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Henry A. Barrios

Henry A. Barrios / The Californian Jamice, a foster child, speaks about what it's like to be in foster care during a public forum panel discussion with 3 other foster children. At left is Pat O'Brien, founder and Executive director, of You Gotta Believe Foundation, who moderated the discussion.

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Henry A. Barrios

Henry A. Barrios / The Californian Foster children from left, Phillip, Alexander, Jamice and Cody along with Pat O'Brien, center, founder and Executive director, of You Gotta Believe Foundation, participate in a public forum panel discussion about living in foster care. The forum was held at the Kern County Board of Supervisors chambers.

Some of the biggest critics of Kern County's foster care system are its foster children.

On Wednesday four of them got a chance to speak.

Cody Sanders has been through more than 20 schools and -- as best he can guess -- more than 60 social workers in the 14 years he's lived in Kern County's foster care system.

He's been hit by foster parents. He has been ignored by social workers when he reported the abuse.

But the biggest pain he's faced, he said, has been the repeated violence of being shuttled from foster home to foster home -- bidding farewell to a long string of people who didn't really want him.

Cody spoke at a public forum for foster youth in the hopes foster parents will hear his message.

"I don't even want to hear excuses," he said. "I don't want to hear you tell me why you're not going to follow through with what you said you were going to do. It's wrong to screw around with someone's emotions and then throw them back into the cycle."

Jamice Freeman, 17, told a crowd of social workers and foster parents she's been been removed from homes so many times it has become impossible to trust.

She hopes foster parents will stop and think before taking in a child.

"We need not to be treated differently because we already have the feeling like we are (different)," she said. "Do not do it if your heart is not in the right place. Do not waste your time. Do not waste our time, because we go through enough heartbreak. We don't need you to add on."

Four of the more than 1,000 "permanent" foster children in Kern County -- children who will never be allowed to return to their biological parents -- spoke at the Wednesday morning forum.

While speaking bluntly about the pain they've suffered and the failures they've seen in the system, they said they believe the system saved them.

Jamice, who was put into the foster care system while in the fourth or fifth grade, said she remembers feeling a mix of sadness and relief when she was taken away from her birth family.

"Nobody wanted me around. They didn't want me. They didn't love me," she said.

But she said her birth mother was the most influential person in her life because "by screwing up" she gave Jamice a chance at a better life.

Phillip Fite, 17, said he was mad and confused when he was taken away from his family at age 6.

But he probably wouldn't be here today if he had stayed, he said.

"It wasn't the best living conditions," he said.

Still the only person he can truly talk to and trust is "Jesus, God, whatever you want to call him."

The foster children had strong words for social workers who have treated them like statistics, ignored their requests for help for weeks and made only the minimum effort to know them and make their situation better.

"Please do a background check on what children have said about the people you are going to place us with," Jamice said. "If 10 kids have said the same thing, we aren't lying."

But most of the children's message was aimed at foster parents.

Alex Pachis, 15, said parents aren't getting a "peachy" child when they take in a foster child.

Parents have to embrace the foster child as if they were blood and be ready for trouble.

"Be consistent with your kids. Be there for them," Alex said. "Treat me with the same respect that you would give to your own child. Do that and I'll be good."

Alex has been in foster care for fewer than two years and he's been lucky, he said, to find a family that makes him feel at home.

But Jamice said she's been promised love and care by foster parents so often only to see it yanked back out of her grasp again and again.

"They tell you they're going to take care of you. Then three months later you meet the real them," she said.

Then the talking starts, she said. Later there are family maintenance meetings with social workers.

At those meetings, Cody said, the foster parents and the social workers mention a couple positive things about him and then rattle off a long laundry list of every reason why he is broken and wrong.

What foster children need is for their parents to accept even the worst parts of them, he said.

"I've made plenty of mistakes in my life, but I've never had anyone to catch me when I fell," Cody said. "What it's going to take is for you to keep that kid through their worst."

Despite the pain they've experienced and the fierce shield of independence they've built around them, the foster children maintain hope they can make a difference with their stories.

Jamice said she was speaking for every foster child with which she's ever shared a story of pain.

Elena Acosta, assistant director of Child Protective Services in the Department of Human Services, said the agency hoped the children would be as candid as they were.

It's not easy to hear children say they have been failed by social workers and foster parents, Acosta said, but someone has to listen.

"We can't improve the system unless we hear from the people we serve -- and that's foster children," Acosta said.

Child Protective Services needs to better train social workers and foster parents and convey the serious, tough responsibility the foster system demands, she said.

"Stepping up for these kids is going to mean unconditional commitment," Acosta said.

Jamice said she believes she will one day be a foster parent.

"I would teach you guys how to do it right," she said.