Friday, December 31, 2010

Improving the Foster Care System - Part VII

Before I get on to this week's post about how we can improve the foster care system, I'd like to wish everyone a happy and healthy secular New Year. If you are traveling, please be safe and keep the rubber side of your car down and in contact with the road.

Now, for this week's installment.

A bit more than two weeks ago, Mothering4Money wrote a comment in response to my post Word to the Wise: Keep Everything. In her comment, she wrote:
This demonstrates another thing that should change about the foster care system. Workers treat an investigation of a homestudied/fingerprinted/referenced/background checked foster & adoptive parent the same as an investigation of a birth parent. Actually they seem to have laws or rules that protects the birth parents (can't enter the home without police or court order) more than the foster parents (because foster parents sign that document allowing 24/7 access into their homes - as a show of good faith and supposedly to prove they aren't harming anyone and are always in compliance of state standards). If CPS has already given the family clearance and assessed them to be worthy of caring for children, and that family has a clean record of caring for children for CPS with no problems spanning over years and years, then CPS should give that family the benefit of the doubt or use a little common sense when deciding whether or not to investigate.

Recently there was a foster parent here locally who received two children from a disruption. The previous foster parent kept documenting the children's behaviors and asking for help, and when she couldn't get any assistance, she requested the kids to be moved. The couple that accepted the placement were in the final stages of adopting a child that they've had for several years. That was halted though when one of the new kids went to play therapy and said "Mama spanked me with a fly swatter." The foster parent got a call from the regular case worker saying she was just in the neighborhood and wanted to stop by. When she arrived, she was with her supervisor's supervisor, and they were there to remove the children. Fortunately, the foster parent didn't even own a fly swatter. And when they further questioned the little boy, calling the foster parent by name, he said "She's not my Mama!" After that, the foster parents requested everyone be moved except for the child they were adopting and told CPS that they were no longer interested in accepting placements. The whole thing could have been avoided had CPS used a little common sense or had the decency to give the foster parent the benefit of the doubt.

Thank you, Mothering4Money, because you have just written this week's post for me. I could stop right here and enough would be said on the subject. This is exactly one of the biggest problems that face foster caregivers in the system.

Now the truth is that there are foster parents who abuse their children. It happens. There was a pretty horrible case here recently where a well-known and well-liked foster parent was accused of hitting and withholding meals from her foster children when they misbehaved. It was a shock to everyone, because this foster mom had been licensed for decades and had probably been mistreating kids for most of her career.

That's bad. It's really bad. But I also think that foster parents who abuse their kids are in a tiny minority.

The problem is that whenever a foster mother abuses her charges, it makes the local news. It gives all foster parents a bad name, even those who don't deserve it. When a birth mother abuses her child it rarely makes the paper, unless what she's done is so egregious that the child has suffered life-threatening injuries.

The real issue here is that social workers simply do not give foster parents the benefit of the doubt when it comes to anything that involves the children in their care. If a child misbehaves, seems to have educational delays, or emotional problems, social workers are lightning-fast to blame the foster parents. Even if a child has a history of making false allegations, the child's word will be believed long before the foster parents' testimony will be considered truthful.

It's this jack-booted thug mentality that creates a lot of problems.

In our case, this mentality meant that we spent a year in litigation fighting for a kid that nobody else wanted. It wasn't as if our agency had a better home lined up for our child. Rather, they simply didn't want us to adopt her, and it didn't matter who got hurt in the process. It was also this mentality that was displayed, not only by social workers, but by county-employed therapists who blamed us for our child's emotional and behavioral problems, rather than addressing them in an appropriate fashion. Although we finally were vindicated when the school psychologist diagnosed problems we'd expressed concern about for years, it's little consolation when we know that years of our child's life have been wasted.

What would have happened if we'd been given the benefit of the doubt? We wouldn't have spent thousands of dollars on legal fees, our child wouldn't feel as if her placement with us (despite living here for more than four years) is tenuous, and she might have gotten the appropriate emotional and educational interventions much sooner. Certainly we wouldn't have wasted all of last school year with a teacher who refused to intellectually challenge our child or push for her academic advancement.

Were it not for the fact that we are stubborn people who were willing to fight, our daughter could have found herself removed from our home and living in foster care. Had we been given the benefit of the doubt, much would be different.

And what about the family that Mothering4Money mentioned? They are no longer foster parents, and their agency had to replace them. Perhaps that seems like not a big deal, but at least in our county, it costs far more to recruit and train a foster family than it does to give them ongoing training and keep them on the roster. It's this short-sighted attitude that keeps foster families churning in and out of the system, which I think is a huge mistake. More experienced parents learn to be better parents, and rotating families in and out of the system might solve an immediate need for beds, but it doesn't solve the longer-term need for quality foster homes.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Improving the Foster Care System - Part VI

Before I get on to sharing this week's thoughts about how the foster care system can be improved, I'd like to wish all my Christian readers a very Merry Christmas. I hope your holiday is wonderful. For those of you who are parenting difficult kids, I wish you peace, and hope that this year your kids have healed enough so that you all survive the holiday.

Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays to all!

My thoughts this week are less about the foster system as it cares for kids, but rather how it treats them as they age out. Many kids "graduate" the foster care system lacking job skills, or a high school diploma, which makes it really tough to make any sort of reasonable living once they are shoved out of their foster homes on their 18th birthday.

Some "lucky" kids can go home to the families from which they were previously removed. Other less-fortunate kids have nothing at all, and they find themselves on the streets with no money, no job and often no bank account or proper identification.

I was struck recently by how insanely difficult life can be if you don't have proper identification. A friend of mine is going through the horrible Catch-22 where you can't get a state ID without proper documentation, but you can't get the documentation without a valid state ID.

These days, most states require you to have proper papers (usually a birth certificate and social security card) and documentation of a current address before you can get identification or a driver's license. But if you don't have those papers (and a lot of homeless foster children do not) then you are also effectively prohibited from having a job. Since 9/11, without proper identification and proof of address, it's impossible to open a bank account. So, even if you have job skills and are able to earn money, there's nowhere you can safely store your cash.

Even rechargeable pre-paid debit cards now require address verification.

Homeland Security may very well have tied the hands of terrorists by making it so difficult to get proper identification and bank accounts, but they've also made life very difficult for folks who are innocent of any wrongdoing. Just because they had the misfortune of being in foster care, they have fallen through a societal crack out of which it is very difficult to climb.

Even if a kid manages to make it out of foster care with proper ID, a bank account, and a job, there's no guarantee that he or she will be able to keep any of those things. Many kids aren't taught the basics of financial management, and an ill-timed job loss combined with a bounced check means the end of your bank account. Once that is gone, earning money can become difficult because some employers will only pay by direct deposit.

The foster care system has to be made responsible for the kids whose lives it touches. If a child is taken into care, it is the system's responsibility to make sure that the kid ends up with a decent education, sufficient job skills to make a living, and appropriate life skills so that she won't end up on the street on her 18th birthday.

It's all well and good for government agencies to wring their hands and complain that they have no money, but if they can't or won't support the children they take, then they shouldn't be taking them in the first place.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Improving the Foster Care System - Part V

This week's post in my ongoing series about improving the foster care system points to one of the biggest shortcomings in the system -- the lack of continuity of care.

Although I'll agree that a certain amount of discontinuity is inevitable, especially when there is no thought given to matching foster children with appropriate homes. In our county, a kid comes into care, and the social worker needs to find a bed. There are too many children and too few beds, so workers traverse a list hoping that a family will say "yes," often without any knowledge of what services a child might need.

That lack of care in placement sets kids up for failure and being bounced from home to home to home.

I think a bigger problem, though, is the lack of continuity when it comes to caseworkers.

From the time our daughter was taken into foster care until she "graduated" and was adopted, we ended up with a total of nine workers involved in the case:
  • On-call worker - This was the worker who happened to be on call when our child was taken into care. Although she was involved in the case only for one night in the very beginning, she periodically paid visits to our home when other workers were busy.

  • Investigative worker - This worker took over the case in the beginning and it was her job to investigate and to make the determination as to whether or not abuse had taken place. She was on the job for perhaps a week or 10 days, and then she passed the case to the next worker in line.

  • Court worker - It was this worker whose job it was to see the case through the court process. It was she, who I dubbed "The Mistress of Unfair Remarks," because she told us that our child was probably mentally retarded and would never learn to read, catch up in school, or amount to anything. This worker was on the case for a month or two.

  • Generic worker #1 - This worker didn't do anything, and was on the case for perhaps a month.

  • Generic worker #2 - This worker had designs on becoming a therapist and soon quit after she learned that she wouldn't be able to get any internship hours until she had been with the county for at least a year. She was on the case for about a month. It was this worker who gave us the "agree to adopt or we'll move the kid, you have 90 days to decide" ultimatum. At this point, our kid had not been in our home even six months.

  • Generic worker #3 - This worker took over for worker #2 after she unexpectedly quit. She was thrilled when we agreed to adopt, but promptly disappeared when she was transferred to another office. We thought she'd started the ball rolling to put us on the adoption track, but found out much later that she'd done nothing of the sort.

  • Nasty Number Seven - This worker took over after after generic worker #3 moved on. This is the worker who was on the case the longest, only because she opted to fight for a removal. Once we found ourselves embroiled in legal action, she couldn't be taken off the case. She stepped in just after our child had been in our home for barely over a year, and stayed on the case until roughly six months before the adoption was finalized.

