| Arizona Republic
Anika Robinson couldn’t help another child through another breakdown.
Another moment when trauma at the hands of people who were supposed to care, trauma from being shipped from foster home to foster home, had left another child haunted by memories that hurt.
Weeping, the mother of four, who had decided nine years earlier that she wanted to foster children, care for them, love them, until their parents could get them back, was done.
Children had come and gone from her family’s home. She soon realized many would never go back to their biological parents. She grieved when they left for an adoptive home, but prayed they would be loved. She stood by her husband’s side when they decided to adopt a child, be their mother and father forever.
But after nearly a decade, Arizona’s child-welfare system was still the same. At the time, Anika was fostering another set of siblings.
“These were children with very, very acute needs,” she says. “You could see the behaviors escalating.”
No matter how hard she loved them, she could see in their eyes, hear in their voices, and understand through their meltdowns that they needed more than she was trained to give. They needed medical, counseling and therapeutic care.
But she knew it would take months to get the children the services they were entitled to.
“In my eyes, the system hadn’t changed,” she says, sitting in the living room of her Gilbert home.
When her children finally went to sleep that night two years ago, Anika sat on her sofa in the dark.
“I just thought, ‘How much good can I make in the world, again when I’m not a trained clinician and it doesn’t feel like the system has gotten any better?’” she says. “I can keep doing this year after year, but if we’re not getting there, what good am I?”
She pleaded with God and challenged the faith that had driven her nine years earlier to raise her hand in church when someone called for help fostering a child.
“I went to bed that night and prayed for God to release me from this calling as a foster parent,” she says.
Faces of child welfare: Anika Robinson, foster parent
Anika Robinson was one of several foster parents who helped create Jacob’s Law, a state law that gets services for kids in the foster-care system.
David Wallace, azcentral.com
But for Anika, the answer was not release. It was change.
“I just thought how dare I, because the need is still there and so instead I said, ‘Guide me as to what I can do,’” she says.
At 3 a.m., she woke up.
“I just thought if I had a magic wand what would I want the system to look like?” she says.
She wanted protections and rights for children who were in Arizona’s foster-care system through no fault of their own. She wanted to slash red tape that prevented children from getting the services they needed.
She thought back to each child in state care who needed and deserved more than a safe home and love. Children with trauma and medical needs.
The child who broke down crying each time they had to get in a car.
“If there’s no trauma you can just walk them out the door and put them in the car seat, but for someone who has trauma that might mean now you’re taking me and giving me to somebody else,” she says.
The little girl who was terrified of baths.
“I had a child that was in our home that was pulled from a bathtub by DCS and then removed,” she says. “So even if you got up to go and take a towel down she would freak out and start bawling and thinking you were leaving her.”
And all the children who couldn’t make it through one night without feeling terrorized by memories.
“Someone who wakes up all night long and screams, ‘Don’t hurt me! Don’t hit me!’” she says.
Republic series explores Arizona child-welfare system
Reporter Mary Jo Pitzl outlines The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com’s series examining child-welfare. David Wallace/The Republic
Anika’s wish list for Arizona’s child-welfare system reflected each boy or girl she and her friends had fostered and loved. She asked two of her friends to join her in a fight with state lawmakers.
“I said, ‘OK, I’m going to take a leave of absence (from work), we’re going to do this,’” she says. “We now know it as Jacob’s Law.”
The trio of mothers became the force behind a 2016 law named after Susan Woodruff’s 17-year-old adopted son Jacob. The boy who had special needs and mental illness stemming from a decade of trauma and abuse.
Anika would see nearly the same number of new people who became licensed to foster Arizona children leave the system the next year. The mothers knew the desperation of trying to help foster children and finding no one to turn to.
“Calling out to DCS specialists who don’t respond,” she says. “Why would a family subject themselves to that pain?”
Jacob’s Law included provisions that sped up state-paid behavioral-health screening for foster children and put deadlines on therapy and medical appointments and services.
After the law passed, Anika took a job with the state helping promote services to families who needed them. She soon realized that many parents, biological and foster, are often too overwhelmed to even fill out paperwork that would gain them access to services their children need.
She decided she needed to do more. She knew what children in foster care go through, whether for days, weeks or years.
She remembers one example of how little understanding there is: An older child, a child she and her husband would eventually adopt, came home after a hearing that severed parental rights.
“The world tends to celebrate a severance because now someone’s going to get to adopt them and to me I’m seeing a child who just lost their parents,” she says, choking back tears.
“It’s not a time to celebrate, they’re grieving the loss of their parents. The loss of their extended family, of everything they’ve ever known, of an older sibling that used to take care of them and now they have no clue where they are.”
Now Anika is working with friends to open Jacob’s Mission. They will need donations and volunteers, but the women who changed Arizona’s laws are ready.
Jacob’s Mission will be a community center in Mesa for connecting families, for anyone who wants to help children in Arizona’s foster-care system and for anyone who has been affected by the system. For some, that might mean helping parents get their children back. For others, it might mean support caring for a child who may never go back with their parent.
Anika says these are Arizona’s children.
“It’s very easy to say we have 15,000 children in care,” she says. “What would happen if we started naming them one by one? Would you then know that that child is there, and that child needs you?”
In May, Anika opened her home to another child, a little girl with blonde hair who likes to sing, be pushed high on the swings and cuddle with the family’s golden retriever.
Anika and her husband have been fostering children for 11 years. People always ask: How many kids?
She always gives the same answer.
“I’ve never counted my children because they’re just our children,” she says. “They have a name so if you ask me who they are I can tell you all of them.”
The little girl with a white bow in her hair hops onto Anika’s lap, holds her hands and sings.
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy when skies are gray.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.
About this report
A three-year grant from the Arizona Community Foundation supports in-depth research from The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com on child welfare in Arizona.
Are you part of the child welfare system? We want to understand your story. Go to childwelfare.azcentral.com.