This information has been developed to help foster parents and foster parent associations deal with reports of child maltreatment involving their homes. Please keep in mind these things:
- All foster families have a common issue regarding how abuse and neglect reports are handled in many locales. No family deserves harmful treatment by a child welfare agency.
- Foster families in many nations are at higher risk of report of maltreatment than the general public, although substantiation rates are lower.
- Joint solutions arrived at by foster parents and child welfare agencies at local, state, provincial, and national levels are needed to address the problem.
- It is unreasonable to believe that most reports of maltreatment can be prevented. (One can and should work to prevent maltreatment.)
IMPORTANCE OF ADVANCE PREPARATION
- Prepare as if it is going to happen to you. Expect that you or a family member may be reported for child maltreatment and, no matter what your relationship with the agency, the report must be taken seriously.
- Foster parents need to know or learn about what the agency will do:
- What do the child protection laws mean for reports involving foster families
- Agency policy and procedures: of your agency and of agency responsible for child protection
- Exactly what to expect from your agency, from child protective services and from law enforcement personnel, when your home is reported for abuse or neglect
- Whether your family has a specific way to give input into the investigation
- How the investigation will be conducted regarding foster parents, own and foster children, others
- Under what circumstances and when and how foster children will be removed
- Whether, when and how foster family is notified of finding-was report substantiated, not substantiated, unable to determine
- How a report may affect pending adoption
- On what basis will agency revoke foster home license or fail to renew license
- What appeal procedures are available at agency and state level.
- Know what resources and services may be available to your family.
- Are there agency guidebook pages, policy pages, other written material available?
- Does agency maintain or cut-off communication of social workers with foster families?
- Do any support persons or support groups exist for reported foster families? (A few agencies and foster parent associations provide these.)
- What are the available resources to provide legal information, legal advice and, sometimes, legal representation?
- Know the strengths and weakness of your family as a foster family as seen by the agency. (This is a good idea for foster care work in general.)
- Foster families need support through the long process of abuse or neglect report, investigation, disposition and other possible agency actions. This may last for many months. Support is important to foster families both in terms of their agency and fellow foster parents and in terms of their communities.
PREVENTION ACTION STEPS FOR PARENTS AND PARENT ASSOCIATION
- Request education on child protection law specifically as it affects reported foster families. This should include information on guaranteed anonymity of the reporter, the need to take every report seriously; and how the legal status of foster parents differs from that of natural parents. It should also clarify how the terms used to indicate substantiated or unsubstantiated abuse differ from innocent and “guilty.”
- Request written information from your agency (and from the public agency which will investigate report of maltreatment in a foster home) on exactly what can be expected once abuse or neglect is reported. Ask that it be put in the foster care handbook. Ask that it be made available to all foster families, including newly licensed families. Make request in writing, dated.
- Request a current written evaluation of your foster home and specific feedback on any concerns the agency has in regard to your home. Do not accept verbal information only. If given verbal evaluation only, write a letter (keep copy) to confirm what you heard said.
- Be prepared and willing to accept negatives in the evaluation and work to make change as needed. Write to show when they are corrected.
- If the agency concerns are without basis, respond in writing to show what is not accurate and invite further discussion.
- Do not assume, because you are continually asked to handle difficult children, that the agency sees you as a highly capable family.
- Having a clear picture of your family’s strengths and weaknesses is a standard part of good foster care practice and can help you work well with an agency and reduce staff concerns when a report of maltreatment is received. It is also good “insurance” against any pretext in the future for non-renewal of license.
- Keep a dated. written journal of all important events involving foster care in your home and also of all communication and contacts with the agency, bio family, and others as needed. This is different from the child’s record, which goes with the child. This is an important record, which stays with you and may be crucial to supporting your version of the situation in an appeals hearing.
- When asking for assistance — for example in managing a particular child — put the request both in the journal and in a dated, signed letter, and keep a copy.
- If you repeat the request, record this in the journal and send another signed, dated, letter and keep a copy.
- These written requests may assist you and your worker to the assistance needed. Your written records may also prove important later to supporting what you say.
- Plan in advance for support to yourself and your family.
- Ask if the agency will provide support from staff not involved in the investigation or from specifically designated foster parents. (Some agencies do. Many may not, due to confusion of “support” with “taking sides”, and/or to concern about weakening a legal case. However, it is worth asking and reminds the agency of its service mission.) Ask your foster parent association to provide support for reported foster families. (Some associations now do this.) Work to help set up a support system.
