Gaps exposed in system meant to shield foster, adoptive children

Date: 2012-02-10
Source: SC Times

Gaps exposed in system meant to shield foster, adoptive children
Written by Kirsti Marohn and David Unze

sctimes.com

Files from the Dunham case are shown at the Stearns County Attorneys office Thursday, Dec. 1. / Jason Wachter, jwachter@stcloudtimes.com

Key findings from today’s report

» In Minnesota, counties and some private agencies handle licensing of foster homes and place children with minimal state oversight.

» One nonprofit, Downey Side, issued foster care licenses to Paul and Paula Dunham three times without approval to exceed state rules limiting family size.

» Unless there’s a complaint or a family’s file is randomly inspected during a review, the state Department of Human Services might never learn about a licensing violation in a foster home.

» The Times’ inquiry into the Dunham case has prompted DHS to consider sharing more information internally when there’s a problem.

Roma Steil's career in human services spanned four decades, but the case of Paul and Paula Dunham was like nothing she'd ever encountered.

Questions about it kept her awake at night. How did this happen? Who was responsible? How did one family get so many adopted children?

The answers were elusive, even for Steil, the seasoned administrator of Stearns County’s human services department, which is responsible for child protection cases.

The situation landed on Steil’s desk in early December 2008, when Stearns sheriff’s deputies removed 15 biological and adopted children from the Dunhams’ rural Holdingford home after an adopted child reported sexual abuse to a neighbor. Steil’s staff had to find temporary homes for the removed children.

No one in Steil’s department had placed children in the home, and Stearns County hadn’t issued a foster care license for the Dunhams, who had gained local and national media attention for their seeming ability to juggle the demands of such a large family.

But staff in several Stearns departments — criminal justice, social services, corrections — as well as others in public and private agencies had dealt with family members multiple times in the two years before that on issues that arose within the growing family.

Sheriff’s deputies went to their home for domestic disturbances, runaways and a 2006 report of sexual misconduct among two children in the home. Psychologists diagnosed and treated the children for mental health problems. Social workers from the agencies that placed children in the home should have been visiting them regularly to make sure things were going OK.

Over the years, there were warning signs that the family was on the brink of unraveling. But the Dunhams continued to add children well beyond a state limit of eight for foster families by finding kids through other counties, states and private sources. They took in at least one teen who should not have been placed with younger children because he had a history of sexually abusing a child. As their family grew, they left adolescents unsupervised and allowed older teens to watch over younger kids.

The foster care and adoption system designed to protect children instead allowed the Dunhams to continue expanding their family despite the increased risk that the kids could suffer more harm.

At the same time, laws intended to encourage more adoptions by protecting the privacy of the adoptive families and children also prevented most people — even those in authority — from knowing the full details of what was happening in the home.

Dual licensing

In Minnesota, the Department of Human Services issues licenses to foster care providers. There are two ways to get a DHS license: through a county or through nonprofit agencies authorized by the state to handle the licensing process.

When they began their adoption search in 1999, Paul and Paula Dunham chose a private adoption agency called Downey Side. Based in New York, it had operated a small office in St. Cloud managed by Michael and Patricia Schaefer since 1998.

Downey Side is one of eight private adoption agencies that contract with DHS through the Public-Private Adoption Initiative, which works to find adoptive homes for children under state guardianship. Agencies in the PPAI receive state funding and don’t charge adoption fees for Minnesota’s waiting children.

The Dunhams were licensed as foster care providers through Downey Side three separate times between September 1999 and September 2007. They took at least 17 kids, eventually adopting most of them.

Some were in the process of being adopted by other families before they came to the Dunhams, but those adoptions were disrupted because of family turmoil or because the adoptive parents changed their minds. Some were large groups of siblings, including six Filipino siblings already in the United States. Some came from other Minnesota counties, including Morrison, or from out of state, but none were international adoptions.

Although Downey Side handled the Dunhams’ foster care license, it’s not clear from public records exactly who placed each of the children with the Dunhams or who determined the family was capable of parenting so many kids.

Downey Side officials would not agree to an interview to explain the process they use for screening and licensing potential foster or adoptive homes.

