Kin favored over foster care — Part 4

Caseworkers say research supports it, but some say decisions too rigid, want more resources for relatives



Dan and Erica Waalkes stand with their foster children in front of their home Saturday morning in Grand Junction. The Waalkeses, who are longtime foster parents, said they know kinship placements don’t always work out, but they focus on the idea that being with family is best when possible. They said it’s sometimes tempting for foster families to look at a potential kinship placement and compare its shortcomings to the stability of their own homes.



In a four-day series, The Daily Sentinel is delving into the killings of three children who were known to the Mesa County Department of Human Services, as part of a broader examination of the child welfare and foster care systems in the county.

CLICK HERE TO READ PART 1
CLICK HERE TO READ PART 2
CLICK HERE TO READ PART 3
RELATED STORIES:
CHILD KILLERS IN MESA COUNTY: WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
STUDY: COUNTY NEEDS TO REPAIR RELATIONS WITH FOSTER FAMILIES
Q&A WITH MESA COUNTY OFFICIALS
STATE WATCHDOG MADE RECOMMENDATIONS TO COUNTY

Bethannie Johnson should have been safe with her aunt. The courts, social workers and family members who played a part in placing her there thought so, at least.

Angel Place was thriving with an apparently doting foster mother, but social workers placed her with a blood relative, a decision rooted in research that human services officials say usually works out best for children.

Bethannie, 3, and Angel, 11 months, both died in the homes of relatives who were supposed to protect them. They died in homes that caseworkers and judges decided were the best and safest place for them. Those separate decisions — each of which were full of unique challenges and multi-dimensional factors — were influenced by national child welfare reform that in its simplest form asserts that if a child is abused or neglected to the point where they need to be taken from their home, it’s better to place them with relatives than with strangers. Inside players call them “kinship placements.”

But some Mesa County residents with experience on the front lines of child welfare — local foster parents and kinship parents — say the realities of how that policy plays out are nuanced and could use revamping. Some have suggested that Mesa County’s child welfare system could be improved by allowing social workers more flexibility when making placement decisions, and making more resources available to people who find themselves suddenly in charge of a relative’s child.

Leaders from the Mesa County Department of Human Services have said the national movement toward prioritizing kinship is research-based, and dovetails with conventional wisdom and their own experiences.

“The act of removing a child from their parents is traumatizing, in and of itself,” said Joni Bedell, Mesa County child welfare manager. “So taking it to another step and having them being placed with stranger care, foster care, is even more traumatic.”

Carrie Over, deputy director of Ariel Clinical Services, which contracts with the county and licenses foster homes independently, agreed.

“It’s just well-researched that kids do better with family, if safe and if supported,” Over said.

The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush at the end of his second term, sought to address that research by increasing the opportunities for relatives to step in when a family member’s child has been removed from their home, and increased the subsidies available in some kinship placements. In Mesa County, nearly one-third of children in out-of-home care managed by the Department of Human Services are staying with family members, according to figures provided by the agency.

Some Mesa County foster and kinship parents said the way kinship placements happen often present complex problems for everybody involved.

Veteran Mesa County foster parents Wilma and David Hansen, who have had more than 70 foster children come through their home since the early 1990s, said while kinship placements can work very well, the child welfare system as a whole is hampered by pressures to make reactionary decisions, sometimes without taking the proper steps first.

“A big challenge I see is that decisions are made in a knee-jerk reaction, rather than taking the time to evaluate and transition,” Wilma Hansen said.

State regulations require social workers to do extensive work trying to track down any potential family members who might be eligible to take the children. Parents can and do often weigh in on those decisions. The Hansens said the allegedly abusive or neglectful parents themselves are insistent their child should go to a family member instead of a foster care home.

“My personal opinion is that parental rights outweigh what’s best for the child every time …,” Wilma Hansen said, referring to her perspective of how child welfare decisions are made. “Not that parental rights aren’t important, but … the bio parents say, ‘I want my kids with family, I want my kids with family.’ Well, the kid is doing really well in this foster home.”

The Hansens said pressure from family members to give children to their own relatives can sometimes lead to hasty decisions. In some cases, the Hansens said, kinship is clearly a good decision, but children are moved too quickly from foster homes, without a transition plan.

“The biggest gap in these kinship placements from my point of view is, take the time to do the home studies,.. to do the steps, and to make sure everything is good,” Wilma Hansen said. “There’s always going to be red flags, no situation is perfect, no family is perfect. But take the time to look at the kinship placement and then make the transition.”

Wilma Hansen added that county agencies should avoid top-down decision-making by empowering their caseworkers, whom she described as passionate and dedicated public servants.

“There’s a lot of really good stuff happening in Mesa County, and if there wasn’t I wouldn’t want to continue to be a part of it,” Wilma Hansen said.

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Another sensitive issue for child welfare leaders is the question of governmental budgets. Foster families are paid $25 per day for each child in their home; kinship families have the option to become eligible for that stipend by going through the same certification process as foster families, which includes extensive training and more investigation.

Tracey Garchar, executive director of the Mesa County Department of Human Services, and his agency’s child welfare managers strenuously denied that budgetary concerns impact how children are placed, saying the idea is “emphatically untrue.”

“If we were paying that foster care out-of-home payment (for every kinship family), yes, obviously … it would cost more. But what I can tell you is we have never, and we will never design our budget based on saving money… ,” Garchar said. “We have never, ever done one piece of practice in this place, and we won’t as long as I’m the director, based on trying to save money on the backs of people who need it.”

Longtime foster parents Daniel and Erica Waalkes said they know kinship placements don’t always work out, but they focus on the idea that being with family is best when possible. They said it’s sometimes tempting for foster families to look at a potential kinship placement and compare its shortcomings to the stability of their own homes.

