Advocates question whether foster kids should be placed close to home
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DCS tries to balance safety with familiarity
By Janell Ross
August 9, 2009 / tennessean.com
In the case of Stevie Noelle Milburn, a 15-year-old Dyersburg, Tenn., girl who loved soccer, dancing and singing, some facts aren't in dispute.
Three days after Stevie's move, Christopher Milburn, 34, walked down the street to shoot and kill his daughter and his neighbor. A short distance away, he took his own life. People in the city of 17,000 about 80 miles northwest of Memphis raised money so Stevie's mother could take her body home to Oregon.
But what former foster children and those who knew Stevie — and some who didn't — are debating is the wisdom of placing a child at the center of an abuse investigation in a home so close to her accused abuser.
"Were the right decisions made in this case? I don't pretend to have any of those answers," said the Rev. Gary Meade, pastor of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Dyersburg, the church Stevie's caretakers attended. Meade also is a former lawyer and foster father who adopted two children.
"This story highlights the reality of social work. There are laws and there are policies. The challenge is in how those laws and policies intersect with real life."
Some answers lie in a collection of state laws, Department of Children's Services policies and practices endorsed by the National Association of Public Child Welfare Workers. Together, they call for most parents to be consulted about places where their children can stay while investigations are under way and for children to be placed in homes near their families.
But some things will never be known because state law shields abuse investigations like Stevie's from public view.
Girl wasn't in foster care
In Tennessee, 5,333 children were in state custody at the end of June. There are 11,770 open investigations, some of which involve children, like Stevie, who have not been legally removed from their parents' custody but are living with relatives or friends under the terms of what's called an "immediate protection agreement."
She was not in foster care, said Rob Johnson, spokesman for the Department of Children's Services.
The Tennessee Department of Children's Services does not regularly track the number of children living under an immediate protection agreement, said Stacy Miller, the agency's general counsel. The Tennessean requested a review of case files involving immediate protection agreements between July 2008 and July 2009. It revealed one death — a child drowned while with a babysitter. That case is under investigation.
Johnson said the department will review its actions in Stevie's case. And, as with every child's death in Tennessee, a county health department-led team will review her death to determine if it was, in any way, preventable.
As a standard part of the initial investigation into unsubstantiated allegations like Stevie's, the department often works with the family and child to identify a safe, neutral space where the child might stay for at least a short time. It's a process that happens quickly but carefully, said Carla Aaron, the Department of Children's Services executive director for child safety.
Caseworkers make a number of observations about birth and host families, the child and his parents' safety and mental stability as well as any criminal records of the people involved. State records show Christopher Milburn had no Tennessee arrests and served no time in prison here.
"If we thought there was danger, we would not go down the road of doing an IPA," Aaron said. "We might pursue protective custody. … In this case, we had no indication that this was a dangerous situation at all."
Protective custody gives the state at least temporary custody of a child and in most cases will lead to a placement in a foster home. If family issues can't be resolved or corrected, it can lead to years in foster care or, ultimately, adoption.
DCS practice criticized
Nashville attorney Natasha Blackshear, an alumna of the New York state foster care system, said she doesn't believe the practice of placing children in their home communities — either for the night or for years — is best.
"I think that that's one of those policies that's been made with a middle-class, blond-haired, blue-eyed child in mind," said Blackshear, who serves on the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. "The child that benefits from that policy comes from a middle-class neighborhood with good schools or is the kind of child that people are looking to adopt.
"But that's not the story with most of the kids that come into the system. A lot of them come from the ghetto, from neighborhoods where the trouble isn't just in their home and from bad schools."
Blackshear said the close-to-home approach to placements is part of the reason only 25 percent of the children in state custody have earned a high school diploma or equivalent or are working by their 18th birthday. And, when parents are accused of abuse, Blackshear believes that some additional care and caution need to be taken to protect children, she said.
"Even when there are unproven accusations, it does seem like some additional caution, more than two doors' distance, might be a good idea," she said.
Ex-foster kids weigh in
There are benefits to keeping foster children near the schools, stores, gathering places and perhaps places of worship they know, said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children's Rights, a New York-based nonprofit child advocacy agency. The agency in the late 1990s brought a civil rights suit against Tennessee over the state's treatment of children in its care.
"Safety trumps everything and has to come first," Lustbader said. "But it's an important goal because the experience of being removed from one's home and placed in foster care is in itself traumatic, and you don't want to expose that child to any additional trauma."
Lustbader said there is not enough publicly available information about the Dyersburg case to assess whether the appropriate balance was struck between Stevie's emotional and physical safety needs.
Some former foster children agree with the idea that children in state care belong closer to their families of origin. Krista Noel said she was 13 when false allegations of sexual abuse led the Department of Children's Services to remove her sister and her from their homeless mother's custody.
Noel's sister, then a student at Hume-Fogg High School, asked to be placed in a home in Nashville so that she could continue attending the magnet school. Noel says she wasn't asked where she wanted to go and ended up in Baxter, Tenn., about 70 miles east of Nashville.
"Even though DCS was taking me, had I had a say, I would have wanted to stay in Nashville," said Noel, 24, an expectant mother and waitress. "I would have already known my community and I wouldn't have felt so like I was alone.
"Not that race is so much an issue, but I'm mixed with black and white. In Baxter, there's not that many black people."
Today, she serves on the Tennessee Youth Advisory Council, which works to give children in the state system a voice.
"Even now, not many kids have a choice or a say in where they are placed," Noel said. "Children who know their rights are able to advocate for themselves. But in most cases, youth don't know what's going on. They don't know what rights they have."