In a written statement prompted by requests for interviews, Downey Side staff said it works with families throughout the adoption process, providing pre-adoptive orientation, training and counseling as well as writing home studies and helping match children with families.

“We make every effort to gather information from the families we work with,” the statement reads. Downey Side staff visits the family in their home, and family members older than age 13 undergo a background check.

Downey Side stated that it works with county social workers, child protection workers, guardians ad litem and the state of Minnesota to ensure that a good match is being made.

“It is never solely Downey Side’s decision to place a child in an adoptive home,” the statement reads.

However, while the Dunhams had an active foster care license, Downey Side should have been aware of how many kids were in their home. According to DHS, when a family is licensed for foster care, they must sign a form agreeing to accept only foster children placed by the supervising agency or placed in connection with an approved plan. Foster care providers must immediately notify the agency of changes in the household that affect the terms of the license, according to DHS.

“There is no indication that Downey Side Inc., was not aware of all children who were placed at, or living at, the Dunham child foster care home,” wrote Beth Voigt, spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services, in an email responding to questions from the Times last August.

In a Jan. 20 interview, Assistant Commissioner Erin Sullivan Sutton, who heads the children and family services division of DHS, said her department doesn’t provide daily oversight of private agencies that place children in foster and adoptive homes. The agencies undergo periodic licensing reviews to make sure they are still meeting state standards. If not, they are required to correct any issues, she said.

DHS does review potential adoptions of children who are wards of the state before they become final, Sullivan Sutton said. However, the agency mainly reviews documentation and checks whether the agencies have followed the law, she said.

Sullivan Sutton said inquiry into the Dunham case has prompted DHS to consider increasing how much information is shared between its licensing and program divisions when there’s a problem.

“Because if there were concerns about an agency, ... we would want to get in and take a look and determine whether we had any concerns about their ability to provide safely for children that we have given them responsibility for serving,” she said.

When asked whether that was happening before, Sullivan Sutton replied, “We’re not convinced it was happening as routinely as we think it ought to.”

Too many?

Minnesota allows exceptions to its limit of eight children in a foster care family including the parents’ own children. The licensing agency can issue a variance for situations such as placement of a large group of siblings.

The Dunhams were licensed to care for three or four foster children each time they were licensed. DHS reports having no record of a variance being approved for the Dunham family.

On Oct. 2, 2007, DHS visited Downey Side’s St. Cloud office to investigate a complaint alleging that the agency had violated state rules, including “failure to enforce capacity limits and failure to appropriately respond to substantiated maltreatment determinations.”

It was more than a year and a half before DHS issued a correction order for Downey Side. Among the violations DHS cited in May 2009 were that the family had 13 of their own children living in the home when a sibling group of three was placed in the home for foster care with no approved variance to exceed capacity.

Other violations were:

» A failure to complete a home safety checklist each time the family was relicensed.

» Lack of a fire marshal inspection.

» Failure to check Bureau of Criminal Apprehension records, not just social service and juvenile court records, as part of background studies on eight household members during a relicensing in June 2007.

» Failure to issue disqualification notices to two household members found responsible for sexual abuse.

The lapse of time between the initial complaint and the final correction order isn’t typical, wrote DHS’ Voigt in a Jan. 20 email. Voigt said the delay was due to “resource issues related to an increase in licensing reports and investigations DHS experienced, as well as staff turnover.”

Although by 2009 the Dunhams were no longer licensed to provide foster care in Minnesota, DHS ordered Downey Side to review its other files for possible similar violations, correct any found and submit a written plan documenting how it would ensure future compliance.

Downey Side submitted documentation in 2009 that it had complied with the order. However, a subsequent licensing review last October resulted in additional violations that could result in sanctions if not corrected, according to Voigt.

Two other nonprofit adoption agencies say they never would have agreed to place so many children into one family, particularly adolescents with psychological and behavioral disorders and histories of abuse and trauma.

Those children have coping and survival skills that have the potential to hurt others or themselves, said Emily Palmer, adoption program manager with Children’s Home Society & Family Services of St. Paul.

