SAN DIEGO — Joe Benoit is 21. He has brown hair and friendly eyes, is healthy and well-adjusted. He likes music, working on his car, and he hopes to finish college. But until five years ago he had been on a path of self-destruction, getting in trouble since age 10, with truancy and petty theft.
He often had to wear long-sleeved shirts to hide bruises from his father's beatings. "I got in trouble to get attention," Benoit said. "I couldn't get it positively."
By age 12 he was started on an odyssey of foster homes. At age 16 he was arrested in Arizona in a stolen car. Benoit said the judge told him, "This is it. We're going to find you a foster home, or we'll try you as an adult." So, as a last resort, Benoit was placed--his 15th placement--in another foster home, this time with a Bob Martin, a single man who cares for foster boys.
Martin provided an authority figure. Finally someone was there for Benoit in a steady, caring way. Although the two had a verbal confrontation, Benoit soon adjusted to life in Martin's home. Martin knew Benoit needed to go to school: "He is intelligent. He (just) felt he couldn't succeed."
Benoit is like many youngsters who are shuffled from foster home to foster home, often victims of the very system intended to help them (about 3,000 children are in the social services system at any given time). But Benoit's story is turning out in a positive way.
Today, he still lives in Martin's home with three other boys, and he now is assistant administrator of the home, helping Martin with their care.
Benoit tells his story in an interview with KPBS-TV producer Sara Luft, as part of a live production scheduled to air Tuesday at 9 p.m.
"Children in Limbo: Wards of the Court" is the eighth effort between San Diego's Junior League and KPBS. A video of Benoit's story will be followed by a panel of three experts discussing the problem of child placement, moderated by psychologist Richard Farson, president of Western Behavioral Sciences Institute and author of "Birth Rights."
The league and the station have produced programs since 1974 which have won two San Diego Emmy awards, a Pacific Mountain Network Program Excellence Award and a National Mental Health Award. The earlier programs include "The Dilemma of Juvenile Justice," a half-hour documentary on California's changing law regarding juvenile offenses; "Incest: The Broken Silence," a half-hour documentary on the devastating impact of father-daughter incest; "The Spirit of Eve," a half-hour documentary on the changing roles of women in religious organizations, and "Adoption," an hour-long, live program answering viewers' questions on adoption procedures.
"Children's issues are a primary concern of the Junior League," said Luft, "and it's been great because this project coincides with what I want to do as a producer, and what the station wants, too."
The Junior League provided money, assisted in research and shared editorial control, said Luft.
The purpose of the production, said Luft, is to bring to light what needs to be done to improve the situation of these children in limbo.
"KPBS' focus is informational. A key question we want to discuss is, at what point does it become clear a family can't be reunified? Problem parents are given up to 18 months to prove themselves capable, and another 22 months after that if the court isn't convinced. As a result, children who will never be reunited with their parents are often left without a permanent placement longer than is necessary or emotionally healthy for the child," said Luft.
Panelists include Kathryn Ashworth, attorney and Junior League member; Judith McConnell, presiding judge of San Diego's Juvenile Court, and Sherry Paul, division chief for San Diego County's Child Protective Services. An audience of foster parents, social workers and others will discuss the issue with the panel, and viewers can participate by calling in.
Ashworth is co-founder of Voices for Children, a part of the national association of court-appointed advocates for children. This group tries to aid children whose cases appear to be stalled. Often the advocate is the only constant adult attached to a child's case.
"The majority of these children are placed in the 1,290 foster homes in San Diego County, and though efforts are made to reunify the family of the child, or, on the other hand, to free the child for adoption, the truth is that most youngsters in this situation drift from foster home to foster home," Ashworth said.
"These little persons are shuffled around like sacks of potatoes. It's no one's fault. There are a variety of reasons why this happens. But by the time these children are through, if they weren't disturbed before, they probably are by then.