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From Foster Care to Life in Prison

November 8, 2012 by  


By Karin Friedemann, TMO

Few children in the US are fully prepared for the responsibilities of adulthood by their eighteenth birthdays, even with the best of families. American young people generally spend their twenties in a state of limbo, searching for themselves as they complete their education and/or enter the workforce.

imagesJuveniles who have been placed in foster care face special challenges when they turn 18 because they must suddenly become responsible for managing their own lives. When kids “age out” of the system, they often end up returning to the unstable parental homes from which they were originally removed. The Boston Foundation conducted a study of the problem in 2008, and found that: 37 percent of former foster kids older than 18 had experienced homelessness; 54 percent were unemployed, and half of those with jobs worked fewer than 20 hours a week; 30 percent had been threatened or injured with a weapon; 25 percent had been arrested in the prior 12 months; and 11 percent reported being raped.” The study also showed that 39 percent reported being moved to 10 or more foster homes over the course of their lives, which resulted in a disruption of their education. 59 percent of the teens surveyed reported feeling “sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row.”

The government stops tracking young adults once they leave foster care, but independent studies have demonstrated that up to 20 percent of all prisoners in the nation are former foster children. A government database of National Youth in Transition is being compiled, but it will not be completed until 2016.

Steve Holt reports in Boston Magazine that “the New York-based group Children’s Rights is suing Massachusetts for violating the constitutional rights of children in its care. The class-action suit, expected to be heard in US District Court in Springfield early next year, was filed on behalf of six children the organization says have been “badly harmed” by abuse, neglect, and numerous placements while in the state’s foster care system. Connor B. v. Patrick also accuses the state of not adequately preparing adolescents in foster care for living independently as adults.”

Marie, a single mother overwhelmed with caring for her sick son lost her job, so her two children were temporarily removed from her home. When she finally got her children back, she learned that both of them “had been sexually abused over and over again” by the fourteen year old son of the foster mother.”

Former social worker Judy Andreas writes: “’Sendy was only two years old at the time,’ Marie cried to me. ‘Where was the foster mother? Why had Social Services snatched the children from my loving arms to put them in harms way?’”

Marcia Robinson Lowry, Children’s Rights’ executive director explains that “taxpayers are paying for a system that, rather than protecting children, is further contributing to damage that children have gotten already in a home environment.”

Former foster child Donald Rudolph, age 18, murdered three people including his mother and sister in Weymouth, Massachusetts last year. Donald had “spent the past two years moving between foster homes, his parents’ houses, and the street,” reports Boston Magazine. He had been arrested four times and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia within a year after he left foster care.

Donald had actually applied for continued assistance from the Department of Children and Families (DFC) but was automatically cut off after being incarcerated. Donald had the choice to reapply, but he did not do so.

“And with that, Massachusetts willfully cut ties with a man it knew was mentally ill and a threat to others,” writes Holt.

Donald’s mother reportedly told police he was off his medications and was out of control. Donald was arrested and pleaded guilty to burglary, dealing marijuana, and shooting a random woman with a pellet gun. On September 14, 2011, District Court Judge Diane Moriarty ordered him to receive mental health treatment, but no one was appointed to oversee his care. In October, he was arrested again for burglary, and was again set free, pending a November 29 court date.

On November 10, 2011, he murdered his family.

Donald’s surviving sister, Brittany Rudolph, who was away at college the night of the murders, says her brother’s years in foster car were filled with neglect and abuse. She says state officials missed clear signs that her brother needed continued intervention. “The way they handled it – the system,” she says, “they basically created a criminal.”

Donald is certainly not Massachusetts’ youngest murderer. Fourteen-year-old Ernest Watkins IV of Boston was charged on October 6, 2012 with the death of a 39-year-old man during a robbery, after stabbing him 37 times. Under state law, any juvenile charged with murder is automatically tried as an adult. He will likely receive life in prison. 

Such cases as this inspire discussions on how violent youth crime could be best prevented, whether by putting more resources into supervising troubled teenagers or by locking them up more swiftly to prevent them from committing worse crimes.

The flip side of the “tough on crime” approach of giving long prison terms to young murderers is that now the state faces increasing financial burdens from aging prisoners requiring medical care. James Ridgeway wrote an article in the Bay State Banner entitled “The Other Death Sentence: Aging and Dying in Prison,” about the experiences faced in prison by “men in various stages of bad health or terminal illness.”

He describes the last days of Lefty Gilday, “a minor league ballplayer turned ‘60s revolutionary, a convicted cop killer and target of one of the most famous manhunts in Massachusetts history.” Lefty was loved and respected by the other inmates, who came to him to settle disputes. When he became infirm, his friends helped him to the toilet and cleaned him up. Joe Labriola, 66, who was convicted of killing an FBI informant, used to help Lefty get some fresh air by wheeling his chair into the yard and sitting with his arm around Lefty to keep him from falling out.

Lefty was placed in isolation for throwing an empty milk carton at a prison guard, but Labriola snuck into Lefty’s cell one day and found stacks of unopened food containers. “Lefty said he couldn’t open the tabs to get at the food. The stench of piss and feces was overwhelming,” Ridgeway reports.

There are countless prisoners who are so old and sick they are bed-ridden, clad in adult diapers. Some of them have families who are willing to take them, but the government refuses the release of prisoners, who are well beyond the point of posing a threat to society. Many other prisoners, who committed violent crimes as teenagers decades ago, but who have worked hard to better themselves and whose parole board has recommended their release, remain imprisoned at our expense.

Funds are extremely limited for teens who need supervised help, yet funding seems to be unlimited for housing prisoners even until death. The amount of money spent on each life prisoner far exceeds what it would have cost to send each one to Harvard.

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