A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Foster Care

There are well over 2,000 children in foster care in Idaho and according to State Rep. Christy Perry, “Foster children in Idaho have the worst outcomes of any child demographic in our state.”

Rep. Perry, along with a group of foster families, think Idaho can do better by these children and they are now calling for major reform to the foster care system.

from the story “Advocates push for foster system reform”

I don’t normally use this blog to get “political” or deal with “social issues,” at least ones that have no apparent connection to my particular brand of faith, but once upon a time, I worked in social services and had plenty of contact with foster parents and “the system.”

First of all, let me agree that even though children are removed from parental custody by the state due to imminent danger of injury or death, foster care doesn’t mean “smooth sailing” for children.

Even infants are bonded with their parents, and once you remove a child from those they’re bonded with, the child inevitably does worse emotionally and behaviorally. Add to that the problem behaviors the child may enter foster care with due to sometimes years of abuse, any issues that accompany the mother using alcohol or drugs while pregnant with the child, a history of medical neglect of the child, and sadly, you have kids entering foster care who are, by definition, “special needs.”

In other words, they will be a handful.

So what sort of reform would change all that?

Val and Brian McCauley are leading the effort as former foster parents who say their hope is to give children the voice they don’t have unless the people who know them best, their foster parents and guardians ad litem, are respected and their input given its proper weight.

courtThe guardian ad litem is the child’s legal representative before the juvenile court, so the child already has a voice, and so does the guardian. In other states, the guardian ad litem is a court appointed attorney, but for some strange reason, in Idaho, it’s a private citizen who, after some hours of training, volunteers to represent the child. Fortunately, the guardian is appointed an attorney, but it seems like redundancy at best and a lack of professional perspective at worse. Not all but some Idaho guardian ad litems have thin or no boundaries when it comes to the child and impose their own personal values system on what they believe should be the outcome of the dependency case.

Seriously, one extreme example was a guardian recommending to the court that the parents undergo treatment to stop them from smoking (tobacco) cigarettes because second-hand smoke is unhealthy. The child in question had no respiratory disorder or other medical reason that made it more dangerous for him/her to be around a smoker than any other child. It was just a “values” thing.

Foster parents have no standing before the court, but they can give limited input since, after all, they are the primary physical caregivers of the child. However, they are not nor they should be parties to the legal case since their recommendations, because of their feelings for the foster child, it’s difficult for them to be objective in what they recommend (In worst case scenarios, can anyone say “foster-to-adopt?”).

They, along with Rep. Perry, want Idaho law clarified to restore judicial oversight of Health and Welfare decisions regarding foster children.

Everybody assumes that the children’s social services department has the last say about what goes on in a juvenile dependency case, but this isn’t true. Social services, the guardian ad litem, and of course, the child’s birth/legal parents are all legal parties, they all are represented by attorneys, and they all present evidence before the court. It’s the juvenile court judge who has the final say and who issues the legal orders.

I can’t say that all juvenile court justices are impartial or free of bias, but I can say that social services doesn’t always get a free pass either. Far from it in some instances.

So I’m not sure what “judicial oversight,” these foster parents and that state representative are talking about.

Second, they want a time frame established in which birth families must act to adopt. They say that way foster children won’t languish in limbo without the advantage of the bonding and attachment they believe is so necessary but often discouraged.

safe place for kids
Photo: safeplaceforkids.org

Some foster parents, probably most of them, just want to provide a safe place for neglected and abused kids while their parents go through whatever program the court orders them to and (hopefully), make themselves safe enough for their child’s eventual return. But a few foster parents become very attached to some (but hardly all) of their foster kids and want to keep them forever.

Besides attachment, the other motivation for foster parents to want to become a child’s permanent placement is the foster parents’ lifestyle vs. the birth parents’. Foster parents tend to be middle class with pretty traditional values, while some of these birth parents have a long history of drug and alcohol abuse, criminal behavior, have spent time in jail and/or prison, cuss, smoke cigarettes, and are anything but a match for what some foster parents think of as being able to provide a “good home”

And there are already strict federal guidelines regarding the time limit by which permanency, that is a permanent placement for the child, is to be achieved, either by being returned home, being adopted, or being placed in long-term care (not all kids are easily adoptable, especially those who aren’t newborn infants and white). Social services takes plenty of heat from the court for not completing a permanency plan for foster children within legal time frames.

