
Jen Herting noted that poor pay, a lack of structure and poor management causes many workers to leave.
“I’ve seen parents get their children back on a whim because the child doesn’t have placement, but I have also seen parents fight tooth and nail for their kids back, they had been doing everything right, and they still couldn’t ever win.” said Herting about the lack of enforced consistency within the system.
Herting also mentioned that children were forced to reunify with their parents even if it was against their wishes, and that this was prevalent in physical abuse cases. Herting also pointed out that child care has become privatized, and that for-profit visitation companies put profits before the well-being of the children under their care.
“I left, because I couldn’t stand to be a part of something like that anymore.” Herting ended.
She spoke throughout the interview about the feeling of hopelessness she felt while working in children’s services, and that the job began to take a toll on her mental health.
The most terrifying part is that these children are being released to adults who are supposed to be defending them, but are using them for profit and treating them inhumanely. 80% of children in the foster care system experience mental health issues, compared to the 22% of nondisplaced youths. There is also little legislation that protects the rights of children who become wards of the state.
The foster care system is meant to rebuild the lives of children who have been put at a higher risk, but instead has become a source of trauma and pain for any child who enters. If a child ages out of the system, they are not then given the resources needed to exceed like a child with parents would, but instead are sent to fend for themselves. We have allowed capitalist ploys and inconsideration to cause excruciating pain to children, much of which leaves them with lifelong trauma. Until legislation and policy are put into place to protect these children, malpractice within the foster care system will continue to happen.