As a single mom, Mia Storm’s life revolves around her daughter, Lily, 3. Storm does everything she can to give Lily a stable life filled with love – something she missed out on as a child.
Storm, 32, is a product of Oregon’s foster care system, which she said left her unemployed, in debt and dependent on welfare as an adult. Though she maintains the semblance of a normal life for Lily, Storm struggles to make ends meet.
On a recent afternoon at her east Portland apartment, Storm plopped a heavy suitcase on her kitchen table.
With Lily playing in another room, Storm unzipped the suitcase and flipped the top open to show stacks of documents – thousands of pages of paper. It is her foster care case file.
Storm gently placed her hands on the paper trail that chronicles her tormented path of bouncing between foster homes, taking prescribed antipsychotic drugs she says she didn’t need, and suffering physical and sexual abuse while in state care.
This story is a collaboration between Oregon Public Broadcasting and the Salem Statesman Journal. Mia Storm told her story of life as a foster child to OPB’s Ryan Haas and the Statesman Journal’s Gordon Friedman after reading news reports of problems in the state’s foster care system. Her story illuminates both the continuing problems in the system and the state’s efforts to improve. Read the Statesman Journal package here.
Storm moved to her bed, where she sat cross legged and recounted her experience in foster care. Her mother, Penny Woods, sat at the kitchen table wearing a heavy-hearted expression and wiping away tears.
“The damage that the system did to me I will never recover from. I will never get back the last 14 years,” said Storm, who has strawberry blonde hair, blue eyes and freckles.
It’s too painful for her to read the documents — doing so triggers her post-traumatic stress disorder, which she said she developed while in foster care. Storm eventually tucks the suitcase under her bed, where it always sits just an arm’s length away.
“They treated me my whole life like, ‘You’re the problem,’ ” she said. “We could all sit here and we could all talk about how horrible that is. But, you know, I have a little girl now. I am a mother now. And when she throws a fit you know what I don’t do? I don’t look at my 3-year-old and say, ‘You’re mentally ill.’”
Storm’s story was pieced together after interviews spanning several months. She allowed access to the suitcase containing her case file, documents which were not meant for public release.
Case files are kept secret by state public records laws, making an evaluation of tens or hundreds of foster care stories nearly impossible. Storm said she came forward to the Statesman Journal and Oregon Public Broadcasting after reading recent news reports about foster care.
During the past 25 years, Oregon’s foster care system has in many ways confronted and reduced the abuses that plagued Storm. But the state also missed opportunities to enact lasting reforms.
Last week, auditors released a report showing that things have been getting worse — rates of child abuse in Oregon’s foster care system have climbed to nearly twice the nationwide rate in recent years.
Chapter 1: Leaving Home
Mia Storm entered foster care in 1988, when Woods gave her up to the state, along with her older brother. She was 4 years old.
At the time, Woods was depressed and suicidal following a rocky divorce, an injury and apartment break-ins.
Woods was also afraid for her children, whom she said suffered sexual abuse at the hands of their paternal grandfather. Their father was an alcoholic and absent, Woods said. She had also been using methamphetamine, according to a psychiatrist’s evaluation.
In retrospect, Woods said, sending her kids to foster care was the worst decision she ever made.
After a year, four foster homes and little therapy, Storm returned home to live with her mother, who had gotten clean but was still struggling with depression. The reunification was short lived. Woods backhanded Storm after a tantrum, which left a cut on the child’s face.
“At that point I said, ‘This cannot happen. I cannot hurt my children like this,’ ” Woods said.
Storm would soon go back to foster care, never to live at home again.
Chapter 2: Pharmaceutical Measures
Two years later, Storm was living with her seventh set of foster parents. It was then that she would get her first prescription from a psychiatrist working for the state: Ritalin, a stimulant often prescribed for hyperactivity.
A psych evaluation said if Storm continued acting out, the state should consider prescribing lithium for the 7-year-old to quell her aggressive and impulsive behavior. Lithium is most often prescribed to treat bipolar disorder.
The evaluations noted that although Storm had a family history of bipolar disorder, she had no definitive signs of the condition. What’s more, the psychiatrists wrote, it was impossible to know if Storm’s behavior was caused by abuse or an underlying medical problem.
At the time, she was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiance disorder.
