Great Expectations, Not-So-Great Really

Cincinnati NoondaySandra J. Stork1837 Comments

Sandra J. Stork – April 1, 2017

Being a mother is something that I have desired for as long as I can remember. Nurturing came naturally to me. I grew up with four younger brothers and because of circumstances in our home life I often took care of them. Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t a girly girl. I didn’t play with baby dolls or the Fisher Price play cooking sets, I was more likely to be out playing tackle football with the boys. But by the age of eleven I was regularly babysitting and children really took a liking to me.

Later in life I made choices out of the desire to be a mother; it was always at the center of my thoughts. What 22-year-old buys a four door sedan instead of a sporty little number when she isn’t even married?  I was so sure that I would be driving around kids in the back seat and wanted to be prepared, that that practice continued with every car I bought to this day. However, thirty years later I still wasn’t a mother. Imagine my dismay every time a friend or family member announced she was expecting a child. I was always ecstatic for them, but a pain, deep down inside me, always accompanied my well wishes for them. I would look on longingly at the children with their parents at the grocery store or restaurant and think: why not me?  This was always particularly true when I would see a mother or father yelling at his or her kids or, worse yet, slapping them.

Even my mom gave up on me once I turned forty. Until then, a visit or a phone call didn’t go by without the familiar question, when are you going to settle down, get married and give me grandkids? It took another few years, though, for me to finally resign myself to the idea that I was just not meant to be a mom.

That all changed, though, a year ago almost to this day, when I sat at a McDonalds and looked into the amazing eyes of an eleven-year-old boy who was in foster care and whom I had decided to mentor. He was slightly shy but so polite and sweet that it took everything I had not to run around the table to embrace him. That chance meeting changed both my life and my husband’s life forever. I didn’t go into mentoring with the thought that it would be anything more than taking him to ballgames, hiking, and helping with homework, but when I left that night I knew in my heart that he was the child I had waited for.

Driving back home I was beside myself, thoughts racing through my mind like a freight train, and when I arrived I explicitly told my husband that I was convinced that we should adopt not only Christian but his biological brother Nick and foster brother Mikey. My husband thought that I had lost my marbles, wanting to go from being childless, comfortable, and free to having three teenage boys!  Yet, after careful consideration and much debate we entered into a whole new world of Foster Care which is the real story here.

The history of foster homes goes back to as early as the Old Testament and the Talmud. Both references establish caring for dependent children as a duty under law. Early Christian church records also show that children were boarded with “worthy widows” who were paid by collections from the congregation. However, it wasn’t until 1562 because of English Poor Law that foster care was developed and regulations eventually put into place in England, and later in the United States. These laws allowed the placement of poor children into indentured service until they became of age. Although indentured service permitted abuse and exploitation, it was a step in the right direction. Prior to this practice, children were kept in almshouses, were not taught a trade and were exposed to atrocious surroundings and unsavory adults. Various forms of indenturing of children persisted until the early 1900’s.

In 1853, after seeing many immigrant children sleeping in the streets, Charles Loring Brace, a minister, founded the Children’s Aid Society in New York City. Mr. Brace started the Orphan Train Movement in which over 250,000 orphaned children between 1854 and 1929 were sent by train to farms across the country, primarily in the Midwest and Canada. While it has long been believed that these trains only originated in New York, there is evidence in the archives at Union Station that shows children were sent out from Ohio orphanages as well. On these farms, some children were treated with love and respect, while others were treated as slaves, were abused, and were often required to work long hours. Nevertheless, the emphasis was on giving abandoned and abused children a family life; Brace’s movement became the foundation for today’s foster care system.

Foster homes in New York City in the 1800s were often abusive. In 1807, an 8-year-old orphan named Mary Ellen Wilson received daily whippings and beatings at her foster home. There was no organization to protect abused children, so the attorneys for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) took on her case. Her attorneys argued that laws protecting animals from abuse shouldn’t be greater than laws protecting children. Mary Ellen Wilson’s case went to court and the foster mother was convicted of assault and battery and given a one-year jail sentence.

In the early 1900s, social agencies began to pay and supervise foster parents. Government agencies began state inspections of foster homes. Records were kept to increase accountability and children’s needs were considered when placements were made. In addition, services were provided to birth families to enable neglected or abused children to reunify or return home. Foster parents began to be seen as an integral part of a team effort to provide for dependent children.

