Friday, November 11, 2011

Is privatizing foster care bad for kids and costing you more money?

Am I the only one screaming for federal intervention?

Ask Bill Johnson.

(WXYZ) - A grandma has been fighting the state to get her grandkids out of foster care for years. A great aunt has been trying to do the same for her niece. But both have been met with strong resistance—and it may be a matter of money.

The state pays private agencies to handle most foster care adoptions. By law, they are supposed to make placing foster children with extended family members a priority. But 7 Action News has found some cases where relatives say the agencies may be putting profits ahead of policy – and this can cut kids off from family forever. 

When Lori Scribner found out her grandchildren were put in foster care after the state declared their parents unfit, she came forward to claim them. 

“I have been telling them I want them all along,” says Scribner. 

But she also was told that she needed a bigger home for her four grandkids. So she bought a five-bedroom ranch with a pool. 

“That’s one of the things they love most is swimming,” says Scribner. 

Then she was told she had to earn more money. The registered nurse came out of semi-retirement and went back to work full-time.

“So I could support the kids. I understood that,” Scribner says. 

Scribner also says she has spent $50,000 in legal fees and other costs fighting for her grandkids. But she still faces the prospect of never seeing them again. 

“There was nothing I could do that they would let them come,” she says. 

Micky Gordon says she’s been fighting a system that seems set on breaking family bonds. The Department of Human Services (DHS), and the private agency it contracts, approved another couple to adopt her great niece who’s in foster care. 

“I feel like I have been living under a bully mentality," says Gordon, who is a social worker in Oklahoma, and is very familiar with foster care. She and her husband have foster-parented dozens of kids and adopted two of them. 

“My credentials are impeccable,” insists Gordon, who says she has spent about $30,000 in legal fees fighting to adopt her niece and has no plans to stop. 

“I’m not going away. She’s coming home to her family,” says Gordon.
The law is on their side.

“Both federal and state law require that the agency and the court give priority to relatives seeking placement of children in foster care,” says attorney Vivek Sankaran, who heads the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy and is an expert on child welfare law.
Sankaran says, “Systemic road blocks are created, license, home-study requirements, criminal background checks take time. By the time these checks are done, the child is living somewhere else.”

Scribner and Micky suspect this is about more than just bureaucratic red tape
“I think a lot of it has to do with these agencies earning money,” says Scribner.

DHS contracts with private agencies to handle foster care adoptions. But DHS wouldn’t talk to 7 Action News because Scribner’s and Gordon’s cases are being litigated.

The private agencies also wouldn’t talk about their cases, citing adoption confidentiality laws. But they did tell us that a child’s welfare is their top priority.

Scribner and Gordon aren’t buying it. They point to the current contract between DHS and the private agencies. The agencies get between $5,400 and $11,500 per adoption. The faster they get a child adopted, the more money the agency receives.

“We’re moving way too fast into adoption, close that deal, show me the money,” says Gordon.
Gordon and Scribner have something in common that would mean less money for the agencies. Both live in other states. For out-of-state adoptions, private agencies in Michigan get $3,500 tops.

“The whole system is set up to give the children away, and pay other people to take care of them when family is right there,” says Scribner.

In fact, the state would have saved more than $330,000 had the private agencies placed the children in Scribner’s and Gordon’s cases with them.

The state gives foster and adoptive parents $14.24 a day to care for a child until they turn 18-years-old. Scribner and Gordon say they told the agencies they didn’t want the subsidy, they just want their loved ones.

“I told the adoption worker with the agency, look, we’re not asking for your money,” says Gordon.

A recent study put together by a former county DHS director shows that it costs more for the state to pay private agencies to manage foster care than to have the state do it.
The report shows that for a state case worker to manage 18 foster care cases, it costs about $174,590 a year. That’s compared to about $297,087 for a private agency worker to handle the same case load.

Meanwhile Scribner and Gordon are not giving up.

“There are days you just sit and cry because you don’t know what’s happening,” says Scribner. “You don’t know anything about the kids and the more that they stonewall you, the more you think something must be wrong.”

In Scribner’s case, court records show the private agency had their recruited couple apply to adopt her grandkids—while, at the same time, they were telling Scriber that
the children were not available for adoption.

“The only thing they will tell you is you can’t have them,” says Scribner.
DHS admitted in court records that Scribner is a “loving, caring, nurturing and suitable care-giver,” but that the kids should be adopted by the agencies recruited couple since the children had already bonded with them.

Attorney Sankaran says he has seen agencies drag out the placement process and then argue it’s in the best interest of the child to stay with the recruited family.
By the time these checks are done, the child is living somewhere else and then bonding and things of that nature are brought up as the reason to keep kids away from family,” says Sankaran.

Bonding was the key reason in both Scribner’s and Gordon’s cases for not letting them have their loved ones.

“Do you think the agency purposely delayed this process?” Catallo asked Gordon.
“It certainly does appear that way,” says Gordon 

To be clear, a judge has the final say, but rarely goes against a DHS recommendation. And children can be cut off from family forever. 

“I want the kids to know that we fought and we tried everything to get them that we could,” Scribner says through tears. 

After 7 Action News contacted DHS about Scribner’s and Gordon’s cases, Scribner got a letter.

It says DHS is now reconsidering their decision to deny Scribner adoption of her grandkids. The letter also says it is looking at new information and will issue a new decision in 30 days.
Gordon’s hearing to challenge DHS’s decision is still ongoing.
We’ll stay on these stories and tell you the outcome of both.