New Records Released in Case of Foster Parent Licensed Despite Abusive Past

June 7, 2011 / firstcoastnews.com

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.  --  A background check the Department of Children and Families did on one Jacksonville woman before it issued her licenses to operate a day care and be a foster parent did not reveal her abusive past, according to new DCF records.

DCF gave Annette Smith a license to operate a day care in 2001 and one to be a foster parent in 2004. But Smith was convicted of child abuse in 1991, which according to DCF's foster care checklist is a disqualifier.

According to DCF, it did a background check on Smith. Documents  just released from the agency are partially redacted, but a check done by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement only shows Smith's 1992 and 1993 DUI arrests and convictions. DUI is not a disqualifier.

Smith's records also note that caseworkers checked the Florida Abuse History system, which had no records of allegations against Smith. DCF did not release any information on why Smith's child abuse charge was not found.

"This is a very complicated case; the issues will be fought out in court. In doing the required checks, both with FDLE and with Duval County, her child abuse background did not show up," the department said in a statement.

Records show DCF and Family Support Services (FSS), the agency it hired to monitor Smith, noted Smith's abusive past in 2006 when she was arrested and later convicted of abusing a foster child.

An email from DCF's program management director said, "...the children were thrilled to leave (Smith's home) My question is why didn't one of (FSS') caseworkers pick this up?"

FSS notes in a different email that Smith had an over-capped home, meaning she was fostering more children than she was licensed for.

The email states, "FSS created a Safety Action Plan...to implement immediately for all over-capped homes."

The plan ordered the homes be "....visited by a licensing support specialist minimally once per month."

FSS' CEO Jim Adams released a statement saying, "I wish I could comment in full but this is an ongoing civil case. I will tell you though we are determined to find the answer. We've come light years in the protection of our most vulnerable children and we will not lose ground in our battle to keep them safe."

Adams said the process of checking someone's abuse history is much better today than when Smith's was checked. 

Smith didn't answer her door at home. But she called first Coast News and said she didn't remember being convicted on the 1991 child abuse case. Then she hung up. 

DCF revoked Smith's license after her 2006 child abuse arrest, but Smith fought back. In a letter to DCF, Smith wrote, "I'm not an abuser, nor a neglecter. I'm the righteousness of God... How long will I be penalized for a report that happened in 1991? Can it be removed?"

Then she asked DCF to reconsider restoring her foster care license.

Smith's case is rare, but it's happened before, according to the FDLE.

Arresting agencies are responsible for getting the information on convictions to FDLE. It's unclear if that was not done in Smith's 1991 case.

A civil lawsuit has been filed against FSS alleging neglect in monitoring Smith and how she was caring for two foster kids.

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The God-Factor in Social Services

PPL has archived enough religious-abuse cases to see a decent warning-sign that ought to be investigated, for the sake of children put in-care. My personal favorites include those fundamentalists who beat and torture their fostered/adopted, as exampled by the Lydia Schatz case, the Brian Edgar case, the  Albert Smith case, and of course, the case involving  Eunice Spry.

As I understand the foster licensing process, as described in my comment, Let's Review, step 3 is where references are provided by the applicant, and following that step is the one-on-one interview with a SW.

Step Four (out of seven, remember?) is when the candidate reviews the application with an assigned social worker.  I'm hoping this social worker has experience and skills that go beyond the simple task of asking questions from a sheet of paper, and writing in the verbal response given.  This is the third time questions from candidates can be asked... it's the third time a social worker can inquire more about the person considering foster-care/adoption.  Next step is the 'mutual assessment' and home study.  I will use the text used on adoptuskids.org:

This is when the agency licensing or family worker meets with you in your home to talk about your:

  • Personal history
  • Family relationships
  • Reasons for wanting to foster or adopt
  • Support systems you have available to you.

The worker will determine whether your home is safe and has sufficient space for a foster or adopted child. The point of this step is to help you and the agency make the best possible decisions about whether placement of a child in your home will out, and the characteristics of the children whom you are most able to parent.

At any point, during this long approval process, are religious beliefs and convictions like "discipline" and "punishment" ever discussed with the candidate (who will receive monthly subsidy payments) in great depth? I believe this is an important but often glossed-over detail, one that needs more attention and monitoring than it gets, as any candidate can say she doesn't believe spanking is a first-choice method to discipline/correct a child.  As many of our abuse cases prove, many of these fanatics don't spank, per se, but use alternate methods, like starvation, deprivation, isolation, and duct tape to control a child's behavior, instead.  In addition, any candidate with two or more functioning brain cells will submit recommending references written by friends, who share and follow basic core beliefs, (like punishing the crap out of a child for wrong-doing), making those particular recommendations biased in a way that may prove to be dangerous for any child put in that person's care.

