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When a foster child has a birthday, this group makes sure they open a gift

Steffi Green’s toy room is more crowded – and organized – than most. Clear tubs brimming with colorful toys stacked to the ceiling are labeled “stuffed animals,” “Nerf toys” and “crafts.”

She’s collecting gifts, with contributions from the greater Charleston, South Carolina, community, for children living in group foster homes.

Green said she came up with the idea after adopting her son Grayson, who is now 2 years old, from South Korea. After returning home, she read a series of reports in the local newspaper about foster care in South Carolina. “It was just shocking how many children his age here are in group homes.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the national average of children under age 13 in group foster homes is 4 percent. In South Carolina, it’s 23 percent.

Green learned that when the children are moved into foster care, they usually can’t bring anything with them, not even their toys.

So she and her husband Ben Wong started Birthdays for All, a nonprofit that works with the South Carolina Department of Social Services, to ensure that all children in group foster care are remembered on their birthdays. They get wish lists from the children and try to fulfill those wishes.

In addition to personally wrapping the gifts, the community makes birthday cards for the foster children. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

In addition to personally wrapping the gifts, the community makes birthday cards for the foster children. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

Schools, Girl Scout troops, and other groups and individuals provide the presents, and Green throws “wrapping parties” at her home.

“I like doing it that way, because then I can raise awareness about the state of foster care,” and talk to the adults about possibly becoming foster parents, said Green.

In its one year of operation so far, Birthdays for All has given presents to 350 children in Charleston, Berkley and Dorchester counties.

The community gift-givers are given basic information about the children: their first name and last initial, their date of birth, and their present of choice.

Sometimes a certain wish list will touch her heart, Green said. There was the 11-year-old boy who asked for a stress ball. A wheelchair-bound girl asked for a soft lap blanket.

“Generally speaking, the requests are modest: Legos, arts and crafts, things like that. No one’s asked for computer games,” she said.

Green has set up the charity at a time when the South Carolina foster care system is grappling with challenges. In 2015, child advocate groups filed a lawsuit in federal court against South Carolina for alleged incidents of mistreatment and abuse of children in its foster care system.

In response, the state Department of Social Services is working to recruit more individual foster families, and made other changes, including issuing a mandate that the youngest foster children will no longer be placed in group homes.

“We support the fact that children, especially young children, should be raised in a family,” said Barbara Kelley-Duncan, CEO of the Carolina Youth Development Center, a group home for abused, neglected and abandoned children in Charleston.

A volunteer mentor provides homework help at the Bakker Career Center, one of the facilities available under the Carolina Youth Development Center in Charleston, S.C. Photo courtesy of CYDC

A volunteer mentor provides homework help at the Bakker Career Center, one of the facilities available under the Carolina Youth Development Center in Charleston, S.C. Photo courtesy of CYDC

Her organization takes in children when the Department of Social Services cannot find foster care homes in the community. Under the new mandate, her group home will no longer accept children under age 6 — and eventually those under age 12.

During the transition, the South Carolina Department of Social Services said each child under age 6 must have an extra staff member present 24 hours a day to play and interact with them, said Kelley-Duncan. The ratio for older children is one staff person for every 10 children. “All children get individual attention (at the home). But a child 6 and under can get lost,” she said.

One of the reasons South Carolina’s foster children end up in group homes at a rate higher than the national average is because the stipend for foster parenting is “very low” in the state, Kelley-Duncan said.

The daily basic payment that foster parents in South Carolina receive is $11.07-$14.17, according to a 2013 report from Child Trends.

Comparing the amount to other states in the region, North Carolina’s payment is $15.62-$20.84 and Tennessee’s is $23.26-$27.28.

Groups such as Green’s Birthdays for All helps ease the burden on foster caregivers.

It’s a bright moment for both the child and the caseworker, who gets to hand over the present, said April McDougall of Intensive Foster Care and Clinical Services, a specialized program under the South Carolina Department of Social Services that coordinates services for children with the most severe emotional and physical needs.

Even if they’re just getting a gift card for a department store, the teenagers can get clothes similar to their friends, said McDougall.

“There’s already the stigma of being in foster care in their core group or at school. They want to dress like other kids, but they don’t have the money to have the same clothes, or have a cellphone, or in-style tennis shoes that everybody’s wearing,” she said. Equipped with the donated gift cards, they can go to a store and buy whatever they want.

“They feel they’re not forgotten,” she continued. “I think that is really the best thing that we can do for our kids, just give them hope that they may be going through something right now, but things can only get better.”

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