Storm admits that she was no easy child. Documents in her case file describe her as prone to tantrums and screaming, hyperactivity, aggressive and sometimes sexually inappropriate behavior.
Storm said she was acting as any traumatized child might. As stability became elusive and new foster homes more common, she fed her desire for attention with bad behavior.
That summer, she said, she was abused by foster parents who locked her in a room for hours and punched her in the face.
“What kind of person would be OK in that environment?” Storm said.
State investigators confirmed the abuse. Yet Storm said Department of Human Services officials subsequently stopped investigating her claims of mistreatment for reasons that are unclear.
Storm’s case file shows no trace that investigators looked into later abuse accusations. Some documents may be missing. Others are partial and have had sections covered in permanent marker or cut out with scissors. (Storm said she received the documents this way from DHS.) Still, there is a noticeable gap where documents should be present.
Storm’s caseworker responded that the family was “rigid,” but wrote that Storm tricked the psychologist into believing her foster family was worse than it was.
“We all agreed (Storm) … should not be listened to as far as her manipulations and further attempts at triangulation,” the caseworker wrote about the 7-year-old.
When the school said it would discontinue treatment for Storm unless DHS found a less abusive placement, the second-grader was moved to a new school.
Despite it all, documents show Storm continued to do well in school and demonstrated potential. Psych evaluations and court records describe Storm as a voracious reader and beyond her years in language skills and raw intelligence.
Today, hundreds of textbooks line her one-bedroom apartment, ranging in subject from pathophysiology to microbiology, genetics and the literature of Dante. Storm said that as a child, she dreamed of becoming a doctor.
Chapter 3: There’s A Pill For That
Each birthday seemed to come with another medication to make Storm “right,” or at least easy for foster parents to manage. At the time, medications were prescribed at the behest of foster parents and caseworkers.
From second through fifth grade there were also new diagnoses: Post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and more.
After Ritalin came the antidepressant Imipramine. Research has shown tricyclic antidepressants such as Imipramine can be dangerous for children because side effects can be severe and an overdose easily fatal.
Tricyclic antidepressants should be used with kids as a measure of last resort, said Dr. Ajit Jetmalani, director of child and adolescent psychology at Oregon Health & Science University.
Steve McCrea, a Court Appointed Special Advocate coordinator for Multnomah County, said the effects of these drugs on children haven’t been studied enough, especially when stimulants are taken with antipsychotics.
Jetmalani and McCrea did not review Storm’s case file for this story, and both said use of psychiatric medications by foster children can be appropriate.
As Storm got older, other medications followed.
She was taken off Imipramine and put on another tricyclic antidepressant, given lithium three times daily, put back on Imipramine — with an increased dosage — then anti-anxiety medication Zoloft, and back on Ritalin. Later came antipsychotics Risperdal, Depakote, Zyprexa and Trilafon, and Clonazepam, a sedative.
In her teens, Storm was taking three antipsychotics at once. Today, Storm said, she has PTSD but maintains that she never had bipolar disorder and she does not take antipsychotics.
At the time, there was less oversight on how prescriptions were given to foster children. Today, DHS managers must consent to putting a child on antipsychotic medications.
The medications can cause weight gain, and the 5-foot-4 Storm said she gained 100 pounds within a year of being put on antipsychotics. She hasn’t lost the weight since.
“My body is a scar for me, every stretch mark, every roll,” she said. The pills also changed her ability to think.
“My mind felt fuzzy. I don’t remember having opinions,” she said.
Jetmalani, the OSHU psychologist, said that in the past, bipolar disorder was over-diagnosed in children as bad behavior was treated as a symptom of bipolar disorder.
DHS has since curtailed use of antipsychotic medication among foster kids, especially those 6 or younger. In 2015, fewer than 10 percent of foster kids were on antipsychotics, down from nearly 20 percent a decade ago. It’s still more than double the rate of prescription for kids outside the system.
Chapter 4: Hope Of Family Fades
Storm was never adopted because she would have problems attaching to a family, “if a family could even be identified,” according to a 1993 case plan signed by DHS supervisors.
Yet in 1992, Storm’s first foster family said they wanted to adopt her.
“We just want there to be some record of the fact that we are out there and we love (Mia) and we would love to have her as a part of our family,” a memo to DHS from the family read.
The adoption fell through because of the family’s marital problems, and although other families expressed interest in adoption, a juvenile court ruled out that option, citing Storm’s attachment to her birth family.
