Today we continue our National Foster Care Awareness Month blog series on teen males in foster care by addressing mental health. Toni Hoy and her family have endured separation, loss of parental rights, and criminalization by the system put in place to protect children. Toni’s son, Daniel, has been placed in the Illinois foster care system twice. The first placement was as a result of severe neglect as an infant. At age 13, the Hoy family lost custody of Daniel and he was once again placed in foster care but this time in a residential facility.
Toni and Jim Hoy have been foster-adopt parents for over twenty years. They have raised two biological children and two children adopted through the foster care system. Daniel was a great piano player and champion Irish dancer. A “wonderful human being,” is how Toni described him during our interview. Mental health issues began to surface during his teen years and things took a horrible turn for the worse. In a two year time frame Daniel was hospitalized in a psychiatric unit eleven times. The state didn’t want to pay for treatment. Toni was forced with two terrible options – take her son home and be charged with child endangerment (of her other children) or leave him in the institution and be charged with neglect! I was shocked and confused when she told me that during our interview. Her question to me was simple, “Nicki what state do you live in?” I learned that Maryland has laws in place to protect families facing serious mental health challenges. Think of the unnecessary emotional damage inflicted on a family already in crisis. I learned that states like Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, and Iowa have laws in place that are similar to Illinois.
Toni was forced to trade custody rights for the mental health care her son needed. In 1997, the federal government enacted the Adoption and Safe Families Act which provided dollars to increase adoptions. Some of the children who were adopted under this act were severely traumatized and their behavior could not be managed properly in their homes. The practice in the state of Illinois has been to make these children wards of the state again. The states then have access to more funding but in the process parents are criminalized and families are torn apart.
Relinquishment of parental rights was the only way the Hoy family was able to get Daniel into a residential treatment facility for the care he needed. The case headed to juvenile court. Although they had not committed a “crime” their no fault dependency case was treated as an abuse case. The family endured years of home inspections, interviews, interrogations and meetings to regain custody of Daniel. Toni was treated like a criminal by a disconnected system. “Oppressive, humiliating, and degrading” are the words she used as she describes having to appear in court and sit in the seat of birth parents that harmed the child in the first place.
Substance abuse treatment is covered in her state but day care centers that support youth with mental illnesses are unable to bill Medicaid. In the second year of her ordeal; Toni began to write a blog. She is also the author of the book Second Time Foster Child where she shares her triumphant journey. Toni recalls one challenge in writing her book was to get readers to “see the person before his issues”. Toni continued to talk about her son’s mental health challenges and followed that profound statement with “it’s what he lives with but not who he is.”
As Toni fought for her family she discovered that the necessary treatment was in fact covered by a funding source that was awarded as part of Daniel’s special needs adoption – the EPSDT provision of Medicaid. She needed to get the state to understand the federal laws and award parental rights back to her family. They sued and the state settled. The relinquishment case was resolved last summer. It took seven months to reach a settlement. She has regained custody of Daniel. Nearly 100 families a year face the same battle. The Hoy case is a landmark case. Toni Hoy’s determination, research, and love paved the way for a Class Action Lawsuit that affected 18,000 children.
Daniel has remained in residential treatment. He will spend six months in a transitional living program and if he can remain stable for six months he will be placed in a less structured environment. He will be out on his own at age 21.
Toni actually has two sons with serious mental health issues that are transitioning. The Hoy family has welcomed in Daniel’s former roommate. The y have known him since he was 12. While visiting Daniel, the Hoy family would engage with another“son”. They assumed that during his six years of residential treatment he was being visited and supported by relatives. A little over a year ago they found out that he was not. He was all alone. Once a month, Toni would travel 5 1/2 hours to visit him. They also talked on the phone and wrote letters. The bond continued to deepen and Toni was asked about becoming a foster parent to her “son”. The Hoy family is unwilling to adopt or foster not only because of the pain and suffering they have endured but because the state is not willing to do what is in “sons” best interest. The Hoy family has officially become “Community Resource Parents” and provide emotional and moral support. They will make the adoption final when her “son” turns 21. She will not allow him to end up homeless or in prison after he exits foster care.
Toni would receive calls in the middle of the night from distraught parents. She provides resources on her website for advocacy groups and therapists. She even has an unexpected audience of teens. She is an advocate for families of children with mental health issues and has the listening ear of child welfare workers, judges, social workers, therapists, educators, and other professionals.
Toni knows that every child needs someone to call family even if they have to live in a residential treatment or transitional living program or group home. Supporting teens doesn’t mean you have to live with them she says. “It means spending time with them, teaching them things, being an ear to listen, always supporting but not always agreeing. Let them fall when they must, but be there to support them and guide them in a new direction,” she said. According to Toni, “It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love!” I agree. This tragedy has a happy ending and hopefully the sharing of this story will not feed any negative stereotypes about adoption and foster care but instead will help you to “see the child before his issues”. Happy Mother’s Day to you Toni.
Nicki Sanders, MSW, Chief Visionary Officer
The Teen Toolbox provides youth portfolio development and civic engagement and academic enrichment opportunities to help teens set goals for life after high school and create a road map to reach those goals through its PACKAGED FOR SUCCESS™ Programs.