- Select a few persons in your community who are important to you — a friend, minister, neighbor, employer — with whom you will discuss abuse and neglect reports in foster care. Let them know a) that foster families are at high risk to be reported and that your family is no exception; b) that child protection requires that all reports be looked into seriously; c) what the agency is likely to do when abuse is reported; d) that, due to observing confidentiality, you will not be discussing your foster children’s lives.
- Ask if these persons would be willing to give support, not take sides, should a report involving your family be made.
- Ask your agency and foster parent association to begin work in advance on legal resources for foster families who may be reported. These include resources for legal information, advice, and, perhaps, legal representation. There is little generally available to provide legal information, advice and/or representation for foster families reported for child abuse or neglect.
- Begin by asking (both foster parent association and agency) for training meetings on legal considerations when abuse is reported. Invite speakers who are attorneys, law enforcement personnel, protective services staff, and others.
- Consider developing written information for foster parents on their legal and other rights when abuse is reported; how to know what they need legal help for and how to find competent legal advice.
- Caution: For many aspects of abuse investigation work, legal representation is not required and may not be useful unless foster families can find attorneys knowledgeable about foster care and child protective services. In addition, the legal fees can be very high due to time spent learning about the system.
- Work in advance with your agency and your foster parent association on developing good policies for responding to foster families when abuse is reported.
WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN MALTREATMENT HAS BEEN REPORTED
- Much less can be done “after the fact,” after report occurs.
- The situation is complicated by foster family stress and by agency non-cooperation in many instances.
- Expect that agency policies may mean the agency will act rapidly (whether or not there is any indication or risk of child abuse or neglect) and may include cutoff of communication; removals of foster children; non-return of foster children; removal or non-renewal of license and/or no further placements of children.
- You need to take the initiative to learn what your agency’s policies and child protection agency policies are.
ACTION STEPS TO TAKE AFTER A REPORT HAS BEEN MADE
- IMPORTANT Do not isolate yourselves, especially from other foster parents. Do not stigmatize and stress yourselves and others by keeping this crisis a “secret.” Remember that foster families are at risk to be reported.
- Confidentiality of children’s lives must be maintained, of course, but does not prohibit you from saying you have been reported for maltreatment! Confidentiality applies to client lives; it does not interfere with rights to individual freedom of speech (U.S. First Amendment).
- Request assistance from your foster parent support group, state or national association to get needed information, support and resources.
- Request information from the agency on exactly what to expect once maltreatment is reported.
- Continue or begin a dated written journal of events and communications. Keep good records.
- Seek out support from agency (if available), other foster families and persons important to you in community. Participate in (or start) a support group.
- Insist on giving full input into the investigation. If you have not been interviewed, or you found the interviews inadequate, put into writing (keep a copy) the complete information you wish to give and send it to investigator.
- Ask what information on legal rights exists and what you need an attorney for.
- Request assistance from agency in explaining to children as needed, whether removed or not, what is happening and why. Ask agency assistance to maintain communication from your family with removed children. (Important to children!)
- Expect the process to take a long time to resolve, sometimes six months to a year.
- If children have been removed, plan activities during this period to help with loss and grief, including work which allows you to continue being active and “giving”.
- Pay attention to your health, physical and emotional. Foster parents may suffer a loss of confidence and self-esteem when suddenly treated by the agency in ways which feel negative. Foster parents often experience grief from the losses of children and losses of identity if foster children are suddenly or inappropriately removed.
- Maintain your professionalism as a foster parent, cooperating fully with the investigation, insisting on giving full input and on being treated appropriately and seeking all appropriate information and resources to assist you at this time.
BEYOND INDIVIDUAL FOSTER FAMILY EXPERIENCES
Once foster parents have been through the experience, they have valuable insights and experiences to share. Work with your agency and foster parent association in jointly toward more constructive ways of handling abuse/neglect reports in foster care. (See ADVANCE PREPARATION above), and:
- Work for positive changes in agency policy and procedures.
- Work on state policy and information and resources for foster families when abuse or neglect is reported.
- Share with other agencies and foster parent associations those new policies, procedures and other ideas which are working well.
- Keep in mind that foster parenting, done well, almost always involves being child advocates. Improving how foster families are treated once maltreatment is reported will be helpful to children in care as well as to foster parents and their own children.
Source: By: Rosemarie Carbino 2001, Clinical Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Social Work, 1350 University Avenue, Madison, Wl , firstname.lastname@example.org. Permission granted by the author for copy and distribution solely for non-profit educational purposes.