A legislative study committee spent months hearing from stakeholders on all sides of the foster care system only to decide to make small changes … and continue to study ways to improve the foster care system.
By Rose Hoban
Too often, a child in the foster care system languishes in legal limbo: social service workers attempt to find the right foster home for the child, even as families and social service agencies battle out custody questions before a judge who is obliged to offer parents multiple chances to regain custody of their child.
Meanwhile, children are prevented from finding stable homes.
Sen. Shirley Randleman (R-Wilkesboro) saw it happen time and again during the years she served as the clerk of superior court in Wilkes County. She also saw worse:
“I sat in juvenile court cases every week, and when you get over into the criminal court aspect you see the results of the abuse,” where some children end up dead, killed by neglect or abuse by their foster parents.
It was a desire to resolve some of the delays and difficulties of getting children into safe, permanent homes that drove Randleman’s work on the Committee on Onmibus Foster Care and Dependency, a legislative study committee that recently wrapped up its work for the legislative interim. Randleman was one of the co-chairs of the committee, along with Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Mt. Airy).
But the two found their mandate was too large and too broad for a four-meeting interim study process.
Stevens and Randleman have requested the ability to continue studying the foster care system through the next legislative interim and into next year’s session.
“There’s interest and concern in this area, and I think it’s imperative on us as a body and as citizens to make sure these children are being taken care of,” Randleman said.
“We appreciate the General Assembly being concerned about the well-being of children in foster care,” said Lauren Zingraff, executive director of Strong Able Youth Speaking Out (SaySo), an advocacy group for kids in foster care and foster care alumni. She and several SaySo alumni testified to the committee.
“I believe that the committee is focused on reducing the overall number of kids in foster care and the number of young adults aging out of the system,” she said.
Last November, a sheriff’s deputy in Union County was answering an animal-control call when he noticed a young boy was handcuffed by his ankle to the porch of the neighboring house. When he investigated, he found a shivering 11-year-old secured to the porch, a dead chicken hanging around his neck.
As if the situation wasn’t shocking enough, the boy was the foster child of a woman who was a supervisor at the Union County Department of Social Services.
The case raised questions about supervision within the Union County Department of Social Services and about the system in which social service workers from neighboring counties back up another county’s agency in the event of a potential conflict of interest.
According to Randleman, it’s clear that the system failed the Union County boy and failed children from her home county of Wilkes county who were placed into the home of a convicted child abuser, where they were sexually abused.
Looking these high-profile cases of abuse took time away from some of the larger questions of finding permanent homes for children, finding more safe foster placements for children and helping kids who are turning 18 years old transition more successfully to adulthood, Randleman said.
She’s asking legislative leadership to hand an investigation of DSS offices to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services to examine during the legislative interim that begins after the end of the short session.
“We’re looking for better oversight and supervision of the DSS offices by the Department of Health and Human Services,” Randleman said. “They adopt the policies and procedures the counties are supposed to comply with…. We need to make sure those policies and procedures are being followed.”
Karen McLeod, who leads the children and family advocacy organization Benchmarks, said she’s grateful the legislature is going slow.
“What we often see is that when you have some very egregious case that occurs, there is lots of publicity,” she said. “There are oftentimes emotional reactions to it that lead to knee-jerk reactions and rules, policy, legislation.
“They are taking a much more thoughtful approach to say we need to think about this, we need to look at it, we need to study it…. Then you get it right.”
Aiming for permanence
One of the tensions within the foster care system is the conflict between the rights of parents who have had children removed from their homes and the rights of children who often end up languishing in the legal system for years as cases work toward resolution.
As legislators examined the issue of finding permanent homes for kids, they found that often cases get hung up in court as parents try to work through problems that often include drug and alcohol abuse and issues with the legal system.
“You’ve got a make sure that you provide full constitutional rights [for parents] in the process, but if we could limit somehow the number of delays and continuances,” Stevens said after the final meeting. “If you’re a parent, you have the right to be a parent, but with that right comes responsibilities. And when you get entangled in this system, I expect us to expect more out of parents.”
In general, courts and social service agencies prefer reunifying parents and children, but the process can take time and, in the end, is often unsuccessful. According to statistics presented by Kevin Kelly from the state Division of Social Services, about a third of 4,622 children who exited foster care last year were reunified with their parents (see Table 1).
Kelly also presented numbers showing that 60 percent of kids in foster care currently have been in the system for more than a year, a third for two years and 13 percent for more than three years (see Table 2).
At the same time, McLeod explained, the state does not have a robust system for tracking the lives of and outcomes for children who end up in the foster care system.
“We have to have data systems that look back over a period of time, and we have some counties that have IT systems, but the counties had to pay for it.” McLeod said. For many counties, in particular, smaller, low-wealth counties, McLeod said, there’s little way to track where kids go within the system and once they’ve transitioned to adulthood.
“They’re still writing things down on paper,” she said.
She said the new NC FAST benefits management system rolled out by DHHS last summer was supposed to incorporate tracking for foster youth into the data, but the demands of complying with the Affordable Care Act pushed implementation of that function further down the road.
But at the same time, federal dollars to support the foster care system have been cut and the lost funding has not been covered by state appropriations.
When foster kids turn 18 years old, they then have a choice of signing an agreement to stay in the system, which allows them to get some extra benefits, or to age out and become “emancipated.”
Most kids choose emancipation. According to DHHS statistics, around 500 kids each year are emancipated from foster care.
SaySo head Lauren Zingraff said her organization surveyed their members and found that often foster youth simply want some of the things other teens want: the ability to get a driver’s license or permission to go out of town on a school trip. But they’re prevented from doing so because they’re in the foster care system.
By the time foster kids reach 18, many choose emancipation over staying in the system longer, even if it means they lose benefits.
“Most of them are unwilling to sign, because they’re ready to be on their own,” McLeod said. “And you know when you were 18, you didn’t want anyone standing over you either.
“We don’t have many services for them anyway and we don’t prepare them the way we should, and that’s because we don’t have the funds in place to pay for those kinds of services.”
Randleman said the short time they had for their committee kept the legislators from really digging into how to help foster youth transition more successfully.
McLeod and others cited the higher rates of homelessness, unwanted pregnancy and tangles with the legal system in former foster youth.
“That’s where I go back to, with the state as a whole having to make a decision of how much we value these children,” she said. “Part of that decision is a financial decision, not only to pay up front but to make a decision that, ‘Do we pay a smaller amount upfront or pay for them when they are in hospitals or they’re in prisons or on Medicaid?’
“You pay for it now or you pay a whole lot more for the rest of their lives.”