I also should say that sometimes the barrier to returning a child to the home is the court itself, even when social services is in favor of said-return, so again, the court is the gatekeeper here.

But here’s the kicker:

And third, they want some way of preventing foster children from being moved from foster home to foster home unless there is a compelling safety issue behind that decision.

I don’t have statistics, but if memory serves, there have been many, many times when the foster parents themselves requested that social services remove a foster child from their home. It might be because the child was violent, threatened other foster kids, peed down the air vent, would horde food under their beds, were unruly, disobedient, kept running away, and so on. In other words, they were abused and neglected kids acting out their abuse and neglect. Go figure.

foster homeSocial services can’t force foster parents to take or keep a foster child. If the foster parents request or even demand a child be removed, that child will be removed and (again hopefully) be placed in a foster home that can manage the child’s behaviors more effectively.

OK, I get it. Being a foster parent is hard, damn hard. I’d never want to do it. You have to put up with a lot, and you get to know the child better than the assigned social worker and guardian ad litem. After all, the kid lives in your home and you see them all the time, not just on periodic visits.

The vast majority of foster parents are terrific. But a few give me a big case of heartburn.

This online article on foster care reform only tells a small part of the story, and frankly, it could look like the foster parents pictured in the news article are feathering their own nests a bit.

I briefly glanced at “Idaho Foster Care Reform’s” Facebook page, so I’m sure there’s more information about their point of view than was provided by the brief news story I’m referencing.

I also have to say that child social workers have an almost impossible job. Many/most are overloaded with cases (children/families) they are responsible for, and under legal time frames and regulations, have to see the kids, have to see the parents, have to visit the foster home, have to consult with the guardian ad litem, their attorney, the courts, develop time limited case plans, carry them out, often take a lot of guff from the parents, the guardian ad litem, sometimes from the foster parents, from the general public who think they’re a bunch of “baby stealers,” and still go home at night halfway sane.

For instance, on the Facebook page I mentioned above, someone made this comment:

The case workers know for a fact that bouncing a child from home to home cause attachment disorders, and yet with the cruel hearts that they have they do it. They cause their own turmoil on these children on top of what their own bio parents do. Idiots at their finest.

That’s nuts. Social workers want kids to be in a stable foster placement, not only because it’s in the best interest of the child, but because (I hate to say it, but it’s true) it’s a lot of work to keep moving a kid around. It takes time and resources that the social worker just doesn’t have. It’s crazy for people to blame the case worker when they’re the last person who wants to move a foster kid, especially out of some strange sense of spite or due to “cruel hearts.”

safeplaceYeah, there’s a lot of problems with “the system”. The first problem is that some kids live in homes with parents or caregivers who are so dangerous, they hurt the kids and neglect their basic needs. If the kids stay there, they’ll keep getting hurt, beaten, sexually assaulted, and a few may die.

The second problem is that, to protect these children, the state is empowered to remove them from their homes under the authority of the juvenile court system.

But then what’s supposed to happen, where are these children supposed to live, how are they to be treated, and broken, messed up little kids that they are, what home is going to be able to tolerate all of their behaviors and their needs?

That needs to be fixed. I’m not sure the people behind the above-referenced news story know how to do that, especially if they see children’s social services as the sole thing that’s “broken”.

Sorry to dump this on my audience, but every once in a while, I need to vent about something that has little or nothing to do with the stated purpose of this blogspot.

Let the comments begin.