“We need people who have empathy for that, people who can look at a kid who does some of these things and still see them as a human being who needs other people,” Palmer said. “And we need those people to not have other kids in their home.”

The number of children each family can handle varies, Palmer said.

“There are some people who can parent 10 kids and do it really well,” she said. “We’ve worked with families who have a lot of kids and those kids are really thriving. And there are some of us who are overwhelmed with one kid. So we’re all different.”

Kindred Family Services, formerly PATH MN, is a therapeutic foster care agency with a St. Cloud office. Area director Gretchen Welch said they typically use the state-sanctioned ratio of one adult for every five youths. The agency also uses its own criteria, such as not placing unrelated adolescents of opposite genders together.

Welch said the organization does not have licensed foster homes with more than a dozen children.

“When it gets to be in the teens, that’s something that we as an agency wouldn’t approve,” she said.

DHS’ Sullivan Sutton noted that while there is a limit on the number of children a foster home can have, there are no such limits on adopted children. DHS should be made aware any time a child is placed in a home through a public or private agency, she said. However, there are situations of adoptions handled privately that DHS may not be made aware of, she said.

“That’s something we want to take a look at, in terms of reviewing our own policies and procedures, because that information ought to be known,” she said.

Warning signs

The size of the Dunham brood was no secret. The family lived in both Sartell and the Avon-Holdingford communities and were involved in church and extracurricular activities. Several of the children attended school in the Holdingford district, while others were home-schooled.

Any county or agency that placed a foster child in the Dunham home should have had a social worker who regularly visited the child in the home and made sure the placement was working out until the adoption was final. And Minnesota rules required Downey Side as the agency handling the family’s foster care license to regularly check to make sure the home met licensing requirements.

As the numbers grew, Paula Dunham developed a reputation as an expert on adopting and parenting children and teens with special needs. She led an adoption support group in Stearns County and served on a statewide task force dealing with children’s mental health issues.

The Dunhams were featured in the St. Cloud Times, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor and other national media talking about how they cope with the demands of raising such a large family.

“When you have this many, you have to know what you’re doing — otherwise you just sink,” Paula Dunham told “Good Morning America” in August 2002.

The reality wasn’t always so rosy.

Paula Dunham openly discussed the family’s struggles in her blog, “North of Reality.”

… If someone had told me six years ago what we would be put through by adopting these kids, I probably wouldn’t have believed them, and if I did, I would have run screaming the other way. No one wants to have holes punched and kicked in their walls or kids spewing profanities at them while telling them how much they hate them. No one wants little kids, let alone big kids, kicking, biting, hitting and pushing them. They don’t want their naïve birth children to learn a myriad of new cuss words, awful gangster rap songs or be given explicit details about sex and drugs. No one wants to live with alarms on their bedroom doors and locks on their refrigerators and pantries. This side of our life really sucks, but this is what we’ve taken on and so we’re doing all we can to make the best of it. Sometimes I think that our reality is so warped that I wouldn’t even know what to do in a calm, peaceful house. Seriously, I can hardly remember the days I didn’t have to worry about getting sheetrock patched or if someone was going to have a major meltdown. But I know that my life was pretty close to idyllic once upon a time, I just didn’t realize it back then. I will never take for granted kids that don’t lie or steal and nice smooth, unpatched walls.

Now don’t go getting all freaked out and think that I’m mean and cruel to say these things, this is just what my life is like and sometimes it’s harder to live with than others. Today is a hard day.”
(Nov. 30, 2006)

Among others who had contact with the Dunham family and likely saw firsthand just how large and complicated the clan had become: law enforcement officers who responded to several calls of fights, domestic disturbances and juvenile runaways; social workers and probation officers from Stearns County whom Paula Dunham reported in 2007 she had earlier told about violent behavior and threats made by one of the adopted teens; and mental health professionals who treated some of the Dunham children for psychological and behavioral disorders.

But despite the many who encountered the Dunhams, few were in a position to know all the details or to take action to prevent the family from growing any larger.

In the Stearns County Attorney’s Office, attorneys focused on whether a crime had been committed, not on who placed the children there. The office was involved in 15 child protection court cases, two termination-of-parental-rights cases, two delinquency cases for juvenile offenders and at least two adult criminal prosecutions.

