Family Values

When the state's foster-care system doesn't work, there's always the private sector. but sometimes that doesn't work, either.

The lack of reliable outcome data gives ammunition to the critics of CPAs, who allege that there is not sufficient county or state oversight of these agencies.

The state human services department conducted an extensive review of CPAs in 1997, spending more than 3,000 hours on the work. The report was favorable to CPAs, concluding that, "Overall, children are getting good care. With few exceptions, children appear to be receiving what is requested or needed despite the absence of an outcome-based system."

Forty-three CPAs were found to operate "efficiently and effectively." Ten were found to be the source of the majority of problems--but they were not named in the report, which, oddly, was put into a final draft form and released to a handful of people but never published. It remains an internal document, not available for public inspection.

Those in the pro-CPA camp suggest that the state did not release the report because its findings were favorable to the private agencies.

But one CPA, Living Waters/Crayon Academy in Denver, had its license pulled in December. A month earlier, a caseworker had reported that a foster child in a home certified by Living Waters had attacked other foster children, eventually threatening the foster father with a knife. The child then threatened to kill himself. Aurora police were called, but they would not transport the child to the Denver Family Crisis Center because it was out of their jurisdiction; the foster father didn't transport the child, either, because he was fearful that the boy would try to jump out of the car.

When the foster father called the executive director and placement supervisor of Living Waters, Mitzi Kennedy, she told him she no longer worked there. So he called the owner of the CPA, Felicia Everett. Her number had been disconnected. He left a message with her through a third party, but weeks passed and he never heard from her.

The state stepped in and charged the agency with "inadequate staff to oversee foster homes." A hearing is scheduled for the end of this month.

In addition to such administrative problems, critics complain about a lack of financial accountability among CPAs. Guardian ad litem Rodney Borwick says he was involved in one case in which a CPA convinced a county to put up the money to hire a psychologist to work with a particular child, but the CPA never hired the psychologist.

"The money gets paid, in spite of everyone knowing that they're not doing the service, but nothing happens," Borwick says.

And for some who must work with both the county-run foster-care programs and the private CPAs, the private CPAs have created a troublesome layer of bureaucracy. Littman tells of a six-year-old boy for whom he is currently serving as guardian at litem. The boy's mom is a glue- and paint-sniffer, and the boy may suffer organ damage as a result of the exposure.

Littman says the boy's case had been heading smoothly toward a termination of parental rights. His foster parents were very committed to him, but because his legal status was still up in the air, he could not yet be adopted. Without notifying Littman, two more children were placed by Arapahoe County, through a CPA, in the foster home. The presence of these other children unbalanced Littman's child, whose behavior suddenly deteriorated. "The foster parents who were willing to adopt him now have demanded his removal," Littman says.

The problem was that the kid needed a psychological assessment, and while the CPA and the county caseworker agreed it needed to be done, each side expected the other to do it. "The [county] caseworker isn't able to work her way through the bureaucracy," Littman says. "And having transferred the responsibility of the child to the CPA, social services is loath to come up with the resources. [The county is] a legal custodian without any real authority.

"This is characteristic of why and how this extra layer of bureaucracy is working to the detriment of the child," he says.

Andrews, the state's child-care licensing supervisor, points out that the state does have regulations overseeing CPAs. Once a year, someone from the state comes to monitor the CPAs and look through the books--and because the counties place children through particular CPAs, that gives the county departments oversight authority. But asked whether that oversight was adequate, she says, "I can't respond to that."

For the most part, CPAs screen foster parents the same way counties do. There are extensive questionnaires and interviews, as well as checks with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and with the child-abuse registry to see if the applicant has any confirmed incidents of abuse or neglect. Having a criminal record doesn't necessarily disqualify a person from becoming a foster parent. It all depends on circumstance--for example, whether an arrest record stems from an assault the previous month or from a DUI charge twenty years ago.

"The state puts down minimum rules and standards," says Carol Wahlgren, a child-protection program specialist with the state. "Unless we hear of a problem, there's an assumption that everything is going all right."

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