SEN. MARY SOUZA: ‘I want them to feel my pain’

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School shootings are terrible, senseless tragedies. Each of these now all-too-frequent events is different but seems to share a common, very modern, factor — the social isolation of the perpetrator. They are often the outliers, the loners who have always been an element of our population, and now they retreat further into the shadows until even the “system” ignores them.

So how effective is our system in Idaho? On our Foster Care Interim Committee in the Idaho Legislature, we’ve been asked to look at our laws and the system in our state, and have found some serious concerns.

Please let me tell you about a man, let’s call him Jim, who testified before our committee last year. We had just heard an expert describe the importance of young children bonding with their parents, or foster parents, and families. We were told the child’s brain will develop differently, in a negative way, if that bonding does not occur.

So, when Jim came forward to tell us his life story in Idaho’s foster care system, we listened intently. He was literally left on the steps of a hospital as a newborn and was in the foster care system until he aged out at 18. He never knew his parents or relatives and was moved from place to place often, without ever knowing why. He told us there was only one counselor, at a home for boys, who seemed to care about him, but then Jim was pulled out and relocated for no apparent reason. Sadly, it was believed by some experts at the time that kids should not be allowed to bond with foster families because it would be harder for them to let go of each other.

Here’s the very important part of this true story: Jim recounted for us, in harrowing detail, his overwhelming rage and emotional pain when he was a young adult. He was mad at the world. He thought life was unfair and was angered seeing happy people around him when he felt so alone. So he bought a high-power rifle and ammunition, then rented a hotel room overlooking a busy street. He loaded the gun and watched people on the sidewalk below. His plan was to shoot as many random people as he could because “I wanted them to feel my pain.” Jim felt cheated by life and was unable to deal with his emotions, but right before he took the first shot, he paused, set the gun down, and called 911. He knew he needed help.

Jim said his life has been a struggle every day. On the surface, he is a successful person; he has a good job, his wife was at the committee hearing with him, and they have children. But he confessed he cannot fully trust or bond with anyone, and he requires intense counseling twice a week, at state expense, which will continue for the rest of his life.

What can we, as a state, do to help children so they don’t end up like Jim? Last year our Foster Care Interim Committee made several small but impactful changes in the law. One was to allow judges to reject a permanent home placement of a child, and another was to require a seven-day notice and explanation to the child, foster parents, parents and others, if the child is to be relocated, unless in a safety emergency.

There have been two in-depth research projects completed by our Legislative Office of Performance Evaluation, which is a highly respected, independent office that researches three or four topics each year, chosen by a bipartisan legislative panel. Last year they reported on Foster Care and this year they reported on Court Appointed Special Advocates who help children in foster care. Their reports reveal problems and have been very helpful in motivating cooperation between the many entities, including Courts, Prosecutors, Department of Health and Welfare, CASA and more.

Now we have a new foster care bill which increases peer-to-peer home visits, asks DHW to make every effort to keep siblings together, and directs it to provide extensive supervision and follow up if a foster child is placed back in a home with a high risk adult present.

The bill also takes the existing Citizen Review Panels and updates them, with involvement from the Public Health Districts, to confidentially and securely review the foster care cases in their district and report twice a year to a legislative oversight committee. The purpose of the review and oversight is to watch for gaps in coordination between the many entities involved and was strongly recommended by the OPE report.

Would we have had the terrible child abuse situation of the 6-year-old boy in Post Falls last year, if these changes were in place? I don’t think so. If the Florida school shooter was here in Idaho instead, with these new changes in place, would our system have failed him? Almost certainly not. It’s not a perfect bill, but it’s a good start.

Here’s what you can do: Reach out to outliers. Talk with the person who seems isolated. And if your friend or neighbor or classmate are showing signs of crisis, or if you think a child is being abused — tell someone, and we’ll continue to work on making the system responsive. Kind human interaction can make an enormous difference, and you can be part of the solution.

• • •

Mary Souza is the Idaho State Senator for District 4, Coeur d’Alene. You may contact her at Msouza@senate.idaho.gov.

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