Foster care too often fails to keep kids safe
By Patricia Callahan and Kirk Mitchell
Denver Post Staff Writers
May 21 - © 2000 The Denver Post Corp.
Eleven children were molested. One was forced to have sex with a dog.
One lay injured on a bathroom floor, his face smeared with his own feces. That toddler, Miguel Arias-Baca, later died.
They are the state's dirty little secrets.
Foster children, wards of the state taken from abusive or neglectful relatives, suffered again in foster homes that were supposed to keep them from harm.
Colorado child-welfare officials have watched these horror stories and many others unfold in foster homes chosen and supervised by private foster-care businesses.
Yet, the state has done little or nothing to punish the businesses responsible for the children whose lives were damaged.
In fact, the state continues to pour millions in taxpayer funds - $36.7 million last fiscal year - into private agencies, which now oversee more than half of Colorado's foster kids and collect more than three-quarters of the public's foster-care dollars.
While state officials have made hollow threats to foster-care agencies that repeatedly break state rules, some foster parents and agency executives are mak ing six-figure incomes from the business of foster care.
Foster-care businesses "by and large are cash cows," said K.C. Robbie, who manages financial data for the state's child-welfare division.
A Denver Post investigation revealed that the state's private foster-care system too often fails to protect abused and neglected kids.
Responsibility lies both with the Legislature, which controls the laws governing foster care, and the state Department of Human Services, which is supposed to protect the vulnerable children in foster care.
Among The Post's findings:
- About 40 percent of the 2,440 children in the private foster-care system are supervised by businesses whose records included serious problems, such as using former criminals as foster parents, placing kids in homes where they later were abused or molested, or repeatedly violating state rules.
- Virtually anyone can become a foster parent with a private business, including most felons and people with alcohol, drug or serious psychological problems. The standards for becoming a mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado far exceed those for becoming a foster parent in Colorado.
- The state pays three times more for private foster care than it does for traditional, county-supervised foster homes, records show. Yet the two systems provide the same level of care, a 1998 state audit found.
- Government officials say they can't regulate how taxpayer money is spent by foster-care businesses. The state doesn't even know how much money the agencies pay their foster parents, the audit found. State officials say they have no power to prevent foster-care businesses from spending state subsidies for children on expensive offices and big salaries.
- Foster parents often skip from one business to another. Some foster parents have fallen into trouble at one agency, quietly quit and slipped to another agency that was unaware of the previous problems.
- Colorado's system is unusual. It is one of only three states to grant permanent licenses to foster-care businesses. One state doesn't license private agencies. All others have licenses that must be renewed, giving those states leverage to get problems fixed. And, Colorado is one of only 11 states that divide child-welfare duties between state and county offices, a split that critics say diffuses responsibility and accountability.
- Colorado asks foster-care businesses to report their own failings. The state, lacking money to send out the "self-assessment" forms each year, asks private agencies to re-use old forms with a different color pen.
Last year the state Department of Human Services declared the private foster-care network, which it oversees, to be primarily healthy.
"More than 85 percent of the facilities provide good care to children, costeffectively, and conduct their business responsibly," the department report said. "Foster parents, in almost all cases, provide safe, nurturing environments for the children in placement." While many of the state's 40 private foster-care agencies have no serious problems, 11 foster-care businesses together amassed 1,057 violations of state rules from 1994 to 1999, state records show.
"When you have a system where there is virtually no accountability, these types of abuses are inevitable and simply predictable," said Phyllis Roestenberg, a staff attorney at the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center. "Our system is sick." For this investigation, The Denver Post crunched 1.8 million computer records from five state databases and examined every inspection report and abuse complaint in the private agencies' state files. Reporters reviewed police reports, court records, tax returns, and interviewed experts, foster parents, government officials and agency executives.
When shown The Post's results, a national child advocate was shocked.
"There are big problems in foster care nationally, but if what you're describing is going on in the Colorado system, it certainly ranks up there with among the worst of the systems in the country," said Marcia Robinson Lowry, director of Children's Rights Inc., a New York-based organization that has sued 11 cities and states for failing to protect kids.
"If this has been going on for a long time and the state has not acted to correct these problems, this is a system that is really ripe for litigation."
Marva Livingston Hammons, a member of Gov. Bill Owens' cabinet and head of Colorado's Human Services Department, vowed to hold her staff accountable. Agencies should not be allowed to violate state foster-care rules repeatedly without consequences, she said.
"We have to be willing to take action," Hammons said.
The problems in Colorado's privatized foster care stem in part from the explosion of foster-care businesses and the state's inability to keep up with them.
The number of foster-care homes supervised by businesses has increased by 800 percent in 13 years. In 1986, the state had 203 privately supervised foster homes. This year, there are 1,844.