“Until and unless a problem like this occurs, there’s no reason for us to be involved,” County Attorney Janelle Kendall said. “Once we get to that point, our job is to get the kids in a safe place from the child protection perspective, and from the delinquency and the prosecution perspective, to prove what happened. How we all got here is just not our role at that point.”

Privacy vs. openness

For anyone trying to piece together what went wrong in the Dunham case, the laws surrounding foster care and adoption are a major obstacle.

Very little information about the decisions to place children in a foster or adoptive family is open to the public, making it difficult to know who was responsible and whether the same decisions could be made again.

Experts agree the laws are designed to protect vulnerable children with complicated backgrounds and their adoptive families, who would be much less likely to go through an intensive home study that asks detailed questions about their income, marriage and personal life if they knew the information could become public.

Downey Side staff wrote that there is “a lot of information about this case and these children” that it cannot disclose because of privacy laws.

“Your story may not come to the same conclusion if you had access to all of the facts in the case,” the statement reads. “For every negative adoption story that is highly publicized there are many positive ones. Our ultimate goal is to provide safe loving forever families to children in the foster care system.”

Making more information public about the adoption process and adoptive families might scare off people who would otherwise make very good foster or adoptive parents, said Linda Foreman, executive director of the Children’s Law Center in St. Paul, which provides legal representation to children who are wards of the state.

But those same laws also shield public and private agencies from scrutiny and make it difficult even for officials to figure out exactly what went wrong.

“By the flip side, that privacy right sort of inoculates the system from public scrutiny,” Foreman said. “And I think there is a level at which the public should be made aware of how the system is working.”

Minnesota taxpayers want to know how their money is being spent, Foreman said.

“If the money is not being used to actually create systems that protect children, then you should have that right to go in and find out how the system is working,” she said. “And if DHS can’t explain how a foster home got licensed and whether or not the delegated person at DHS who is responsible for overseeing or approving the license ... actually did their job, then how do you hold government accountable? Because ultimately, these kids are wards and are under government supervision.”

Motivation unknown

Why one couple would want to raise as many as 26 children is a question most people couldn’t answer.

There is a financial incentive to adopting or foster parenting multiple children. Minnesota uses a system to reimburse foster families based on difficulty of care.

For example, a child who requires an extensive amount of additional supervision or assistance because he or she suffers from attention deficit disorder, chemical abuse, a severe physical handicap or who needs therapy would score higher on the scale, resulting in a higher reimbursement rate.

In Minnesota, adoption assistance is available for families who adopt eligible children with special needs from the foster care system. It’s aimed at encouraging people to adopt children considered more difficult to adopt because they are older, disabled or a member of a sibling group.

For a child aged 12-14, basic maintenance payments can be up to $307 a month, plus $150-$500 a month in supplemental assistance for children who require intensive supervision based on the difficulty of care scale. Up to $2,000 in nonrecurring expenses relating to the adoption also can be reimbursed. There’s also a federal adoption tax credit for families who adopt a child with special needs from foster care.

Alexis Oberdorfer, senior director of adoption at Children’s Home Society & Family Services, said the assistance is “not an enormous sum.”

“It’s less than what foster care would pay, and frankly, it’s less than what it costs to raise a child,” she said. “So if you’re going into this to get rich, it’s the wrong tree to be barking up.”

In her blog, Paula Dunham wrote that the family received adoption assistance for some of their children but not for others adopted privately. She writes about how they managed by working multiple jobs, tending a large garden, canning much of their food, cutting coupons and shopping at thrift stores and garage sales.

Paula also describes a spiritual calling to be an adoptive parent.

“Actually I got to thinking about it and the only thing that I can say is that we feel a deep calling from God to do this and I have learned the hard way that it’s best for me to not say ‘no’ to God,” she wrote in January 2006.

Stearns County attorneys who prosecuted the criminal cases that resulted from abuse within the Dunham home said they aren’t sure whether the couple’s motivation was altruism, money, a love of children or something else.

“I don’t think it’s something we could ever reconcile,” Assistant County Attorney Gayle Borchert said.

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