Today, children in foster care may be placed in one of several different types of foster homes. One type of home is the single foster family of one or more parents who cares for up to six foster children in their home with their own biological or adopted children. Another type of foster home is the group home or residential center. Historically, group foster homes were rife with abuse of children. Currently, they are better regulated and monitored than in the past. Hamilton County strives to place children with foster parents. Most children served in the group home setting are emotionally or behaviorally disturbed, medically fragile and/or require special medical treatments due to physical conditions or diseases, or have developmental disabilities

A third, more recently established foster home setting is called kinship care. In kinship care, a foster child is placed in the home of a relative or person who knew the child before he or she was removed from the birth family. Kinship care typically represents the most desirable out-of-home placement option for children who cannot live with their parents. It offers the greatest level of stability by allowing children to maintain their sense of belonging and enhances their ability to identify with their family’s culture and traditions. The approval process for kinship guardians is not as rigorous as it is for foster parents, but it does include a criminal background check.

The present foster care system within the United States has, truth be told, taken on the character of a complex bureaucratic apparatus. As Bass, Shields, and Behrman have written in their book Children, Families and Foster Care: Analysis and Recommendations, “When entering foster care, or the ‘child welfare system,’ a child does not enter a single system, but rather multiple systems that intersect and interact to create a safety net for children who cannot remain with their birth parents,” and the organizations involved in this macro-system include “state and local child welfare agencies, courts, private service providers, and public agencies that administer other government programs.”  Within the court system, an attorney known as a court appointed special advocate (or CASA) is designated to ensure that the foster child’s voice is heard when this is relevant to decision making processes. The different organizations involved in these processes attempt to coordinate their efforts as effectively as possible in order to pursue the best interests of the child.

I will never forget the first time that my husband and I met “the team” of people who were managing the cases for the boys we are pursuing to adopt. It was overwhelming. There were no less than eight people there representing different aspects of their care, and to this day I don’t believe I have it straight who does what. Although they listen to you, they are ultimately going to make decisions for the children until the day that you adopt them.

As you have heard, this is a complex system, one that is designed to protect these children. However, they are going from a broken home to a broken system. These children should expect to be protected and nurtured, but instead they are often exposed to worse conditions. There are alarming statics that claim over 28% of children in state care are abused while in “the system.” There are others who believe that the incidents of in-foster-care abuse are much higher. While it has thankfully improved over time, these improvements have also made the process a great deal more complicated due to the rules and regulations that have been put into place. Have you ever heard someone say, I wish my kid came with a manual? Well, foster children do. It is a five-inch binder filled with policies and procedures outlining everything from record keeping to standards of conduct.

Yet with all of these rules and regulations there are children who are left vulnerable. There are horror stories about former foster care kids that sound too awful to be true, but unfortunately they are often true. Let me share some of these stories with you.

James was put in the foster care system when he was only one year old. For the next 18 years, he was in and out of neglectful, abusive homes. Once, when James was staying with a racist foster father who saw him hanging out with a black friend, the foster father beat James, dragged him outside, clasped a dog collar around his neck, and cuffed his hand to a Confederate flag rail in front of the doghouse. He left James outside overnight in the cold of December with no clothes. The next morning, he said, “If I see you hanging with that [N-word] again, you will be out here for a week.”

Marcellia was born to a drug-addicted mother who was unable to properly care for her and her siblings. They were placed in a foster care when she was 10 years old and she remained there for the rest of her life.  During that time she was separated from her biological brothers several times, neglected and place in homes with, as she stated so simply, “no love.” She recalled one of the worst memories, coming out as a lesbian to a foster mom when she was a high school senior and the mom saying that she wasn’t going to pay for a gay prom. Marcellia took a job so that she could save up and buy the prom dress herself.

Michael started off in a roach-infested foster home in the projects of Queens, NYC. When he complained about the conditions he was removed and placed with an abusive alcoholic foster mother. He was only 11 and his only way of coping was to act out, so he was placed in psychiatric care and pumped full of drugs; they made him sluggish but it was a way to escape. He acted out frequently, threatening to kill himself doing anything that he could to go back to the hospital.

Many of you may remember one victim closer to home. The face of a sweet little boy with brown hair and blue eyes, his hands clasped before him, staring out at you from the newspapers and TV screen; a three-year-old boy by the name of Marcus Fiesel. Marcus became known by almost everyone in Southwestern Ohio in the summer of 2006, when he lost his life while in a system that was designed to protect him. Marcus, along with his brother Michael and sister Peaches, was removed from the care of his mother and placed into the care of his foster parents David and Liz Carroll. He had been living with them for a little more than three months when they reported him missing from a neighborhood park. People searched for him, prayed for him and money was offered for his safe return.

In truth, though, Marcus was already dead, having taken his last breaths gasping for air in a closet that was in excess of 105 degrees. His foster parents had bound him in a blanket and wrapped him in packing tape and placed him in a closet for two days in the August heat, all so that they could attend a family reunion in Kentucky. When they returned, Marcus was deceased. This was one of the most horrific cases of child abuse the nation had ever seen. Why? What went so terribly wrong that people who were capable of doing something like this had him in their care? Where did the system fail?

