On Sept. 24, the Star Tribune ran a heartbreaking story (“Safety net fails missing boy”) about a 2-year-old found in a hotel room with his mother and four other adults, surrounded by heroin, meth, crack pipes and cocaine. The child, who had been in foster care, was turned over to a family friend and went missing again soon after.

The situation could easily have been avoided. The boy’s foster parents, Erin and Pernell Meier, were so concerned about his well-being that they twice warned child protection workers about the risks he faced around his biological parents. Their concerns were ignored.

Unfortunately, this is far too common an occurrence in the world of child protection. Foster parents have little recourse to report dangerous situations in foster children’s biological homes. When they do attempt to say something they are often ignored — like the Meiers.

Most foster parents have affecting stories. One of the co-authors of this commentary had a similar experience recently when she took in a set of siblings.

One of the children spoke of past abuse at the hands of his biological parents. A prominent sports figure was in the news at the time due to allegations of child abuse. The foster child’s interest was drawn to those events because he felt a connection. The child said that a judge had never taught his mother not to “whoop” kids, either.

Later, one of the siblings made an allegation against one of the biological parents that needed to be investigated by authorities. When this happened, the biological parent became openly threatening. Afraid for her safety and the safety of the children, the co-author of this commentary voiced her concerns to everyone working on the case and refused to transport the children to the biological home. Her concerns were vetoed, and the biological parent was granted home visits.

Not long after an overnight visit, the demeanor of one of the children changed. The caseworker explained that during the visit the child had fallen down a flight of stairs onto a concrete floor.

Such stories reveal major flaws in our child-protection system. Foster parents have an incredibly difficult job and can provide valuable information, but they remain excluded from case management. They are kept on the outside, not allowed all of the information on a case, and their opinions about the well-being of the children in their care are frequently disregarded.

If our foremost concern truly is children’s safety, then this needs to change. We must start acknowledging the critical role foster parents play in the child protection system.

First, we can review reimbursement rates to foster parents. Foster children have more disabilities and come from more dysfunction than ever before. In 2009, rates for these types of children were more than $40 per day. Rates have fallen sharply since then, to $18.23 per day for the youngest children, forcing foster parents to dig deeper into their own pockets to care for these children.

Second, we should give more consideration to foster parents’ recommendations. Their hands-on experience gives them insights and knowledge that caseworkers are sometimes missing, leading to too many preventable tragedies. Foster parents’ concerns need to be a key part of caseworker analysis.

Foster parents continue to sacrifice because they know these children often have no one else who cares about them; they continue to sacrifice because they want to make a difference. But foster parent numbers are shrinking, in large part because we do not treat them as a valued part of the child-protection team. If we don’t start listening to their warnings, compensating them adequately and treating them like the professionals they are, then we won’t have that crucial safety net in the system.

 

Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, is assistant minority leader in the Minnesota Senate. Marsha Van Denburgh is a foster care provider in Oak Grove.