For a child who went through 17 foster homes, a veritable pharmacy of medications and survived abuse, it would be almost inconceivable that things could get worse.
But they did.
Storm was sent to group homes, including Give Us This Day and Christie School. Both programs have been shut down by DHS in the past year because of abuse.
Storm said she recalled an incident at Christie School that followed an accident where she broke her arm while roller skating. She was 12 years old, and as staff pinned her to the floor for acting out, her healing arm was forcibly straightened, she said.
“I just remember it hurt really bad,” she said through tears. “After that, I don’t even remember being emotionally present for the rest of my time at Christie School. I think at that point I was pretty much submissive.”
One foster child Storm met at Christie School was Alexandria Ison. Years later, as a 17-year-old transient who had turned to drugs and prostitution, Ison was brutally murdered in Portland by Todd Allen Reed, the Forest Park serial killer.
“Alex’s death is symbolic for me,” Storm said. “It’s what I could have been if I hadn’t fought so hard to stay alive.”
Chapter 5: Emancipation
Into her teens, the toll of the moves, abuse, and pills boiled up into dangerous desperation.
While staying at yet another group home, a 16-year-old Storm grabbed a knife and threatened suicide. She was taking two antipsychotics at the time. Storm said the incident was “trying to get someone to give a damn.”
She was taken to a psychiatric hospital and discharged after five days with more antipsychotics and a new lithium prescription.
Eventually, a caseworker named Kay DeLay took an interest in Storm after she found her sleeping at a DHS office.
In 2001, at age 17, DeLay got Storm into an apartment living program so she could gain independence and stop taking medication. Strorm credits the independent living program with helping her to see a future beyond foster care.
But before she turned 18, Storm met with DHS officials overseeing her case. They wanted to keep her in foster care until she was 21 and put her back on medication. Storm walked out of the meeting.
Supervisors then ordered Storm to a psych ward for an evaluation. DeLay said she tricked Storm into going by telling her they needed to meet so she could deliver her rent check. When they did, Storm said, she was taken in, made to strip and force-fed medication.
“I was so broken,” she said.
DeLay regrets the deception.
“It’s one of the things I feel worst about in my time as a caseworker,” DeLay said. “In fact, it may be one of the worst things I’ve done in my whole life.”
Storm likens the incident to kidnapping.
“After that it’s a blur. I really hated them,” she said of DHS workers. “I was scared of them, and it was just me trying to keep breathing until my 18th birthday when they couldn’t touch me anymore.”
Emancipation came Feb. 1, 2002.
Chapter 6: Guiding Her Own Future
Storm, who had managed to excel at school, moved and enrolled in community college to study science.
“Science and math are the things in the world that I cling to when everything else is bad. That’s my home, my soul,” she said.
She transferred to the University of Oregon, but anxiety related to her PTSD and limited resources made it difficult to succeed, she said.
After years of taking classes, she dropped out with more than $60,000 in student loan debt.
In the years that followed, she stayed away from drugs and crime, unlike many former foster youths.
She now thinks of the life she can provide for Lily. Storm said she had trouble attaching to Lily when she was born, but now the two are inseparable and Storm credits Lily’s birth with helping to keep her aspiring for better things.
Storm is teaching herself computer coding and hopes to land a job that will get her off welfare. She and her mother are slowly rebuilding a relationship.
As a bubbly Lily returns home from day care one afternoon, she’s greeted by Storm with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Lily is eager to show off her make-believe kitchen set, book collection and a stuffed snake, her favorite animal. Storm and Lily laugh and hug as they play, with Woods sitting nearby, smiling.
Yet harmony on the surface belies the darkness lying beneath.
“My whole life is remembering those foster homes,” Storm said. “I lived in bags and boxes. I was sent from one place to another. There was nothing that was mine, nothing that was sacred. That is what I experienced. I believed nobody loved me.”
Epilogue: Reforming The System
During the time that Storm was a foster child, the state of Oregon funded and then cut reforms that worked elsewhere.
The model for foster care reform was Alabama, where what was a woeful system according to former officials there, had become one of the best.
Reforms in Alabama began in the ‘90s under federal court supervision that followed a legal settlement with child welfare activists.