9 thoughts on “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Foster Care”

  1. Hi James. Interesting points. I had no idea that the foster system in Idaho had such a weird GAL system. How ridiculous! To be honest, I think all sides of the foster system have problems with some of the aspects of the system. I would like to comment about bouncing kids from place to place. It’s actually easier to do this than to pay for services to help a traumatized child. For example, respite providers, therapeutic mentors, and in-home service providers are a LOT of expense and paperwork. I’ve seen kids separated from siblings and moved because they wanted to see if a “chance of scenery” would help. It doesn’t. Separating siblings and not providing counseling services to a child is just beyond the pale. No one is perfect. In CT there is a trained clinician assigned to each kinship placement for the first 6 months. They make service recommendations, mental health appointments, and additional trauma training and/or parenting advice to the kinship placement. I wish we did this for all foster placements. It isn’t even always provided for all birth families involved with CPS. That’s unfortunate because it could prevent so much trauma and heartbreak.

  2. @HerdingChickens: Welcome. I agree that the problems with the foster care system are multi-layered and multi-factored. Sometimes it does come down to decisions made by the individual case worker, but the matter of shuffling foster kids around different parts of the system has multiple causes. Certainly expense can be one of them.

    I wrote this blog posts mainly to object to the accusation that only the social service agency and specifically “malfunctioning” case workers could be the only culprit.

    As far as Idaho’s approach to GALs, there are many things about how this state approaches governmental services that are kind of “off” compared to other states. Idahoans are fiercely independent, and I think that extends to how state government runs. It doesn’t like to imitate any other state, especially California. I think that’s slowly changing, but governments are slow to change.

  3. It has been too many years since I had learned of VOCAL (Victims of Child Abuse Laws). Unfortunately, if is wasn’t for the number of false reports that require follow-up, there would be more time and resources for the real victims that need help. I have a personal experience with this due to my neighbor seeking revenge. He shot our cat. My husband told him the next time he shoots his gun he will report him. He did. The neighbor retaliated by ‘hotlining’ us for child abuse. Foolish me, I call my state representative wanting to know how I can face my accuser. That is when I learned the accuser becomes the state. How do I prove malicious intent on the state? Thank the L-rd nothing came from it. It was closed, however, something else I learned, our names would remain in the data as reported child abusers. At that time, we were blessed with a truly caring representative and fully understood we didn’t like having our name smudged by keeping us on a list. He agreed and worked on a bill to change that. I do not know if he succeeded. The way it is set up, I don’t know if the system can be fixed. Those poor children that suffer! I wish it could be fixed!

    1. Anyone can call in an allegation of child abuse but not all such calls become a report or actionable. I used to take those reports for a living, so I know how it works.

      The allegations have to meet the legal definition of child abuse or neglect. Assuming they do and all other necessary conditions exist, a report is created and forwarded for assignment to an investigator.

      An investigation is just that. It’s the process of attempting to determine if the allegations have any sort of substance or not. I’ve done plenty of investigations where I’ve unsubstantiated the allegations, that is, I saw that the evidence did not support what was alleged to have happened.

      As far as your names being on file, well the state can’t destroy records just because the allegations were unsubstantiated, nor can they make a family “child abuse report proof”. From an outside agency’s point of view, they can’t know if you’ll ever treat your children in an abusive manner, so it’s prudent to keep the records. Records retention, as you’ve noted, is also specified by law, so the agency or an individual investigator aren’t picking on you.

      It would be nice to only respond to cases of actual child abuse, but that’s impossible. It would be like telling the fire department to only go out on cases where there’s really a fire and somehow know which reports are false or mistaken.

  4. your comment on juvenile court judge having final decision is incorrect.
    when it comes to placing a foster child the guardian at litem attorney they can only make recommendations and judge has no authority. state has no problem reminding judge that he has no authority over placement.

    I am a foster parent of two girls. state said they are removing them.
    they could not give reason why. the court appointed girls an attorney.
    3 attorneys 1 judge 3 counselor’s recommend not removing girls.
    the state says they are removing them anyways.
    that’s why this reform act is so important. the state needs to be held accountable for decisions made. Decisions need to be made based on needs of foster child.

    1. I agree that the court has no say in exactly which foster home a child is to be placed. That’s not the court’s function. I can’t speak to your situation and I don’t even know which state you are in (although I could find out from your IP address). Unless I had access to both sides of the story, I couldn’t know for sure why things happen in specific situations. It’s all too easy to make assumptions without facts.

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