A handful of child-placement agencies - the state's name for the foster-care businesses - appeared in the 1940s to manage adoptions.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, counties had difficulty finding foster homes for kids who needed more help because of mental disabilities or severe medical problems.
The state turned to the businesses and increased the typical foster-care subsidy.
"Sometimes the rates paid to private agencies to serve disabled children were higher because they literally had to bring in extra help from the outside to serve their needs," said Dana Andrews, the state administrator who oversees the licensing of foster-care businesses.
That soon changed. The explosion came in the early to mid-1990s. Foster parents who were working for counties began defecting to the private agencies, where the subsidies remained much higher and the help was rumored to be better.
More private businesses appeared to compete for the subsidies. They, in turn, recruited more foster parents.
And the money followed.
Colorado developed a two-tiered system, public and private. Today, some 57 percent of foster children are placed in homes supervised by private businesses, while the rest are in county-supervised foster homes. But 78 percent of the $47.2 million the state spent on foster care last year went to private foster-care businesses.
In fiscal 1999, the average monthly subsidy for a child in privatized foster care was $1,529, while the average subsidy for a child in a county foster home was $519, according to the state.
Part of that larger subsidy is supposed to cover basic administrative costs and staff. Counties already have staff to cover those responsibilities. It also can include the cost of therapy.
In addition, the state and the foster-care industry claim that the private sector runs "therapeutic foster homes," where highly trained foster parents take in kids with more severe problems.
A Post computer analysis of foster-child records found about an equal number of children deemed "high risk" in both county and private-agency foster homes. The state database did not provide a risk factor for roughly the same number of children in both types of homes.
The state auditor in 1998 found "no evidence that (privately managed) foster homes provide a higher quality of care than do the county-administered homes." Auditors questioned the cost difference, noting private businesses have spent as much as 65 percent of state subsidies on administration and other costs not related to children's care.
"Unlike many other publicly funded programs, there are no limits on what is spent or retained for administrative purposes," auditors wrote, adding that the rate disparity "cannot be adequately justified."
The state says it lacks the manpower to keep up with the ballooning number of foster-care businesses. Until last February, the Human Services Department had only eight people to monitor and inspect not just foster-care businesses but also facilities that house and treat children with psychological problems. Six of those people also monitored adoption agencies and supervised other state workers who inspected preschools, school extended-care programs and daycare homes and centers. A fiveperson monitoring team began working in April.
Marilyn Bernier, now the state's deputy licensing administrator, said that when she was an inspector, she had nightmares about children being in danger as she juggled cases last year. Bernier inspected 25 foster-care businesses, supervised four people and monitored a company that in turn was responsible for inspecting 700 day-care homes.
"We're supposed to be protecting children and making them safe, and then they get placed in situations where they are re-abused," Bernier said. "That is very scary to me. I couldn't let it go." Although Colorado's system follows a national privatization trend in foster care, some policy decisions have made the state's approach unusual.
Colorado sets itself apart by dividing child-welfare responsibilities between its 63 counties and the state. Under this structure, state officials supervise both the county social services departments and the private agencies.
The state typically doesn't visit the private-agency foster homes. That's left to county caseworkers. Instead, the state reviews the files the businesses keep on foster kids.
Those businesses are supposed to supervise their own homes and report abuse cases to the county. County caseworkers investigate abuse complaints in foster homes. State inspectors then step in and look for licensing violations.
Critics say the system diffuses authority, lets abuse cases fall through the cracks and allows state and county workers to blame each other when things go wrong in foster care.
Also, the private agencies have a financial incentive to keep their foster homes open. If agencies close homes, they lose subsidies.
Richard Wexler, a critic of the way foster-care money is spent, called this practice "the ultimate example of the fox guarding the henhouse."
"You are expecting these private agencies to turn themselves in and say, "We've been bad,'- " said Wexler, who heads the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. "You will have children suffering enormous harm in secret behind closed doors."
Asked about her experience in private-agency foster care, one teenager called foster parents in two of her previous homes "money grubbers." When a county cut the monthly subsidy for the girl to $800, her foster mom told an agency caseworker that the girl "wasn't worth $800," according to an internal agency memo.
While other states face a shortage of foster parents, Colorado has plenty of foster homes for kids with all but the most severe needs, state officials say. In addition to the financial incentive to recruit more foster parents, relatives of abused children are coming forward to care for them, according to the state.
"We've seen a tremendous surge in the number of foster homes," said Jane Beveridge, director of the state's child-welfare division.
Many of those homes are run by dedicated foster parents who have helped turn troubled children's lives around. Some of Colorado's foster-care businesses run smoothly.
But some foster-care businesses have recruited foster parents with criminal records or questionable backgrounds.
Alpine Child Placement Agency recruited a Lakewood foster mom even though she had pleaded guilty to solicitation for prostitution. She had received a deferred judgment.
