Baby’s death in Wichita puts focus on foster system

08/02/2014 2:48 PM

08/08/2014 2:39 PM

In the Kansas child-welfare system, there are sayings:

To be a foster parent, first you have to be willing to open your heart and your home.

It takes more than love.

As a recent tragedy in Wichita shows, being a foster parent also requires attention to safety. It’s spelled out in state foster home regulations, including this: “Children less than 10 years of age shall not be left in a vehicle unattended by an adult. When the vehicle is vacated, the driver shall make certain that no child is left in the vehicle.”

That check apparently didn’t happen before a 10-month-old girl remained up to 2 1/2 hours in a closed-up car outside her foster home July 24. By the time her foster parents realized she had been left strapped into the hot car and rushed out to get her, she had died, police said. Prosecutors have charged one of the two foster parents, Seth Jackson – who had been described by neighbors or the girl’s maternal grandmother as a committed and loving foster father – with first-degree murder in the baby’s death. The charge alleges that the 29-year-old acted recklessly after bringing her home from a baby sitter.

District Attorney Marc Bennett disclosed in court Friday that authorities believe Jackson had been smoking marijuana while the girl remained in the car.

The tragedy also has drawn attention to the process by which foster care parents are chosen and foster children are placed.

The baby’s death is being investigated by Wichita police and two state agencies. The death prompted the state to investigate foster care homes sponsored by the subcontractor TFI, and to suspend foster care placements by TFI, pending the investigation.

Those in the system say they are confident that although Kansas has different contractors or subcontractors who place foster children, the system is straightforward and consistent from agency to agency.

The death comes at a time when the foster care system faces extra pressure because the number of children in state custody, whether they are in foster care or still in their home, has steadily increased, to 7,129 statewide as of June and to 1,661 in the Wichita region, according to the Department for Children and Families. It’s an extra challenge for a system that is inherently challenged because it is responsible for helping children who have suffered and have special needs and because foster parents are always in demand. The children go to foster care because a court has determined that they have been abused or neglected in their homes and need to be removed.

Saint Francis Community Services, the foster care contractor for the Wichita region, said in a recent news release that more than 265 Sedgwick County children had to stay in other counties because of a lack of local families to care for them. “These children urgently need about 153 new foster families to help house them closer to home.”

According to DCF tracking, the 10-month-old’s death is a rare occurrence. It marks the first time since 2006 that a child has died from maltreatment in foster care.

KDHE surveys

One key part of the foster care process is licensing by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Records on the Jackson foster care home, provided by KDHE to The Eagle, show that Jackson and the 26-year-old man he has referred to as his husband or partner received an initial license to operate a foster home on March 22, 2010 — more than four years before the girl’s death. She has been identified in the criminal complaint by her initials, KPJ, and by her maternal biological grandmother as Kadillak Poe-Jones. The initial license allowed for the men to care for two foster children. To get the initial license, the men first had to pass a survey conducted by KDHE on Feb. 23, 2010. The survey found no areas of noncompliance, says the KDHE timeline.

On Feb. 16, 2011, an amended license allowed them to have four foster children.

By March 16, 2011, TFI was listed as the agency sponsoring the men’s foster home. To get a foster care license, parents must get sponsorship of a private child placing agency. The sponsoring agency prepares parents for licensing through training and instruction on the regulations, KDHE says.

In each of the past four years, according to the KDHE timeline, TFI did annual surveys of the men’s foster home, sometimes finding problems, including such things as misplacement or lack of smoke detectors and lack of health records. But each time the men corrected the situation. The last survey of the home by TFI came on March 19 of this year.

On June 21, 2013, there had been what the timeline refers to only as “Complaint investigation by KDHE completed. No areas of noncompliance.” KDHE wouldn’t say what the complaint involved.

The baby’s death has prompted a three-pronged investigation, involving KDHE, DCF and Wichita police.

According to the biological grandmother, Cindy Poe, Jackson and his partner began caring for the girl shortly after she was born. She had been born with drugs in her system, Poe said.

Police said that at the time of the girl’s death, the men were trying to adopt her and that she was among four foster children living at the home with two adopted children, ranging up to 18 years old. KDHE and DCF have said that no foster children remain in the home after the girl’s death.

TFI officials couldn’t be reached for comment this past week. On the day after the death, TFI spokesman Brenden Long said in a statement that the contractor is “deeply saddened by the death of the child and is fully cooperating with the investigation and the Department for Children and Families.” Long said TFI would be personally contacting each of its sponsored foster families and providing them with heat safety tips.

Becoming a foster parent

Valerie Leon is one of the people who see the foster-care system up close. Leon, a licensed marriage and family therapist, recruits foster parents for Saint Francis, the foster care contractor for the Wichita region.

Foster parents don’t have to fit a mold, Leon said. They can be married, single, homeowners, renters, but they have to be at least 21. They don’t have to have parenting experience. They have to be above poverty level and have outside income so they can provide for their family and foster children.