“It’s hard, because you take them in as one of (your) own family,” said Daniel Waalkes, who added the couple has been fostering for almost eight years. “(But) we have to remember the county is looking out for them. … (The county welfare staff) tries to make sure they do the absolute best for the biological family.”

Adoptive mother Jenn Chisholm and her husband have first-hand experience on both sides of the kinship placement. Last month, they finalized the adoption of her biological niece, who is 2 1/2.

A crucial difference between foster parents and kinship placements, according to Chisholm, is that foster parents often deeply believe in their role and tend to be the kind of people who regularly seek out resources and trainings. Kinship placements tend to come from out of the blue: a phone call, a caseworker with bad news about someone in their family, an enormous request. Kinship placements might have full-time jobs, other children they’re caring for, other commitments and relationships.

“We didn’t wake up one morning and say, we would like to … become foster parents. … That was not even on our radar,” Chisholm said. “(Kinship parents) just have this huge, overwhelming situation dumped in your lap. … It’s not prepared for.”

After Chisholm’s niece was removed from her biological parents’ Mesa County home as an infant, she was placed in two consecutive kinship homes — the first for nearly a year, the second for about three months — only to removed by the county from both, Chisholm said.

When caseworkers removed the girl from the second kinship home, she stayed briefly with a foster family while the county contacted Chisholm, who had moved to Washington, and asked her to come back to Colorado temporarily and take her niece.

Chisholm and her husband were certified foster parents in Washington state, but not in Colorado. Eventually the child was placed with her, but it wasn’t until about a year ago that the girl’s biological family’s parental rights were terminated and Chisholm was able to move back to Washington with her niece.

Chisholm said her adoptive daughter’s experience highlights how underlying problems can affect more family members than the biological parents.

“The biggest problem with kinship placement is sometimes … there is a family dynamic that needs to be worked on in the entire family,” Chisholm said. “(Child welfare workers) don’t truly have some huge, thorough way to screen kinship when the child is being taken out of their home because they have a very short time frame. They don’t always know, short of the regular background check … if that really is the best place for the child.”

Chisholm said she doesn’t fault the two families whose kinship placements of her daughter didn’t work out, and she knows the county was trying to find the best environment possible. However, she believes moving homes that many times is hard on any child.

“The bottom line is that, no matter what caused her to be removed, (the county) deemed that to be an unhealthy situation for her, …” Chisholm said. “(But) they didn’t figure that out until, really, the damage was already done.”

People who take in their family members’ children aren’t as connected with all the supports and services that foster parents might know about, Chisholm said.

“I truly, 100 percent, think that if the first (placement) had much more support … it might not have ended that way,” she said. “Even if there is some breakdown in the family dynamic … there are services and support that could be offered to help fix that.”

Other than the pressures of providing for a child, Chisholm said kinship providers often face a more unexpected stresser: anger and resentment from the family members whose child they now have.

“When the people come and bring you this child, what they don’t address — and there’s no support for — is addressing that family dynamic,” she said. “Everybody sees you as a bad guy.”

Chisholm believes families providing kinship placements could benefit from more resources: educational sessions with behavioral therapists, rather than the child’s primary social worker, for example; or an advocate who specifically focuses on supporting them. Perhaps, she said, there could be opportunities for kinship families to go through something akin to the foster certification process, but with more flexibility.

“You have social workers and lawyers coming in and (court appointed special advocates) coming in and out of your house to check on the kid,” Chisholm said. “But they really need somebody to just support the kinship parents. I think that it needs to extend beyond getting a packet of information.”

The Waalkes family and the Hansens both spoke highly of Mesa County’s support for foster families. Wilma Hansen said she’s seen better screening of foster parents, and, in recent years, a shift in the attitudes toward working parents. Over, of Ariel Clinical Services, agreed.

“It’s kind of gone along with the ideals of, you can be the best parent and still have a job,” Over said. “I think it’s a cultural thing. … If (you’re) a good family, you’re a good family.”

Wilma Hansen said more flexibility would be good throughout the child welfare system.

“We need kinship placements, we need foster homes, we need group homes, and we need residential treatment facilities because of safety. Because all of what we’re trying to do is keep kids safe and the people caring for them safe,” Wilma Hansen said. “You cannot take a cookie-cutter approach to every case, and unfortunately the rules are set to be cookie cutter. You need to be flexible and accommodating and do what’s best for this situation.”


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In a four-day series, The Daily Sentinel is delving into the killings of three children who were known to the Mesa County Department of Human Services, as part of a broader examination of the child welfare and foster care systems in the county.

The purpose is to inform the public about how the children ended up living with the people who ultimately killed them or are accused of killing them, the warning signs, the fallout that resulted from the deaths, and the changes some want to see happen to try to prevent future killings.

The Sentinel reported this series using law enforcement records, court documents and interviews with Department of Human Services employees, families of children who were abused, foster families and other stakeholders.

Reports and documents not subject to the Colorado Open Records Act were provided by family members or other parties to the cases. You can view some of these documents at GJSentinel.com.

SUNDAY, SEPT. 18, 2016: Instability defined the house in which Bethannie Johnson lived — and died

MONDAY, SEPT. 19, 2016: Angel Place was taken from a loving foster mother and given to an aunt who killed her

TUESDAY, SEPT. 20, 2016: Lyla Blackwood’s death came days after an abuse report was made — and never addressed

WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 21, 2016: An examination of kinship placement, the need for more foster families in Mesa County, and potential reform

If you see or suspect child abuse, call 970-242-1211 or 844-CO-4-KIDS.


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