The reform strategies were the brainchild of Dr. Marty Beyer, a Yale-educated psychologist hired by Alabama as a consultant. Her philosophy stressed assessing the strengths and needs of a child and their family, rather than jumping straight to foster care.
Beyer traveled to every county in Alabama to retrain child welfare workers, and managed a team of consultants.
One innovative aspect of the reforms was the creation of “flex funds” which could be spent on one-time necessities to help avoid foster care.
The idea was that poverty was often conflated with neglect by caseworkers. It’s a frame of mind that affects most poorly performing foster care systems, said Richard Wexler, director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. Last year, 70 percent of kids who entered foster care in Oregon did so because of neglect.
In Alabama, outcomes changed under Beyer’s reforms because “families were being treated differently,” said Dr. Paul Vincent, who was director of the state’s human services agency at the time.
Vincent, who now directs a nonprofit child welfare group in Montgomery, said it took nearly a decade and millions from Alabama taxpayers to make reforms stick. But over time, more families stayed together.
The Alabama reforms followed a philosophy that “the only way to fix foster care is to have less of it,” Wexler said.
Reforms were eventually rolled back “for typical Alabama reasons,” Vincent said, when a new governor took office. Still, “many of the gains lasted because they were deeply embedded in practice,” he said. Though no foster care system is perfect, Alabama currently ranks as one of the best nationwide.
Beyer, the psychologist instrumental in improving Alabama’s system, also worked for the state of Oregon. She was brought here in the mid-‘90s as a consultant after a settlement between the state and advocates. Notably, federal courts did not oversee the settlement’s implementation.
Beyer pushed her proven strengths/needs philosophy, but “for whatever reason it did not gain traction in Oregon,” Wexler said.
Beyer, who stayed in Oregon and now lives in Cottage Grove, said DHS officials were likely overwhelmed by the changes. Funding was another problem, she said.
Mark McKechnie, executive director of Youth, Rights and Justice — the nonprofit law firm whose settlement brought Beyer to Oregon — said the major barriers to reform were not enough money and too much bureaucracy.
Some reforms were funded by lawmakers, who poured tens of millions of dollars into flex funds. The state began evaluating child welfare cases based on the strengths and needs of families, as Beyer prescribed.
But as an economic downturn hit Oregon in the 2000s, some reforms were cut, including flex funds, which could only be funded with state dollars – not federal funds.
The reforms were a challenge anyway, McKenchie said, because they went against “the way state bureaucracy works.”
Officials also worried that flex funds would afford foster kids luxuries that average children didn’t have, McKenchie said. That worry had a name among DHS officials, he said: The Oregonian Test.
“They always wanted to feel comfortable that if they way they spent money ended up on the front page of The Oregonian it wouldn’t be a scandal,” McKenchie said.
Today, two decades after reform efforts began and fizzled out, Oregon places kids in foster care at a rate above the nationwide average. Last year, more than 11,000 children in Oregon spent at least a day in foster care. Just more than half of those children left foster care to be reunited with their parents.
Many foster children are helped with independent living programs and better approaches to therapy enacted by lawmakers, but kids still fall through the system’s cracks and administrative problems abound.
Last year, the DHS director resigned and high-ranking foster care officials were fired after news reports revealed officials knew of abuse at several foster homes yet didn’t act.
The report released by auditors last week showed that rates of child abuse continue to climb in Oregon’s foster care system, and that DHS has no centralized process for investigating claims of abuse.
The auditors recommend simple solutions: DHS follow its own rules, keep data on foster parents who abuse children and embrace a model where children are evaluated based on their needs.
Acting child welfare director Dr. Reginald Richardson — who met with Storm in May to hear her story — issued a written statement issued for this story.
“While we continue to have issues with multiple placements, the overuse of psychotropic medications and abuse in foster care, Oregon has made progress in these areas since Mia’s time,” Richardson said. “Right now, we need foster parents, volunteers, support from lawmakers and providers to make sure that Mia’s courage helps lead to a better future.”
Clyde Saiki, the new DHS director, said he’s eyeing a culture change at DHS to help families avoid foster care.
Going to the Legislature and federal government to seek money for reforms is on the table, he said, along with investing more in caseworker training. He also hopes to complete the audit ordered last year by Gov. Kate Brown.
“There’s no bullet proof or fool proof system,” he said. “At this point in time, there’s no such thing as a bad idea.”