When fostering excites venture capitalists, the number of children taken into care rises
A Norfolk reader sends me photographs of an advertisement placed on the back of local buses by Norfolk and Suffolk county councils. “New challenge,” it reads. “Have you thought of fostering? If so you can earn £590 a week.”
Two things are interesting about this, one general, one specific. For a start, it shows what mind-boggling sums are now available to councils whose social workers take children into care. I have quoted before advertisements offering foster carers £400 a week for each child. But £590 a week means that a foster home looking after three children taken from their parents, which is not uncommon, can now earn almost £100,000 a year. In addition are the lavish fees charged by fostering agencies to make the arrangements, almost invariably run by ex-social workers.
Most people have no idea what a big business fostering has become. When one such firm, National Fostering Agency, representing 175 local authorities after being launched by two ex-social workers in 1995, was placed on the market by Rothschilds in 2012, it was sold by its “venture capital” owners Sovereign to a “private equity” firm, Graphite Capital, for a staggering £130 million.
The more specific point, however, is that, of all the councils that feature in my files as seizing children from their parents for what seem like questionable reasons, Norfolk and Suffolk are high on the list. In one of the most controversial cases I have reported, it was Norfolk’s social workers who were eventually forced to hand back a baby to its parents, after they had twice travelled to France to take the child into foster care in England. Having been thwarted in their plans, when a judge ruled that they had no legal right to do so, they seized several more children from different members of the same family who, to justify their removal, now face many charges of criminal abuse.
Yet last year the children’s department of this same council, Norfolk, received the most damning report possible from Ofsted, failing it as “inadequate” (the lowest rating) on every one of the five counts on which social workers are judged, from “quality of provision” to “leadership and management”.
Rad More at: Why the explosion in child-snatching is big business
In the past four months, the caseload at the Department of Children and Families has increased by 4,776, or nearly 15 percent, to 36,835. In the past year, the caseload has jumped by 6,830, or about 23 percent.
Jeremiah's body was discovered last month. His mother and her boyfriend are being held on charges including kidnapping, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and reckless endangerment. They have pleaded not guilty.
After the death of two additional children, former agency Commissioner Olga Roche resigned last month.
The union representing social workers is pressing state lawmakers for an additional $9.9 million in the state budget to help ease the caseload pressure, saying the department needs more workers given the spike in incoming cases.
Howard Verran, deputy head of service at the Child Care Bureau, described how Dana's foster care placement had been ended because of mounting tension and friction in the household over the previous few days after the youngster took a dislike to an extended member of the family.
On March 3 2011 - the day Dana was found hanging from a tree near the Worcester Road island in Kidderminster - staff at the Child Care Bureau received a series of distressed calls from her.
Mr Verran passed on the information to Dana's own Worcestershire County Council social worker, who had insisted that their department should be the ones to deal directly with the teenager, while the bureau's responsibility was to the foster carers.
"So I am calling to say goodbye. So goodbye."
Child Care Bureau social worker Clare Baxendale sobbed as she told the inquest how she had taken a call during the morning from Dana in a distressed state and she tried to reassure her, saying someone would call her back.
Foster children are some of the most vulnerable South Dakotans.
They are taken from their homes and families.
They're asked to live with strangers, sometimes with foster siblings who also come from troubled backgrounds, and to trust a system.
They say the state's Department of Social Services has too much discretion as to whether claims of abuse or neglect are valid, whether a child should return to an abusive home or whether a foster home placement is right for a child.
Native American activists often accuse the Department of Social Services of seizing children unnecessarily and placing them with white foster families. A group of families sued social services in federal court last year, alleging children are taken for months, though hearings last less than five minutes and don't offer parents a chance to respond.
But South Dakota's secrecy — abuse and neglect hearings are closed to the public — makes it difficult to evaluate the arguments.
The state's confidentiality laws prevent social services from commenting on specific cases, even when there are criminal charges.
States such as Nebraska, Michigan and Minnesota are more transparent. In Minnesota, for example, the records and reports from abuse and neglect investigations are open for public review.
System's secrecy barrier to evaluation
Almost 700 families and group homes provide foster care in the state at any time. An Argus Leader records request showed 121 investigated complaints of abuse or neglect in foster homes from 2009 to last year. Of the complaints deemed worthy of follow-up investigations, only eight were substantiated, and licenses were revoked in each case.
It's far below the thousands of complaints filed for other kinds of family households. But without more information, it's difficult to gauge the depth of problems in foster care.
Court proceedings involving juveniles are closed to the public,so disputes about the placement of abused or neglected children with parents, relatives or foster providers come to light only after criminal charges are brought or a lawsuit filed.
Even then, the process and the conclusions largely are protected from public view. Disclosing the results of abuse and neglect hearings is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.
Claims of abuse or neglect against foster parents after placement also are confidential.
Some child advocates say recent incidents in Aberdeen highlight a pattern of insufficient investigation and an agency more concerned with covering mistakes than correcting them.
■ One-time foster father Richard Mette pleaded guilty to rape in 2012 in a case that involved years of abuse of children whom he and his wife had adopted out of the foster system.
■ The guardian of another girl sued the Department of Social Services after being placed in a foster home with a teen boy who had molested other children. The lawsuit, which was settled out of court, claimed the teen molested her on several occasions.
"I believe that there are kids in foster care in Brown County right now who are not safe," said Shirley Schwab, a former head of the county's Court-Appointed Special Advocates Program who closed her office after a high-profile falling out with social services.
Problems have surfaced beyond Brown County. Earlier this year, a former Canton city commissioner and longtime foster father, Jeffrey Nolte, was indicted on rape charges related to a child in his care, although the victim was not a foster child.
How foster care investigations work
Complaints against foster parents can come from children, neighbors, teachers, doctors or anyone else involved with a child who suspects abuse or hears the child talk about abuse or neglect, said Virgena Weiseler of the Department of Social Services.
If the department deems the allegations worthy of follow-up investigation, it passes it along to private contractors. The reports can be included in civil abuse and neglect proceedings. But unless there are criminal charges, the public wouldn't know anything took place. Even substantiated claims of abuse or neglect leave unanswered questions.
In response to an Argus Leader records request, the state offered a spreadsheet with details of each case investigated from fiscal years 2009 through 2013.
The information includes when a report was made, the type of report, the age of the child or children involved, the office through which a foster home is supervised, a ruling of substantiated or unsubstantiated and the date of that decision.