DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL

In any discussion of Colorado's child-welfare system, getting even the most basic information about children in state care is nearly impossible. That's not because of statute but because of individual county policies about what gets said to whom. State law merely instructs professionals in the system to keep the identity of children confidential. But many social workers and administrators have interpreted the law so broadly that they refuse to disclose anything to almost everyone: the media, school officials and, more troubling, the foster parents charged with caring for the children. It's a "house policy" that puts foster families--and children--in precarious situations.

Dr. Carole Jenny, who heads Children's Hospital's Child Advocacy and Protection team, says she's personally testified in two trials where social-service workers have put children in foster care without telling foster parents their new charges were known to have committed sexual assaults on other children. "The need to know is important," she says. "Those families have to protect the other kids in the household."

In some cases, says Jenny, the information being withheld can endanger the life of the foster child. "I can't tell you how many times I've had kids come in here with asthma, life-threatening asthma, and I make the diagnosis and I hand [the social workers] medication, and then I see the kid two months later when the foster parent brings them in, gasping for air, and I say, `Where's the medication?' And they say, `What medication?' These are very high-risk kids. We'd really come down on biological parents if they treated their kids this way. How come we let the state get away with it?"

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Then there are the kids with behavioral problems such as fire-setting, sexual aggression and violent tendencies. Adams County foster mother Crystal Greene remembers the day three years ago when she took in her first placement, a nine-year-old boy. "They knew he was a fire-setter, and they didn't tell me," Greene says. "He started a fire in the trash dumpster at his school." Greene says she knows of another Adams County case where county workers "tried to get an HIV baby placed and didn't tell anyone [that the infant carried the AIDS virus]. It goes on. It goes on every day."

Greene grew so upset that she formed a statewide advocacy group called the Fostering Families Coalition. "I once had a worker tell me that they couldn't possibly tell foster parents what was really going on because, as she put it, `we don't want to scare people off,'" says Greene.

Linda Johnson-Diliberto, bureau director for child welfare in Adams County, says she and other administrators have dealt with isolated incidents where social workers withheld information. "We dealt with those workers individually, and then the foster-care coordinator reissued our policy, which is we need to share information," she says. There are some Colorado counties where HIV status is treated as confidential, Johnson-Diliberto says, but Adams isn't one of them.

Linda Willoughby and Rita Witmer, social workers for the Denver Department of Social Services, insist that county agencies don't make it a policy to keep information from foster parents. Instead, they say, they do the best they can in a strapped system that is too often the subject of bad publicity. "We do have success stories," says Willoughby, "but you never hear about them."

According to Witmer, a caseworker liaison with the Denver Family Crisis Center, what may seem like a social worker's failure to communicate vital information may actually be the fault of an inexperienced--and overeager--foster parent. "New foster parents who just want to get the child placed in their home [often] don't listen carefully as the caseworker describes all the details," she claims.

But foster parents say the homes of brand-new foster parents are sometimes used as dumping grounds for the system's hard cases. Lynette Newton, a former Arapahoe County foster parent now living in Nebraska, says that she too had a fire-starter placed in her home without warning. She and her husband had just received their county license when they opened their home to a six-year-old boy who allegedly hadn't done anything worse than "tearing a screen" in his prior placement.

"We brought him in and found out he was eight going on nine, not six," says Newton. And his behavioral problems went far beyond tearing screens. The youngster knocked Newton's biological son's dental work out of his mouth, beat up two neighbor children and constantly pushed and shoved a fellow foster child who was all of two years old. Unbeknownst to Newton, he had also set fire to his natural mother's apartment.

"I had no control over him. I couldn't protect the other children from him," Newton says. "Remember, I was just licensed to be a regular foster-care home, not a therapeutic one [where parents are trained to take on children with severe problems]." Newton says that after she called Arapahoe County to complain about the placement, the boy was bounced to another foster home. But that was a receiving home, which, by statute, can keep a child for only ninety days. "After that, they reunited him with his mother," says Newton. "Last I heard, he was down on Colfax in a bar with his mother. He can't be more than twelve."

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