I would like to think today's SW is experienced enough to know a phrase like, "I'm not an abuser, nor a neglecter. I'm the righteousness of God... ", is enough of a red flag to put the kibosh on a foster plan.... for the sake of the child needing quality care.

Corporal punishment isn't allowed here

I can't speak for agencies in the US but here in Oz it is absolutely forbidden for foster parents to physically punish children in their care.  Any physical punishment would be reported by the agency to the statutory authority and would need to be investigated.  Carers are clearly told what is acceptable and unacceptable when it comes to punishment of any kind. For example, food must never be used as a form of punishment (i.e. withholding a meal because the child won't do whatever). 

Fundamental beliefs would be looked at very carefully in regards to both a foster carer's ability to be flexible in their expectations and their capacity to manage behaviour that doesn't match their own values - as well as their capacity to respect and accommodate any beliefs that a child may already hold. 

Post placement monitoring

I know based on my own readings, post-placement monitoring - or the lack there-of, in the US, Canada, and UK  has been a real issue for both foster and adoption services.  In fact, in some cases, one might even be able to say the care provided by a foster parent may be better than the care given an adoptive parent, simply because all mandatory tabs on the child have been stopped.

Anya James was a foster mom for more then ten years and state officials say she passed every check and balance required to keep children in her care. 

After James finalized the adoption of her sixth child, the state says they had no legal reason to keep tabs on the family.
.... it’s clear that the children suffered harm but whether the system was at fault is still to be decided.
More frustrating is the response given by agency representatives, after a case of abuse gets reported by the media.  Most, if not all, child welfare representatives refuse to comment on whether caseworkers had adequately monitored the family, and most if not all would refuse to provide any details about the living victim's status.   One particular archived article in the PPL pages has gone into great detail how agencies are still struggling with post-placement monitoring, for the sake and best interest of the child in-care.  I urge others to read the article in it's entirety, but here is a excerpt, so readers can appreciate the exercise in futility a child advocate has when dealing with the child protective/child placement system:

When asked, 2-year-old Joshua Saccone told DCF investigators in Palm Beach County that his mother’s boyfriend beat him. In one report, the boy told investigators that “Junior hit him and it hurts,” referring to his mother’s boyfriend. His mother promised to keep the boyfriend away. Joshua died in August 2000 after he was beaten to death.

A Palm Beach County grand jury followed, as did another one in Broward a year later.

The third paragraph of the 73-page report warned, “Stability, organization and common sense, hallmarks of successful public systems, are lamentably absent from Broward County’s child welfare system.”

A year later, another panel was formed — this time to study how a 5-year-old foster child had disappeared.

A DCF case worker had lied for months about making visits to the foster home of Miami’s Rilya Wilson. Her foster mother, Geralyn Graham, had a criminal history, including welfare-fraud allegations, authorities somehow overlooked.

It was more than a year before authorities noticed she was missing; they waited another week before calling police.

A blue ribbon panel was appointed, held public meetings, issued angry statements and wrote a page-turning final report. Among its recommendations: Immediately call law enforcement when a child is believed to be missing. Pay caseworkers and supervisors better, but also based on their performance. Streamline policies to focus on preventing abuse and neglect.

Five years after Rilya, when Courtney Clark vanished in the Tampa Bay area, a private caseworker waited four months before reporting her disappearance to police.

The toddler was found alive — in a rural Wisconsin home. Locked in the closet was an 11-year-old torture victim. Buried in the yard under newly planted flowers: a woman’s body.

Courtney’s task force, once again, recommended establishing a “zero tolerance policy” for caseworkers and investigators who fail to call police when a child disappears.

In a 37-page report following the latest death, the missing children recommendations from both Courtney and Rilya’s panels were marked “completed.’’

Still, when investigators failed to find twins Nubia and Victor Barahona after a Feb. 10 report that they were being tied up and locked in a bathroom — and a report two days later that Nubia had vanished — police were never called. The February reports were the last of nearly a dozen made to the abuse hot line about Nubia in her short life. Several calls came from educators — would-be “heroes,’’ according to the panel, had their words been heeded.

The twins went missing for four days until, on Feb. 14, a road ranger found them on the side of Interstate 95 in West Palm Beach. Victor was awash in chemicals and having seizures inside his adoptive father’s pest control truck. Jorge Barahona was nearby, passed out.
Nubia’s body was decomposing in a trash bag inside the truck bed.

