Expert Q&A: Deaf & Hard-of-Hearing Children in Foster Care

Andrea Bright-Fontana has worked professionally as an American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreter for more than 20 years and specializes in healthcare, post-secondary and legal interpreting. She and her husband, along with their three boys, were foster parents for seven years, and have adopted three beautiful Deaf daughters. Since becoming a foster parent, she has recognized the need for more education in the interpreting field related to Child Protective Services (CPS) and working with children who have experienced trauma.

We sat down with Andrea to talk about Deaf and hard-of-hearing children in Texas foster care, and how CASA volunteers and other advocates can support them. Read on below!

Tell us about what you’re seeing as a foster and adoptive parent of Deaf children. How well is the system caring for these kids?

First of all, 90-95% of Deaf kids are born to hearing parents. Only about 10-15% of these hearing parents of Deaf children actually learn sign language. So, the vast majority of these kids who come into foster care are coming in already language deprived. That means their ability to communicate their wants and needs is not there, or is very limited. And as everybody knows, language impacts every aspect of your life. It impacts your social, your emotional, your cognitive abilities, your ability to develop relationships with people, how your academics go—and because of that, these kids then end up being further neglected by a system that’s supposed to protect them.

Child Protective Services across the nation—this is not specific to Texas—does not meet the needs of Deaf children. These kids are being placed in non-signing homes if ASL is their first language, which means they have access to absolutely no communication whatsoever. Too often, they are placed with foster families who know nothing about Deafness. They don’t understand the cultural aspects, they don’t understand the linguistic aspects, and they just are not equipped to take care of Deaf kids. On top of that, CPS is not offering any help for those foster families either. A lot of times these kids are bouncing from home, to home, to home, to home, because of behavior problems stemming from things that could easily be solved if they were placed in a home that could communicate with them.

When my husband and I first got licensed, we were licensed for probably two or three years before we even had a Deaf child placed with us, and that was because the state doesn’t know where these Deaf kids are placed, or keep track of those homes who could meet a Deaf child’s needs. They were supposed to be changing the system where they could pull up that data, but it hasn’t been updated. But we’ve made our own little network across the state of Texas and we hear through the grapevine when Deaf kids come in, and we try ourselves as foster-adopt parents to find ways to get these kids placed with signing homes, because no one else is. It’s tough.

What are some misconceptions about this population?

I think there’s a common misconception among people who are unfamiliar with Deafness and ASL that it’s the same as a spoken language, and it isn’t. If you put a Spanish-speaking child in an English-speaking home, there’s going to be at least some way to get some communication across. With the Deaf child, there’s absolutely none. This is a child who has a disability—they have rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act—and you have state agencies that are not following the federal law that protects people with disabilities. You have interviews happening with these kids where interpreters aren’t being provided, or the interpreters that are provided aren’t appropriately educated and trained.

We experienced this, ourselves. We had a Deaf foster son who was in our home for about three months, and he was in a home prior to ours that had no idea about Deafness. He had behavior issues, and a lot of it was because he had no language, he couldn’t communicate his wants and needs. He was playing in our front yard and he tripped and fell, cracked open his head and had to go get staples. Of course, I had to call that into the hotline because that’s an injury, so they had to come out and investigate. When the CPS investigator said she was coming out, I said, “He is Deaf, you’re gonna have to bring an interpreter.” She showed up without an interpreter and asked me to interpret everything, which I did—and I did it for a very good reason. When we finished, I looked at her and I said, “You do realize I could have made all that up; you have no idea. I could have been the one that pushed that child down, and you would have been none the wiser because you used someone in the home to interpret,” which actually goes against CPS policy. It’s in their handbook, but you have caseworkers who don’t know their own policies or don’t know how to find interpreters.

These kids are deprived of access to relationships, social skills, academics… things that a hearing child has access to on a daily basis. Two of our daughters who came from hearing families that had an extensive history with CPS were placed in non-signing homes for quite a while. Because of that, the further neglect that they received from the system has put them back greatly. My 8-year-old daughter is way far behind. We’re still struggling to get her to remember how to spell her first name.

People will say, “Well, do they read lips?” No, that’s a skill, it’s not a form of communication. Only approximately 30% of English can be lip-read, and even then the Deaf individual needs to have an understanding of the content that is being discussed. “Well, they can read back and forth.” English isn’t their first language. “Well, why isn’t English their first language?” American Sign Language is their first language. When my oldest daughter’s case was transferred to adoptions, and we got the new adoption caseworker, she was going to come over so we could start signing all the adoption paperwork. And I said, “You need to bring an interpreter,” and she goes, “Oh, I sign,” and I said “You do? Are you fluent?” She said “no,” and then I said, “Well then, you need to bring an interpreter.” “Well, can’t she write back and forth?” And I said, “I’m sorry, English isn’t her first language. You’re asking her to read a document, it’s a legal document, and for her to decipher all that without an interpreter. You do realize your policies in the handbook say that you have to get an interpreter.” This is daily, daily, that we’re hearing stories like this. This is ultimately placing the burden of communication on a child who is language deprived and has trauma. A child should not have to accommodate communication when talking to anyone.

There are three other families here in Central Texas who foster specifically Deaf kids, and we’ve met with CPS, and they don’t get it. There’s a lot of us foster parents trying to find other ways to work with the system, whether by informing CASA, working with interpreters… it’s hard to get a state system as large as this is to make changes unless you legislatively try to find a way. It’s really sad to see these kids continue to be neglected when they’re in care and they should be protected.