A Fort Collins woman who was charged with selling drugs out of her day-care home was later recruited by two different fostercare businesses. She pleaded guilty to drug possession and received a deferred judgment, court records show.
When that woman worked for Fort Collins-based Jacob Family Services Inc., her biological son sexually assaulted her 14-year-old foster daughter, court records show. That son also received a deferred judgment.
With her son awaiting trial, she moved to Maple Star Colorado, another foster-care business. When she left her foster children at home alone, her 15-year-old foster son forced two 9-year-old foster brothers to have sex with each other and made one of the boys have sex with a dog, court records show. Previously, that 15-year-old raped one of the 9-year-old boys, accord ing to court records.
Skipping from one agency to another when trouble arises is common. And sometimes it can have deadly results.
Last year, 2 1/2-year-old Miguel Arias-Baca was killed in a foster home supervised by All About Kids, a private business. Ricky Haney, his foster father, was charged with smearing Miguel's face in his own feces and throwing the toddler to the floor with enough force to cause fatal bleeding in his brain.
Haney, who pleaded guilty to a felony child abuse charge two weeks ago, told police he had returned home from a Super Bowl party and was upset that Miguel had soiled his diaper. Haney and his wife, E'von, both had arrest records that went undetected because of a glitch at the state's investigative bureau.
Prior to joining All About Kids, the Haneys worked for Synthesis, another private foster-care agency. But they left that agency after an abuse allegation was lodged against them, state officials said. Investigators didn't substantiate the allegation, but Synthesis dropped them as foster parents.
"Looking back on it, there were all kinds of red flags," the state's Andrews told a panel of child-welfare experts last year.
The quality of foster parents varies because the businesses have different screening procedures and standards. Some private agencies do very thorough "home studies," mandated assessments of a family's ability to care for a foster child. Other agencies' home studies are flimsy. Some agencies have failed to document prospective foster parents' problems with alcoholism, addictions and psychiatric conditions, state records show.
"These are private businesses," said licensing administrator Andrews. "We don't have the right to tell private agencies who they can certify (as foster parents) and who they can't." The state requires agencies to get criminal records on each potential foster parent. But the only people barred from becoming foster parents are those convicted of certain felonies including some violent crimes, domestic violence, child abuse and sex offenses.
The state does not forbid agencies from certifying prospective foster parents who are "insane or mentally incompetent," who have problems with alcohol or drugs or who are convicted of misdemeanor child abuse or misdemeanor violent crimes.
A state regulation says agencies may exclude people who fit those categories. But they don't have to.
Six years ago, the Legislature inadvertently made it more difficult to crack down on problem agencies.
The state once granted foster care agencies and other child-care businesses licenses that had to be renewed every two years. If agencies broke rules, the state could refuse to renew a license.
But state inspectors monitored so many agencies that they weren't processing renewals on time.
"If your caseload is too big, and you can't get out to visit them, they had a license hanging on the wall that looked like it was expired," Andrews said.
Child-care businesses balked. Rather than requesting enough licensing workers to do the job, the Human Services Department asked the Legislature for permanent li censes instead of renewable ones.
Now the state asks agencies to perform a "self assessment" when they send in their licensing fees every year. They are given a checklist of state rules, and they are asked to say whether they are following them. That way, visits by state inspectors don't take as long.
Some agencies don't fill out the checklist on time because the state doesn't send out the forms every year.
"We don't have the money to send them (checklists) out, so they're supposed to use the same form but a different pen," said Bernier, the deputy licensing administrator.
Some advocates think the selfassessment process is absurd: What agency is going to say it chronically breaks state rules?
"It's outrageous," said Roestenberg, of the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center. "For the convenience of the licensing agency, we assume these enormous risks on the backs of children." If state inspectors catch a bad agency, their only recourse is a suspension, revocation or probation of the business' license, or the state can levy a fine.
It took three years for the state to put one foster-care business' license on probation.
And sometimes the state threatens an agency but doesn't follow through.
After a foster father with Grand Junction-based Jacob Center West sexually assaulted his foster son in 1996, a state inspector said, "There is a large amount of culpability that lies with Jacob Center West."
The investigator threatened the agency's license if another abuse case occurred in one of its homes. The agency, now known as Gateway Youth and Family Services, since has had five substantiated abuse complaints in its foster homes. The state has done nothing to the business' license.
Prompted by The Post's investigation, Andrews launched a review of Gateway and several other foster-care businesses. She said a newly formed team of five childwelfare monitors will hold agencies more accountable.
"I think what you're seeing is a pattern of very high caseloads and staff who have a lot to do and can't focus on one agency," Andrews said. "That's where you miss the followup. You write it down and you move on to 20 other things." Patricia Callahan's e-mail address is Pcallahan@denverpost.com. Kirk Mitchell's e-mail address is Kmitchell@denverpost.com.