Police reports described hellish abuse of the twins in the home of their adoptive mother and father: tied hand and foot, confined to a bathtub, beaten, starved and “tortured.’’ Victor, police said, listened helplessly as his twin was beaten to death on the other side of a bathroom wall. She shrieked until her crying suddenly stopped.

DCF’s newest secretary called for a panel to act quickly. Among its members was Roberto Martinez, a former U.S. attorney who, even as a top federal prosecutor, cannot recall anything quite as horrible as the torment of Nubia and her brother.

The recommendations of Martinez and his two colleagues — children’s advocate David Lawrence, Jr. and former assistant Florida Department of Law Enforcement commissioner James Sewell — could have been cut-and-pasted from many others:

Place greater weight on the fears of educators. Call police at the first sign of a missing child. Review a child’s entire history when investigating abuse allegations, not just the last call. Avoid interviewing alleged victims in front of their reported abusers. Seek help from the Child Protection Team, the experts in evaluating child abuse.

[From:  Déjà vu over child deaths in Florida, 2011 ] 

So, I understand your statement,
here in Oz it is absolutely forbidden for foster parents to physically punish children in their care.  Any physical punishment would be reported by the agency to the statutory authority and would need to be investigated.  Carers are clearly told what is acceptable and unacceptable when it comes to punishment of any kind. For example, food must never be used as a form of punishment (i.e. withholding a meal because the child won't do whatever).  
To your knowledge, how is post-placement monitoring addressed in Australia, (and elsewhere, if any one else wants to add...) ?  Is it the system that is different, or is the quality of social workers that much better, making a real positive difference for the children put in-care?

Post-placement monitoring

I can only speak about the situation in foster care in my home state and I can't really comment on a comparison between caseworkers here (who have qualifications in either social work or psychology) and those in the USA. However, I know that agencies here have strict criteria that they have to report on a six-monthly basis, including demonstrating ongoing training of foster carers and caseworkers, up-to-date files (which are audited), medical, educational and social development of every child in care, and a range of other performance indicators.
Post-placement monitoring varies, depending on the particular court orders the child is on. When a child first comes into care, either on a VCA (voluntary care order) or after emergency action has been taken by CPS, the child would be visited every week in their foster placement. 
If the child was then put on short to long-term orders rather than being restored to the care of the birth family, the caseworker would continue to visit the child every four-to-six weeks if the foster care placement was stable, and more often if there were challenges in the placement.
If a child was in a long-term positive placement for a period of more than two years, contact arrangements with birth family were amicable and stable, and everyone was in agreement that the child's interests would be served by a permanency order - the child's court order could then be changed to either EPR (enduring parental responsibility) or adoption.  In either case, this would mean that the ongoing regular contact with the agency and CPS would cease.  The rationale for this is that it is better to normalise the child's situation in a very stable family by discontinuing the active involvement of caseworkers.  These orders are only pursued after an assessment recommends the change of order and an inter-agency panel meeting approves moving to EPR or adoption. 
If there are concerns such as questions about the care provided by the foster carers, concerns about the child's development, an antagonistic relationship between the foster and birth families, or other concerning issues, then the child would remain on long-term orders and a caseworker would visit the family every six weeks if there were no particular issues.
Bear in mind that it is not necessarily in every child's best interests to have regular intrusion into their lives by a caseworker.  Many foster children resent being made to feel different by having to see a worker so regularly year after year, especially if they are not having any particular issues and feel comfortable in the home and family they've lived in for years. Sometimes, caseworkers face considerable difficulty actually getting together with teens for a regular visit because the teenager resents this regular reminder that they are in care. 

Reporting abuse

Wow... that was a great comprehensive over-view.... thank you.

An on-going problem I see is how/when abuse post-placement gets reported, as discussed after the comment, MANDATORY CHILD ABUSE REPORTERS:, and how it relates to those who are home-schooled and not exposed to doctors, nurses, teachers or other professionals obligated by law to report suspicions related to child neglect/abuse.

But there are other cases where a victim will report to others about about poor treatment in-care, but those claims are overlooked or not investigated because the accuser is a child victim, or an older foster teen with a questionable reputation.  

In other cases, the accused will go on the defense, and make claims against the child like, "the child has a mental illness", or "the child is lying (and has a history of manipulating people).".  In one reported case, we have an accused Afather who went well beyond the expected counter-claim and has allegedly intimidated witnesses from cooperating with police, conspired with a teenager to break into his home and steal evidence before police could seize it, and gave $400 to a victim to send him on a bus to Utah to obstruct the investigation !

So what is a victim to do if the care-taker in question ends-up defending his/her own reputation by making claims against the child, or bullies the child into quiet submission?

Any suggestions how this type of situation can be taken more seriously, for the sake of the child put in-care?

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