Tell us about the need for education in the interpreting field around how to work with CPS and kids with trauma.

In the interpreting field there isn’t anyone that I know of other than myself who is training interpreters in how to work with CPS and how to work with kids with trauma. There’s a lot in the interpreting realm on how to work with adults with trauma, but kids are very different than working with adults.

There’s a lot of things that as interpreters we do because it’s part of our job that we don’t recognize also could be triggering and harmful for kids. Something as simple as tapping a Deaf person to get their attention could be a trigger for a child who’s been beaten. When our middle daughter first came to us, you couldn’t touch her at all, but in the Deaf community that’s how you get attention. The Deaf community is a physical community; the language is physical and visual. It’s culturally appropriate to throw a pillow to get someone’s attention, it’s culturally appropriate to flash lights, to stomp on the floor. So, it’s difficult as interpreters to know, okay, I shouldn’t get close to these kids, some kids don’t do well when people get close to them, because working with the Deaf population, we’re used to that. And then there’s the visual aspect. How do you dress, for example? You should be wearing casual clothes because coming in with clothes that are really nice, and maybe a tie and a suit, could be intimidating to a child, they may connect that with CPS. The way you sign, it may come across as aggressive if your facial expressions are too strong. It’s really difficult finding ways of working with kids without adding to their trauma, and then also not looking like you’re aligned with CPS, because these kids have a lot of trauma from CPS.

And the Deaf community as a whole is very fearful of CPS—rightfully so. Navigating the system continues to be extremely difficult for Deaf adults. CPS shows up at their door without interpreters. They take their kids; they don’t understand the system. Deaf families ask for interpreters, and they don’t get them.

What are some other challenges when it comes to serving Deaf children in the foster care system?

Not having foster parents who are a good fit. You’ll have people who say, “Well, I’ll learn,” and these kids need to be at home where they have access to a language immediately. It’s a language, it’s not just all these hand gestures thrown in the air. It has its own syntax, its own grammar, it takes time to learn it. CPS should be keeping a list of signing homes. They should be utilizing them, and they’re not.

I think having attorneys who aren’t well versed in the Deaf community is another issue; they don’t understand the needs of their clients. Having a caseworker that doesn’t understand it, having judges that don’t understand it, having CASA volunteers that don’t understand it. I think what’s very difficult for people to grasp is that there’s a culture around ASL—that there’s so much more to it—and that it’s not “English with the hands.” There’s just a lack of knowledge.

And, you know, CPS has high turnover, these caseworkers are burdened. They might get a 10-minute training in Deafness and then be expected to remember it a year later.

What are some of your ideas for how the foster care system could better serve these children?

In a perfect world, these kids would be placed in homes where they would have access to language. They would be placed in homes that knew about the culture; that would make sure these kids found mentors. They would be placed in appropriate schools where they can interact within the Deaf community. It’s important, as we all know, for kids to see and have role models that look like them. They have to see successful Deaf people.

I would love to see every child in the state of Texas have a CASA volunteer as one extra protection for them. I recognize, though, that there are not enough volunteers. I think if we could find a way for at least every Deaf child to have a CASA volunteer, that would give them someone on their side to help really fight for their Deafness. And if they can get Disability Rights, that makes a huge difference, but I know they’re stretched thin, too. In a perfect world, that’s what I would love to see—is these kids getting what they deserve.

One thing I would love to see CASA do, specifically, is vet their volunteers who say they know sign language. Not vetting these folks is scary, because you could have people who are saying they’re fluent, and they’re not. Going back to the idea of trauma—there’s so much research around how it impacts the brain, how it impacts people physically. You’re talking about kids who are coming into care who are already language deprived, and you add trauma on top of it. I mean, think about when you’re in a car accident, for example, and someone ask you what happened. You start to explain, and maybe you start stuttering, you start pausing, you start reliving it, you start going through all those feelings… and your own linguistic expressive and receptive language really drops—these kids are going through that, too. When you have people who aren’t fluent talking to children about things that are difficult, you’re doing a disservice to them because you’re not giving them what they need. That is something I would love to see CASA do, is to make sure they’re vetting people who say they know the language. That, and then getting all these kids a CASA volunteer. I’m hoping that we can find ways of getting CASA to really fight more for these kids because they need someone fighting for them.

What’s the most important thing you think CASA volunteers serving Deaf children should know and do?

I think knowing where you can get resources and help from is the most important thing, and then learning about them. We have the Statewide Outreach Center, the Deaf and Hard of Hearing statewide services, we have the Texas School for the Deaf. Here in Travis County, we’re fortunate to have Travis County Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. But when you get out into more rural areas, there’s not a lot of services. There’s not a lot of access to interpreters, and the child a CASA volunteer is serving may be the only Deaf child in the school.

My daughter had a CASA volunteer in Oregon. The volunteer, the attorney and the Deaf ED teacher were all aligned. CPS was not aligned with them, and neither was the foster family. Those three together—the CASA volunteer, attorney and teacher—are what saved my daughter’s life to have the life that she has today. Otherwise, she would still be sitting in a foster home that did nothing with her, that was not meeting her needs.

CASA volunteers are powerhouses! Judges really look to them. Having a CASA volunteer who gets it right, who takes the time to educate themselves and really learn more about these kids, makes a huge difference.

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