  • Generic worker #4 - We were told that the case was going to be reassigned, and this worker showed up for a visit. Sadly, we later found out she was filling in for Nasty Number Seven, who was ill.

  • Adoption worker - This worker was the ninth professional to be involved in our case in three years. She had the case for roughly the last six months and was probably the most decent of the workers who were assigned "long-term" to the case.
In our county, the changing of the social workers is a normal and expected activity, which I think is a huge mistake. When a kid is taken, under normal circumstances they will be assigned to three or four workers during their first three months in care. It's also very likely, given that children usually spend the first few weeks in a shelter bed (and sometimes more than one) that they'll go through two to three different beds during that same time period.

Given that most kids don't know whether they are coming or going during that time period, and being taken into foster care is traumatic, does it seem right that kids should find themselves being bounced, not only from bed to bed, but from worker to worker?

I can remember our first foster teen being very upset by the fact that not only did she not know who her worker was, nobody else in the Department seemed to know either.

Why should a kid have to keep track of who is in charge? This is tough enough for a teen, but what about for a younger child who has been ripped from her family and is now staying with strangers?

The logic, at least in our county, is that workers are trained for different specialties. The investigative workers investigate, the court workers fill out court petitions and testify, and the generic workers handle the day-to-day business once a child has been taken for the foreseeable future. The problem is, the kid is left with nobody to hold their hand through the process, and as workers change, nobody knows who is in charge.

It seems to me that kids should get one worker, who is in charge of the case from day one. If the worker needs help investigating, she should call on an investigator. If she needs help with the court process, there should be a specialist available to act as a resource. However, the kids need to have a steady face in what is a very unsteady and upsetting process.

Granted, assigning a single worker won't completely eliminate the problem of worker turnover, since people will still be reassigned or quit. However, I think it would go a long way to reduce the problem. Certainly I think nine workers in three years is eight workers too many. For our daughter, all it did was to convince her that workers weren't going to be around long enough to really help her, and even if they were, they certainly couldn't be trusted.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Improving the Foster Care System - Part IV

This week's post in my ongoing series about improving the foster care system addresses a policy that is supposed to help protect foster children, but really stymies foster parents, professionals and prospective adoptive parents.

The strict policies of confidentiality fail both kids and caregivers in the foster care system.

Now the idea of confidentiality is a good one. Foster children do deserve a certain amount of privacy, and we certainly don't want a loud-mouthed foster mom to come strolling into Junior's classroom and announce loudly to the teacher in front of the entire class that he is in foster care because his mother is a drug-using, thieving, puta, and that he wets the bed three nights out of five. Clearly, that is not cool.

However, the policy of confidentiality fails almost everyone in the system. Because of confidentiality, foster families aren't necessarily told of a child's mental health diagnoses, behavior problems or struggles. They often aren't told that birth family members may have committed serious crimes, or cautioned about the safety of certain birth family members. When foster parents aren't informed, bad things happen. Kids who have history of sexually abusing others perpetrate on other kids in the home. Children with attachment disorders play the social games that only a RADish can create. Foster families unwittingly expose themselves to danger by becoming too friendly with a known criminal.

And when these mistakes happen, the kids suffer. Children are placed into homes that are unprepared or untrained to meet their needs and they cannot stay. Because their needs are not met, they are further traumatized and may even injure other kids in the process. They are shuffled to yet another home in what may be a long chain, further disrupting the child's ability to attach.

Shouldn't a foster family have the right to know something about the kids and families with which they work? If you are responsible for the care, custody and control of a minor, shouldn't you be told the important details about why he is in foster care, the abuse he may have suffered and his behavioral challenges before he is placed in your home? Even more importantly, shouldn't these crucial details be shared with prospective adoptive parents as well? How can it be fair for a social worker to withhold important details like prenatal drug or alcohol exposure until after the adoption papers are signed?

Although it's clear we don't want foster families putting up a six-foot sign on the roof stating, "my foster son is a feces-smearer," we need to find a way for the dialog to be more open between social workers, foster parents, and the professionals who work with these kids. Caregivers, teachers and therapists need to share information because it benefits the child. How can a foster mom be sensitive to a child's needs if she doesn't know that her child was repeatedly sexually abused in the bathroom? How can she help her foster son learn to read if she doesn't know that he has a learning disability and was slapped every time he made a mistake sounding out a word?

The irony, of course, is that amongst all the rules about confidentiality, social workers will often break their code of silence to share something "off the record." Although these off-the-record tid-bits are helpful, they often do not paint a complete picture. Besides being incomplete, they also demonstrate a certain lack of professionalism. Those friendly little leaks say, "well, I'm going to break the rules because I like you and I want to help you out." The implication is that not all foster parents deserve and can be trusted to have such valuable information.

