Foster Care Negligence, Abuse and Death: Without Oversight, Children Suffer

Between 2005 and 2014, 86 children across the country died while in foster care under the supervision of The Mentor Network (Mentor) according to a story published by Buzzfeed that alleged massive foster care negligence. Although some children face medical issues that can make these unfortunate circumstances more likely, at least six healthy children, including two-year-old Alexandra Hill, murdered by her foster caregiver in 2013, are confirmed to have died while in a placement through Mentor. Though each state handles contracted agencies differently, Mentor, a for-profit company, operates at a national level and is responsible for an average of 3,800 children in foster homes across 15 states.

Mentor’s Involvement in Foster Care Negligence

In Hill’s case, after a failed first placement through Mentor where she seemed to suffer neglect, the little girl ended up in the custody of Sherill Small. Small, who’d already had five failed placements, had reported to Mentor that she was “feeling stressed out and will express that she is unable to care for the children in the home.”  The same report contains a warning from the Early Childhood Intervention program, which “expressed concern about Mrs. Small being very frazzled and not certain what is going on with the children” and that “children should not be in the home at that time.” 2-year-old Hill would arrive in Small’s home one month after this report was filed.

In another example of foster care negligence, Mentor failed to respond to multiple allegations of sexual assault against one of their foster parents. Along with relatives who lived with him at the Last Chance Farm in Ohio, Stephen Merritt Jr., sexually abused boys placed in his home over a ten-year period – even a 2010 warning letter expressing “extreme concern” about Merrit from psychotherapist Laurie Rockwell did not deter Mentor from re-licensing Merrit and his wife the next year.

The allegations against Mentor highlight a troubling concern about the oversight of companies and nonprofits contracted with the state. Each year, states contract out work to for-profit and nonprofit organizations alike, putting the management of child welfare services directly into the hands of these contracted agencies like Mentor.  Without oversight, foster care negligence becomes a very real possibility.

In a 2015 report, Buzzfeed News brought these stories to national attention, which spurred Congress to begin an official investigation. This is not the first time negligence and abuse has occurred within the foster care system, however.

Foster Care Negligence Across the Country

Between 2009 and 2015 in Oregon, Mary Holden Ayala, the head of Give Us This Day, Inc. embezzled at least $800,000 from her company. This money, from both state and federal funding, was spent on “her own luxury retail purchases, trips and vacations to casinos, on mortgage loan payments and remodeling projects for her home in West Linn and to support independent business ventures,” reported Maxine Bernstein of The Oregonian.  In 2015 the Oregon Department of Justice sued Ayala for an alleged plot “involving three charities and the misspending of at least $2 million in state funds.”

In Wisconsin in 2013, Community Care Resources, Inc. (CCR) owner Dan Simon and his wife Mary were accused of billing the state for out-of-state trips and expenses related to three homes, six vehicles and three boats. In total, the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families accused the Simons of misusing nearly 5 million taxpayer dollars.

How the Legislature is Handling Foster Care Negligence

A common theme in these episodes of institutional foster care negligence and fraud is that the people and organizations involved operated in a fashion that put their own gains ahead of the needs of the foster children they were supposed to serve. Even nonprofits, such as Baptist Children’s Homes (BCH) of North Carolina, can sometimes push for measures that many within the child welfare community agree are harmful for children. In 2016, at the urging of BCH, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) fought to remove measures from the Families First Prevention Services Act that would reduce the number of children who ended up in group homes. As a result, those measures were removed and Sen. Burr has continued to push for increased group home placements in the bill. As previously reported by FAFS, the child welfare community is increasingly moving away from group home placements in favor of placement types like kinship care which are proving to produce more positive outcomes for the youth involved. To increase the certainty of such conclusions and to effectively demonstrate them to both child welfare advocates and legislators, however, more detailed information is required.

Fortunately, as a result of the investigation into Mentor, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) have introduced the Oversight and Accountability Act. This bill modifies portions of several statutes regarding foster care, but as its name indicates, some of the most critical pieces of this legislation relate to increased and definitive oversight of the various for-profit and nonprofit entities contracted by states to manage foster care placements. It includes measures such as:

  • Mandating the creation of oversight standards within each state, along with the development of corrective action plans in the event a state fails to comply.
  • Withholding of federal funding if a state fails to complete the corrective action plan.
  • Implementing caseload and workload standards to prevent reduction of care quality and overburdening of employees, both state and contracted.
  • Requiring that states perform a yearly review of all child fatalities from maltreatment by a child death review team comprised of individuals familiar with and critical to the child welfare system. This review is to be used to develop recommendations for preventing future child fatalities and must be submitted to the Child Death Reporting System.
  • Requiring the state develop provider-specific outcome measures against which the performance of all state-contracted entities, both for-profit and nonprofit, will be measured. A review of each foster care provider must be made before any contracts can be signed or renewed.
  • Requiring the state to maintain a publicly accessible website (or websites) which will contain the results of each foster care provider’s performance review, as well as the details of any agreements between the state and each provider and whether that provider is for-profit or nonprofit.
  • Enabling individuals who are or were in foster care (within 5 years of their exit date) to sue the state if they feel that they are or were victim of a failure to comply with any of the previously listed measures.

The Oversight and Accountability Act is aimed at ensuring not only that states do not fall prey to fraudulent or untrustworthy companies but also that standards of care are consistently re-evaluated and improved to provide the best outcomes for children in care.

Foster Care Negligence in New Jersey

In New Jersey in 2003, a federal monitor was put in place to examine foster care negligence in the state after the body of Faheem Williams, a 7-year-old foster child, was found mummified in a plastic container in his foster parent’s home. The Department of Child Protection and Permanency (CP&P) caseworker assigned to Faheem had about 100 children to follow up on, a caseload burden that meant that by the time his body was found, Faheem’s foster home had not been visited in a year.

By April of 2017, the state had successfully managed to reduce abuse investigation caseloads to 12 per worker. In addition to reducing caseloads for abuse investigators, the state also phased out the management of placements by contracted agencies; as of the end of 2016, CP&P is responsible for all foster care placements in the New Jersey.

Even though New Jersey has greatly improved since the federal monitor began its work, according to NJ.com, CP&P still has room to improve with regards to the quality of investigations aimed at helping families and preventing negligence that directly affects children.

To read the New Jersey federal monitor’s most recent report about CP&P’s progress in improving foster care, click here.

To learn more about the Oversight and Accountability Act, click here.
To see the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) report which contains national information about the number of child fatalities in foster care as of June 2016, click here.

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