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.

Those who run CPAs say that the market provides the best oversight: If a county is not satisfied with the service a CPA provides, the agency simply is not given any more referrals and goes out of business.

At the same time, however, other market forces are sending more and more kids into whatever homes will take them.

The crunch is obvious in the juvenile courts, where judges decide what to do with children in abusive or neglectful relationships at home.

"If everything goes swimmingly," Littman says, "you then have a myriad of services to access to overcome problems that got kids into social services to begin with."

Ideally, when a child is removed from his home, a treatment plan for the parents is immediately drawn up, parents are given access to service providers to help them with therapy or counseling, and the kid is placed in a secure environment for a few months and then sent back home.

But things usually don't go so swimmingly.
The way the system works now, says Allen Pollack, program-development specialist for the state's human services department, a caseworker is assigned to a case, and if he or she determines the child needs out-of-home placement, the worker seeks out a provider, "usually the first available bed they can find." The kid is placed, and the worker visits whenever possible, which many times isn't very often.

Pollack says the system currently serves the interests of providers--who are seeking to be paid for services rendered to children in out-of-home placements--rather than the counties, which are the legal custodians of the children and are attempting to return them to their families.

A new law has forced courts to have a permanent placement plan for children within twelve months after they are removed from their homes. The law is designed to force people to work together, be accountable and get kids out of the system faster. But as one Denver juvenile judge admits, it may lead the system to send kids back home before they're ready to be sent.

And the courts are having a hard enough time getting kids settled in eighteen months, which had been the previous standard. According to a 1996 study, in more than 41 percent of Denver's cases, it took longer than eighteen months for children to be placed somewhere permanent: back home, with a relative, or in adoption. Adams, Arapahoe and Jefferson counties did better--but even 18.7 percent of Jeffco's cases took longer than eighteen months, depicting a system that is overloaded in trying to get kids through and out.

The longer kids stay in foster-care limbo, the more they run the risk of developing attachment disorders, which makes them incapable of really bonding with anyone, including their parents, who may have cleaned up their acts during the time kids have been out of the home.

"Forty to fifty percent of children who are reunited with their birth parents end up back in the child-welfare system," says Seth Grob, staff attorney with the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center. "Someone is making poor decisions. Lack of training [county caseworkers] is a problem, high caseloads is a problem, and failure to take an accurate social history, failure to adequately monitor how the parents do."

And though the idea of private business placing children in foster homes may have the unseemly ring of profiting from children's misfortune, CPAs are quick to trumpet their virtues.

Rexford Nickerson, director of human resources at Presidio, a Wheat Ridge CPA, says the county is to blame for being poor consumers.

"Counties and the state have been pretty bad customers," says Nickerson. "They don't have a system of assuring they're getting their money's worth, paying one agency X amount and another twice that, quite possibly for the same circumstances. It's a real train wreck. Someone needs to provide some leadership, someone who understands basic principles of management accounting."

Nickerson says county social workers should stop doing social work and assume a more supervisory role. "They're paying us to do the social work," he says. "Let us do the work, and you be the check and balance and assure the agency is doing what the agency said it would do."

Andrews doesn't think county failings have anything to do with the rise of CPAs. "The growth is for a variety of reasons," she says. "A lot of them feel they're called to this. They think they can provide services that the county department needs. Some are called by the ministry. Some are called for personal reasons."

That's a good description of Clara Sterling, who became a foster parent in 1971. Children were always around her home: her own kids, and those of relatives and friends. Her first foster child was a teenager named Regina Wilson who stayed with her for nine months, then was emancipated by the system. "I don't know what happened to her," Sterling says. "I still have her birth certificate."

Sterling, who has worked with both Denver county and a CPA called Denver Arapahoe Adams County Care, says the private way has its advantages. In Denver's county system, she says, she only needed to have First Aid, CPR and a twelve-hour core training class. For DAACC, she needed to have forty hours of certified training on topics ranging from pharmacology to sexual perpetrators.

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