Foster and adoptive parents deserve to know what they are getting, because it benefits the child. Wouldn't it be better for a child to have a foster or pre-adoptive home honestly say, "we aren't prepared to take a child with physical disability x or behavioral problem y," than to have the placement fail?

One would think so, anyway.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Improving the Foster Care System - Part III

This week's installment on improving the foster care system boils down to one sentence:

Child welfare investigations should be handled more like the way criminal investigations are supposed to be handled.

What I mean by this is very simple. When someone is accused of a crime, the accused:
  • is presumed innocent until proven guilty
  • has a right to counsel
  • has the right to face his or her accuser
  • has a right to confront the evidence
  • is entitled to adequate notice of the charges
  • is entitled to a hearing before a neutral judge
Sadly, these fundamental rules of due process do not apply when the child welfare system is handed a report.

When a social worker shows up at your doorstep:
  • She has already assumed that guilt is likely, or she wouldn't be there in the first place.
  • She will demand entry to your home and access to your children. If your kids are at school, she will question them there without notifying you first and without an attorney present.
  • She will not tell you who made the complaint.
  • She will not reveal the evidence against you.
  • She may not fully explain of what you have been accused.
  • She will make a decision regarding the removal of your children before you have your day in court. If she decides to take your kids, they may very well spend several days in custody before you will have the opportunity to have your say in front of a judge.
Not only does the system lack proper due process in terms of the care, custody and control of children, it also has the power to disrupt someone's career without any due process. If an abuse allegation is deemed to be true, even if it doesn't result in removal of the kids, the parents can be listed in the state's child abuse database. Once a person's name is there, it is difficult, if not impossible, to appeal or challenge a listing.

Don't believe it? Look up Humprhies vs County of Los Angeles, and you'll find an ugly tale of a couple that was cleared of child abuse, yet the county refused to remove their names from the child abuse database. Since the county refused to remove the listing, both parents' ability to work and volunteer was negatively impacted.

It is not right that someone's ability to work should suffer without due process.

Beyond the issues of due process, another alarming problem with child welfare investigations is that very little screening is done to determine the credibility of witnesses or complainants. Angry children make false allegations, and their word is taken as gospel. An pissed-off ex-wife can accuse her former husband of sexually molesting her children, and her allegations will be treated seriously.

Does anyone remember the hysteria of the McMartin preschool trial in the 1980's? People's lives were ruined, the accused spent years on trial, and after six years, not a single criminal conviction was made. One of the accused spent five years in jail without ever being convicted of wrongdoing.

Now the McMartin case was clearly not just a failure of the child welfare system or the failure of the individual social workers investigating the case. It was also a failure of the criminal justice system and the media. Still, it's a brutal example of how "the system" can get carried away without any real evidence or facts available to support guilt of the accused.

A recent fact-finding mission revealed that our particular county is especially prone to investigating nearly every child abuse referral. Only 10% of referrals are tossed out on their face. The other 90% result in at least some investigation, which explains why we were investigated for such silliness as changing our daughters' name when she was adopted.

The good news is that of the cases that are investigated, roughly 70% are determined to be unfounded or unsubstantiated. This means that if you are investigated, the odds are in your favor you will be cleared if you haven't done anything wrong.

But the fact that families are being investigated for stupid things like insisting their foster kids eat their vegetables*, changing a child's name or religion after an adoption, or deciding to send their kid to a summer camp is pretty ridiculous. That these investigations make it out of the Department's front door indicates that there's a pretty significant problem.

It's appalling.

If Children's Services is going to investigate a family, maybe it's worth doing a little checking before they knock on their door and traumatize their kids. Maybe it's worth asking a few questions. Is the allegation even considered abuse? Are the witnesses credible, or perhaps do they have an axe to grind? Is an angry kid whining to his teachers at school because he's unhappy with the size of his allowance or the length of his chore list?

Police have to have probable cause to arrest someone. Social workers don't even have to have that. They just have to have a "concern," and then they are allowed to harass people as much as they like.

* Believe it or not, I once spoke to a former foster parent in our area who quit because her two foster children, who had a history of making false allegations, complained that they were being forced to eat their vegetables. The foster mom's birth children were removed, questioned and promptly returned, while the foster kids were immediately moved on to another home. After a lengthy investigation, it was determined that the foster family had done nothing wrong, and they were offered a reinstatement of their foster care license. Needless to say, the family declined the offer, deciding that if the could be investigated in such an alarming way over vegetables, they were worried that far worse would happen if a more serious allegation were ever made.