Searching for answers, I found many resources. One of these was a thirty-four page case review by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. In the report there were four agencies listed: Butler County Children Services Board – the public children services agency that held temporary custody of Marcus; Lifeway for Youth – a private non-custodial agency who recommended the Carrolls as foster parents; Clermont County Department of Job and Family Services – the agency responsible for investigating allegations of abuse and the Office for Children and Families Foster Care Licensing Section – the entity vested with responsibility to issue state certifications to the private agencies.

Of these four agencies, only one, Butler County Children Services, was found to be completely in compliance with the state requirements. The other three failed Marcus, with the worst one being Lifeway for Youth. Lifeway failed to meet the state requirements and inappropriately recommended that the foster parents be certified as treatment foster caregivers. Critical components on the home study had been overlooked, including the Carrolls’ relationship, medical conditions, the applicants’ attitudes, and methods of discipline, among other things.  Proper references for the foster parents were not provided; they didn’t have the required hours of training, along with a host of other violations. The agency let the foster parents down as well. They didn’t have a plan for regularly scheduled respite care, didn’t visit at the frequency required, and had treatment meetings on an “as needed” basis.

Liz and David led the caseworkers to believe that they were happily married, yet they had opened their home to a live-in girlfriend and her three children. The Carrolls had four children of their own and another foster child, which made Marcus the ninth child. Amy Baker, the live-in girlfriend, later testified that nobody ever did anything for Marcus outside of giving him a bath and food. Otherwise he was left alone most of the time in his room.

The process to become a licensed foster care provider is grueling and lengthy. It involves investigating the applicants and their home as well as providing training and later monitoring them. Potential foster parents are required to undergo criminal background checks and fingerprinting. Financial disclosure has to be made to ensure that the family’s income is sufficient to provide for their needs without reimbursement for foster care. As someone who has gone through this process, it is hard for me to believe that a substandard home could be licensed; yet in the case of the Carrolls it was, and their case is not the only one.

When a child is placed in protective care, an army of professionals become responsible for his or her life. Each holds a piece of the puzzle, and tragically these pieces did not all come together in the case of Marcus. The system is overburdened and agencies are desperate to have enough homes for the multitude of children that are entering the system. This causes the process to break down.

Desperate to bring meaning to the murder of Marcus Fiesel, a Sharonville woman who worked in the welfare system in Hamilton County and had a caseload of sixty-five abused and neglected toddlers took action to shed light on the areas that weren’t apparent. Her name is Holly Schlaack and she wrote a book called “Invisible Kids – Marcus Fiesel’s Legacy.” In her book, Holly uses the story of Marcus Fiesel to bring the plight of children in foster care front and center. She writes that before Marcus, the community knew little about foster children and the vulnerabilities that they face. People assumed that these children were being cared for by Children’s Services and were not their responsibility. But Marcus’ story has caused major change in the area of foster care, and Schlaack, who remains an advocate for children, founded the Invisible Kids Project, a nonprofit that advocates for the children facing crisis in the child welfare system.

In part because of the work done by Schlaack’s organization and many others such as ProKids, Ohio foster care laws were revised in the years that followed Fiesel’s death. Nevertheless, nine children in foster care in Ohio have died from abuse or neglect since Marcus in 2006, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

Changes that have been made since 2006 include:

  • FBI and BCI criminal background checks are now required before a foster parent can obtain a license.
  • Daily background checks are conducted on licensed foster parents.
  • The list of prohibited offenses for foster parents was expanded to include acts such as permitting child abuse, menacing by stalking, cruelty to animals and repeated drunk driving.
  • Training requirements for foster licensure were increased from 20 to 36 hours.
  • Face-to-face home visits by case workers were mandated at two week intervals.
  • Certain information about foster parents, such as names, became public information.

When asked, people have differing views on these changes. One woman who has been a foster parent for 23 years and has cared for more than 60 children in need feels that the new rule on prior offenses is forcing many good foster parents to give up that role. Her view is that what a person did 20 years ago shouldn’t affect what they do today, and that each case should be looked at individually. Schlaack talks about this in her book. She states that “while there is a place for policies and procedures regarding foster care placement that they tend to be black and white answers where endless shades of gray exist.” The example she uses is that of a foster parent who was found to have a fifteen-year criminal history relating to the possession of drugs. He was twenty-five at the time of the charge and has been clean for fourteen years. He is now a counselor at a drug-rehabilitation center and works with at-risk youth. He was fostering two teenage brothers who were out of control prior to living with him and are now thriving. But because of the changes in the regulations he was at risk of having his foster care license revoked.

