After recent allegations that a 10-month-old girl died from being left in a hot car and that her foster parent was smoking marijuana and watching TV when he realized she was still outside, some Wichitans called for drug testing.
If job applicants have to pass a urine test, the argument goes, why not prospective foster parents?
But experts on the child-welfare system say drug testing is costly, often inaccurate and has limited ability to screen out drug use by prospective foster parents or catch drug use by those already caring for children.
In Kansas, there is no mandatory drug testing for prospective foster parents, said Theresa Freed, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department for Children and Families, the agency responsible for foster children. Testing occurs if a foster parent is suspected of using illegal drugs.
Drug tests are snapshots.
“You could do a drug screen on a prospective foster parent, but they could be clean that day,” said Heidi Redlich Epstein, an attorney with the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law.
The best way to spot substance abuse or illegal drug use, Epstein and others say, is through periodic monitoring when social workers visit foster homes.
“But it doesn’t mean you’re going to catch everything,” she said. “There are a lot of functioning addicts.
“Everybody wants a crystal ball: Is the child going to be safe? But you can’t answer it all,” she said.
The ABA, in partnership with other national organizations, has drafted model standards in the hopes that states will move toward uniformity in how they regulate foster-care homes. The model standards don’t include mandatory or ongoing drug testing, she said.
Wichita police have said that the 10-month-old girl died July 24 after succumbing to heat in a closed-up car parked in front of her foster home on South Topeka. The girl, identified by her biological grandmother as Kadillak Poe-Jones, had been left there about two hours, and the foster parent who brought her home from a baby sitter forgot to get her out, police have said.
That foster parent, Seth Jackson, 29, has been charged with first-degree murder, with the underlying factor being recklessness, not premeditation, the prosecutor said.
Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said Jackson had smoked marijuana that morning and ran out of the illegal drug, went to a drug dealer, brought the 10-month-old back from the baby sitter that afternoon but left her in the car seat and went into his home to use more of the drug.
A police affidavit says Jackson and the other foster parent were smoking marijuana in their bedroom when Jackson heard a child crying on TV and remembered the baby in the car. John Stang, one of Jackson’s defense attorneys, said Friday that he doesn’t believe Jackson was impaired when he left the child in the car. Impairment is key to showing recklessness, Stang said.
In Kansas, foster parents suspected of using drugs can be asked to undergo drug testing, and if drugs are detected, their foster-care license is withdrawn, said Freed, the DCF spokeswoman. A state regulation says, “No caregiver shall be in a state of impaired ability due to the use of alcohol or other chemicals, including prescription and nonprescription drugs.”
While the state investigates whether the foster parent is using drugs, the foster children are placed in another foster home.
To be a foster parent, applicants have to pass a criminal background check, answer a questionnaire about substance abuse and allow their home to be inspected, among other steps. Once someone becomes a foster parent, social workers check on the children at least once a month, and there are annual inspections of foster homes to make sure the physical environment is safe, Freed said.
Freed said she had no numbers on how often foster parents are suspected of substance abuse. Overall, of the abuse and neglect reports the DCF assigned for further investigation in Wichita during the past fiscal year, 2 percent involved alleged maltreatment by foster parents, Freed said.
Cost and accuracy
Linda Spears, an official with the Child Welfare League of America, said she thinks most states don’t do drug tests of all foster-parent applicants; mainly it would be done if there was a suspicion or something showed up in a background check.
Although drug testing can send a message that the system won’t tolerate substance abuse, problems can arise because the tests can be inaccurate and “for many, many jurisdictions, cost becomes a factor,” Spears said.
Even a single systemwide round of initial drug testing would be cost prohibitive, said Lori Ross, president and CEO of Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association, a nonprofit agency that provides support and services to foster and adoptive families in Kansas and Missouri.
It’s not just the cost per test, which can range from $25 for one drug to up to $200, Ross said.
“All of those tests have limited accuracy,” she said.
Ross, whose job gives her a perspective on both the Kansas and Missouri foster care systems, said she thinks the Kansas system is more stringent overall than Missouri’s.
Foster parents are understandably held to a high standard, she said, because they are caring for someone else’s child.
“You could not possibly remove all the children from a home where the (biological) parents have used marijuana,” Ross said.
It’s probably a natural reaction for the public to see drug testing as a solution, but “unfortunately there is nothing to guarantee that nothing like this will ever happen again,” she said.
Marcia Allen, a consultant in Wichita who has 43 years of experience in the child-welfare field, said she doesn’t think that substance abuse is a big problem among foster parents. That’s partly because the recruitment process would weed out someone who might drink too much or use illegal drugs, said Allen, who consulted for the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services. Would-be foster parents know they will be under scrutiny, Allen said.
Someone with a substance-abuse problem is going to have a different motivation than a would-be foster parent, she said.
“People who apply to be foster parents are very anxious to help others, while people using drugs or alcohol are more likely to be quite self-involved.”
Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or firstname.lastname@example.org.