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No Birth Certificate, No Life

June 8, 2010 permalink

Some foster children age out of care without a legal identity. Lacking a birth certificate, they are denied most of the benefits of citizenship such as holding a job, getting into university or obtaining a drivers license or passport. Alternatives to a birth certificate exist, but are just about impossible to obtain without the cooperation of the legal parent, the child protection system.



No Birth Records = Tough Road Ahead When Aging Out of Foster Care

A lack of proper identification is a national phenomenon.

Dominque Freeman is one of the lucky ones. She is just completing her freshman year at Cal State Northridge, and she’s doing so with the help of a full academic scholarship. Even more importantly, she now has an identity.

Just a year ago, Freeman didn’t exist.

Unlike most U.S. citizens, she had no birth certificate, no social security number, and she’d just aged out of a foster care system that had determined that her case was closed.

Freeman entered into “the system,” as she calls it, just days after her birth. She was raised by her biological aunt who didn’t have the heart to tell her about her situation until she was about to “age out” at 18. Freeman had been accepted to college and when her financial aid advisor asked one simple question: “What’s your social security number?” Freeman said, “I asked my aunt and she was like ‘you don’t have one’. I’m thinking she’s joking and she gave me this long talk. I just started crying. I felt like my dreams were just shattered and it wasn’t even by my choice.”

person without birth certificate

Unfortunately, Freeman’s case isn’t that unusual. Lara Holtzman, managing attorney with the Alliance for Children’s Rights in Los Angeles, has handled about 40 similar cases in the past two years. At first, the cases took her by surprise. Holtzman said, “How is it possible? I thought it should be an obligation of the Court System and Children and Family Services to make sure a child had a birth certificate, but I was wrong.”

There are no reliable statistics or estimates of the number or proportion of youth in foster care who don’t have birth certificates or social security numbers. But, as Dominique Freeman discovered, those who lack them face daunting prospects. Securing her identity took some detective work on the part of the Alliance. There was no process established on how to get it done. According to Holtzman, in most of these cases the children are born outside of a hospital and they have no birth records.

That was the case with Freeman. She said, “I was taken to the hospital after [my birth], but they were so concerned about taking me from my birth mother they didn’t record my birth.” Like many young children in the foster care system, Freeman’s biological mother was on drugs. The priority for the social worker was her safety, not her identity, she said

Holtzman believes most foster parents have a tough time, as non-biological guardians, trying to establish the identity of the child in their care, and so they don’t. But in California there are two ways to get it done. Holtzman discovered a process called a “Delayed Registration of Birth.” Two people who witnessed the birth must sign documents asserting their presence and also show proof to the Department of Vital Records. But this takes months to process.

An alternative would require that an attorney get a court order acknowledging a persons “Fact of Birth.” Once the day and time of birth is determined, the Department of Vital Statistics has to create the birth certificate. But again proof is required. This can be challenging for someone in the foster care system with no connection to their biological family. And many who are unaware of these options move into adulthood without too many choices. The results are destructive.

A recent study by The Human Rights Watch, linked social ills like homelessness, illegal activity and drug abuse, to young people aging out of the system because they are unprepared to become functioning adults. The study titled “My So-Called Emancipation“, focuses on California. The state’s foster care system serves 65,000 children, and roughly 4,000 age out every year. Their research revealed that 90 percent of those emancipated young adults have no source of income; 65 percent don’t have a high school diploma; and 20 percent or more become homeless. The lack of proper identification is a huge obstacle to obtaining a job or renting an apartment.

But this problem has legs, and, although each state governs over their system that fosters these kids, a lack of proper identification is a national phenomenon. In Kansas City, Missouri, attorney Ian Losasso had to play detective to a client who had aged out of the system without a birth certificate. Losasso was able to discover his client’s birth certificate application in the cold storage of the hospital where he had been born 19 years earlier. “It was frustrating,” Losasso said. “I called downtown, I called the family court, I called to find out in what capacity he was represented by the state, and I don’t think we got that resolved. But our objective was accomplished.”

Losasso was able to get the birth application processes, but he also realized that young people in this situation need an advocate. Without Losasso’s intervention, his client, who recently got his drivers’ license, would still be “stuck”.

In New York, approximately 1,100 young people are discharged from the system. Unlike California and Missouri, New York releases young people once they turn 21, not 18. The Children’s Aid Society acts as advocate for those who’ve been fostered through the New York system and still lack what they need to transition fully into adulthood. According to the Society, about 20,000 of the 542,000 children in foster care nationwide are discharged to live on their own.

The Next Generation Center is part of the Society’s network in the Bronx. Lynne Echenberg, director of The Center, is an attorney who has represented foster youth aging out of the system, most without proper documentation. Echenberg oversees an extensive program run by social workers. They do intake evaluations to determine the needs of young people and help them get what they need, including vital documentation and life skills training.

The Center is there for young people up to the age of 24 as a transitional helpmate. Echenberg believes it’s necessary because so many of these youth are dealing with a myriad of devastating issues, including drug abuse and interrupted education. For decades now, policymakers have struggled to fill the cracks within the foster care system. Many have blamed those directly in charge of the children, the social worker. But there are more people involved in these children’s lives. “We’ve got judges and lawyers who are supposed to be looking out for kids,” Echenberg said. “In New York we’ve got a local system that’s in charge and delegates authorities to 45 different contract agencies that actually take custody of the kids. Then you’ve got case managers, and case planners. There are so many different players, I think that’s part of the problem—there isn’t a single person or entity that has responsibility.”

Organizations like The Generation Next Center try to be the safety net for foster youth who’ve come of age. But some believe it is still the government’s responsibility to ensure these young people are better prepared. In California, State Assemblyman Hector De La Torre sponsored a bill AB270, that would require regional governments to verify children in foster care have proper information, documents and services. For now, the bill remains stalled as a state budget crisis is demanding more cutbacks, not investment.

In the meantime, organizations like the Alliance for Children’s Rights and the Children’s Aid Society remain committed to helping children prove their existence to the states that have guardianship over them. And though the process has not been successful in every case, Dominique Freeman remains pleased with her results.

She has received a four year scholarship from The Serpentine Project, a foundation for youth transitioning out of foster care, which was founded by “Survivor” host Jeff Probst. She’s also received academic grants from Community Build, an organization in Los Angeles created by Congresswoman Maxine Waters.

Now Freeman’s future is bright. She said, “I felt like I was so far behind. Now it feels like I’m catching up.” Freeman looks forward to graduating in a few years with a degree in Psychology. In the future, she hopes to help foster youth like herself who, as she puts it, “just need someone to hear them out,” before they age out.

Source: The Defenders Online
A Civil Rights Blog
This is a NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund web site