Despite the demand for foster parents, not every person who wants to be one gets chosen, Leon said. “I think the misconception is that society thinks that every person that comes into this arena is selected. They’re not.”

She elaborated: “We’re not looking for perfect families … we’re looking for people who can meet the needs of our children.”

The key question is can they provide a nurturing, safe home? To help answer that question, prospective foster parents undergo 10 weeks of training, in which trainers like Leon explain the nature of foster children: how they have suffered, how they feel a loss, how they grieve, why they can be angry and how things like night lights and special foods matter to a child.

To learn about the prospective foster families, trainers go into the recruits’ homes to understand the family’s schedules and the physical environment. Some people come to realize they don’t have the time to be a foster parent. To be licensed, a home must be safe. According to Leon, the check list includes precautions like putting safety plugs in electrical outlets, storing guns and ammunition properly, properly installing smoke alarms and having proper fencing around swimming pools.

A home must have adequate bedroom space for each child. The rule of thumb is 45 square feet per child; if they share a room, 90 square feet, Leon said. She takes a tape measure on home visits leading up to possible licensing.

With some exceptions, a foster home can’t have more than six children under the age of 16, including biological or adopted children, Leon said. The system strives to keep siblings together. At the home where the 10-month-old girl died, the foster parents also were caring for her older sisters, according to Poe. New foster parents start out with one or two children, Leon said.

Prospective foster parents also come under scrutiny. They have to pass a KBI background check and a child abuse registry check. Applications ask about substance abuse.

Some people want to become foster parents so they can adopt the children, Leon said. But she makes clear to them that their first goal is to support efforts to reunite foster children with their families.

The contractors or subcontractors compensate foster parents based on a foster child’s needs. The DCF rate is $22.16 a day; the average cost is $20.52 per day. The agencies can pay a higher rate based on the level of care needed, DCF says.

‘The process works’

Saundra Hiller, executive director of the Kansas Foster and Adoptive Parent Association, said there is a myth that people become foster parents for the money.

Hiller, whose organization represents about 2,000 foster parents, said she fears that the death of the 10-month-old could dissuade some from becoming foster parents because it shows how much responsibility is involved in caring for someone else’s child.

She said another wrong perception is that the foster system is always in disarray, when in fact there is a “just incredible” level of collaboration. She has been involved with the foster system for 14 years.

Hiller, as with Leon, has been a foster parent trainer. Some recruits realize they don’t want to deal with challenging kids, and some conclude that their home won’t meet the physical requirements, she said.

“This is the kind of thing where love is not always enough. You have to be able to set boundaries and provide consistency.”

It takes several months to get through the process to become a foster parent, and after that, the license must be renewed annually, with the sponsoring agency doing a yearly inspection, she said.

“It’s a standard process,” she said, with basic requirements that aren’t necessarily easy but straightforward. Hiller said she believes that placement is consistent from agency to agency. “I’m comfortable that the process works.”

Statewide numbers

Brian Dempsey, DCF’s director of prevention and protection services, gave this overview of the foster-care system:

TFI — the placing subcontractor under investigation after the death of the 10-month-old — is the sponsor for 621 licensed foster homes across the state. TFI is one of five main child-placing agencies: KVC, Saint Francis, TFI, EmberHope and DCCCA. KVC and Saint Francis have contracts with the state, and the other three are subcontractors. Saint Francis is the contractor for the Wichita region, which includes 10 counties: Sedgwick, Pratt, Kingman, Harper, Barber, Cowley, Butler, Elk, Greenwood and Sumner.

Kansas has about 2,600 foster homes statewide. As of June 30, 7,129 children were in the custody of the DCF secretary. Of the total in state custody, about 6,127 were in foster care. The remaining 1,000 or so have gone back home and are being “reintegrated” – they are still in state custody, under monitoring. Children that end up going from foster care back to their homes within a year typically spend about nine months in foster care in the Wichita area. Still, in “child time,” several months can be a long time for a 5-year-old, Dempsey said.

Investigation warranted

DCF wouldn’t say why the girl’s death prompted it to investigate TFI. But Roberta Sue McKenna, an attorney who retired in December 2011 as DCF’s assistant director of children and family services, said the TFI investigation seems like a reasonable response, to make sure that someone didn’t miss something in sponsoring the foster home.

It’s important to make sure the system worked, and if it didn’t, it allows officials to make needed changes, McKenna said.

McKenna also views the foster care system as being unfairly criticized. Foster parents get accused of being motivated by money when “they’re subsidizing the foster care system,” because the reimbursement doesn’t cover the cost, she said. And while the system gets described as a mess, she said, “in many ways Kansas has a high functioning child welfare system.”

The investigation of TFI could also be the state’s attempt to reassure the public that there is not a widespread problem and that the state is being thorough and holding people accountable if necessary, she said.

Despite the Wichita tragedy, she said, “children are actually pretty safe in foster care.”

Contributing: Rick Plumlee of The Eagle

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