Another foster parenting couple was caring for two foster children under the age of five. This couple had three biological children and adopted four others who were often left to care for the two younger foster children. Because of the lack of supervision, the foster children sustained multiple injuries, missed important medical appointments and were behind on immunizations. There were other concerns raised about earlier foster children as well, but in spite of all of this, because they had no criminal history they continue to foster.

One of the biggest lessons learned from the Fiesel case is to make sure prospective foster parents meet all guidelines and are 100 percent committed to the program. But the question remains, is meeting all of the guidelines enough? As you can see in the example above, not really.

Another change brought about by the Fiesel case was making sure face-to-face home visits are regularly conducted to ensure that the needs of all children are met. In the case of Fiesel, visits were made, but on one occasion, the social worker was told Marcus was too ill to be seen. Authorities later believed the child was already dead at that point. Case workers are now required to check on the welfare of the child during each visit, and it is required that they physically see the child and interact with him or her.

I feel that the changes aren’t perfect and may sometimes keep someone from being a foster parent who might have been great, but that overall these changes have created more benefits than harm.

The landscape of child welfare has changed dramatically, but in some ways is in worse shape now than before. In an article published by in December 2016, it was reported that the number of neglected and abused children coming into the Hamilton County juvenile court system has gone through the roof. In 2015, the number of new complaints filed by county social workers to remove children from their homes spiked by 34 percent, and that number was on par last year. In Hamilton County alone, there are nearly 250 more kids in the system than a year ago.

The heroin and opioid epidemic plaguing the region is a piece of the spike, but not the sole reason, according to those who work in the system. Tracy Cook, executive director of ProKids, believes that it isn’t even the reason for half of the increase and that there is no one reason. ProKids advocates for children in the child protection system. Cook and a group of other child protection leaders, court officials, retired business people, and researchers have been meeting over the past year to untangle the issue, but have not been able to identify anything definitive.

Cook and others are troubled by the increased numbers, because while the number of children in foster care is increasing, resources like the number of court workers, social workers and service providers generally are not. County funding to help offset the cost of the bulging caseloads and expensive services each child and parent requires has not increased either. Hamilton County voters overwhelmingly approved the five-year Children Services Levy renewal in November of last year. But that only sustained, and did not increase, the $40 million in taxpayer funding the agency will receive.

There has not been an increase in that funding since 1996, when the levy generated $43 million a year, according to Moira Weir, director of Hamilton County Job and Family Services.

But there are costs that far outweigh the money paid by taxpayers. This is impacting our society. Statistics show that maltreated children are more likely to engage in juvenile delinquency and adult criminal behavior. We have three generations deep coming into the system in Hamilton County, and if we don’t figure out a way to do a better job at raising these children and break the cycle, we will be leaving a legacy that will last for generations to come.

It isn’t all bad news. Even though the system is broken and there is much work to be done, many do not fall victim. Let’s revisit the children I spoke about who faced horrifying circumstances. Most of them have come through the system and landed on the other side, determined to prevent other children from having to suffer. Eventually, James was connected with a caseworker who changed his life. She listened to him and helped him grow. He went on to graduate with a master’s in Social work. Marcellia is now a member of the California Youth Connection and advocates for current and former foster youth, working to make a better future for them. And Michael, because of his experiences, created Mind the Gap, a website that aims to improve communication around mental treatment of children in foster care.

Unfortunately, Marcus Fiesel never got a chance to grow up and realize his full potential. He did, however, arguably make the biggest difference in the child welfare system. Marcus put a face to the many children that are invisible and because of him, thousands of children have been saved from having to endure neglect, abuse and possibly death.

The foster care system within the United States still has a long way to go, when considered from the ideal perspective of ensuring that all children within the system are able to grow into happy and productive adults. However, considered in terms of its broader history, it must also be acknowledged that the system has in fact come a very long way, and the very fact that people are able to formulate the kind of ideals they are formulating now is a testament to that. Improvements continue to be put into place, like the bill that was signed in June 2016 to extend the Ohio Foster Care Emancipation age from 18 to 21. The ideal today, however, is to provide foster children with actual families who can fulfill the psychological, social, and emotional functions that the children’s natural families were not able to fulfill. Historically considered, this seems like an unrealistic ideal. However, the fact that the system is having difficulties with meeting it is perhaps less important than the fact that people today are committed to meeting it and are working to make that happen.

How can we make a difference?  There are many ways to help: citizens like you and me can volunteer to assist foster care groups, help provide items for foster families, advocate on behalf of foster children or speak publicly to help create more awareness about child abuse and neglect. I believe every individual in the community needs to become involved with neighbors, keeping an eye out for the children. Schools need to be vigilant about the concerns they have. Agencies need to be vigilant about following up and communication needs to be open among all agencies.

I have been a part of this system for almost a year now, and although it is not always great, I finally get to be a mom and have the family that I have dreamed of with great expectations for the future.

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