Foster Home Shortage

Lin Leclair chats with a 4-year-old foster child during dinner at her Tucson home on Nov. 20, 2013.

Lin Leclair-Turner and her husband were Pima County’s 2011 foster parents of the year, but recent heartbreak over a child’s case — and their overall frustration with a backlogged system — has them questioning whether they will continue.

If they don’t, it’s a sad outcome in a county desperate for foster parents, especially ones as dedicated as Leclair-Turner and Dan Turner have been: They’ve taken in 40 children over 11 years, they adopted a baby abandoned by her birth parents, and they belong to both the county’s Foster Care Review Board and the Arizona Association of Foster and Adoptive Families.

“In Arizona, the needs of the parents are taken before the needs of the child,” Leclair-Turner said. “We spend so much for resources on parents who don’t really want to be parents, and I don’t understand that.”

Federal guidelines require judges to assess whether a parent can do a “minimally adequate job parenting” and to make “reasonable efforts to reunify families.” But they also require that any case in which a child has spent at least 15 of the last 22 months in foster care should be moving toward severance of parental rights.

Because those two concepts can contradict one another, too many cases languish, Leclair-Turner said.

With roughly 17,000 Arizona children in out-of-home care, Leclair-Turner said she understands why things sometimes move so slowly. But, she said, that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.

“I understand giving parents every opportunity, but they are doing it now against the needs of these children who need permanency,” she said.

“At the one-year mark, they can say that the parents are still working on it. I understand that, but there’s no one there saying, ‘Well, how much longer is it going to take them?’ It happens over and over and over again.”

Once children are taken into protective custody, they are supposed to have a plan for permanency in place within six months if they are under 3, and within a year if they are older than that.

But once a permanency plan is established, she said, some cases she’s had — and others she’s reviewed for the Foster Care Review Board — drag on for months and years before there is a final outcome of adoption, reunification or guardianship.

Kathleen Quigley, the presiding judge at the Pima County Juvenile Court Center, declined both an interview request and to answer email questions for this story. Instead, the court provided a prepared statement.

“The judges are required by law to review each case at least every six months,” the prepared statement reads. “However, in Pima County individual cases are generally reviewed more frequently to ensure that (the Department of Child Safety) makes reasonable efforts to direct the parents to services, and to determine whether the parents are participating in the offered services.”

“The law is clear that family reunification is the primary case plan goal for most cases,” the statement continues, “but safety and the best interest of the children must always be paramount.”

Priscilla Martens, executive director of the National Family Preservation Network, said Arizona’s problem is not unique — but is a tragic example of what can go wrong when “so much of the funding and the focus is on the back end of the system.”

“This almost inevitably results in large numbers of out-of-home placements, unmanageable caseloads and a broken child-welfare system,” she said.

Providing more comprehensive family assessments and intensive in-home services would prevent many children from being removed in the first place, she said, and ease pressure on overburdened caseworkers and judges.

LONG WAIT, followed
by HEARTBREAK

In April 2012, Leclair-Turner and her husband took in a 7-week-old girl who had been hospitalized since birth due to her mother’s prenatal drug use.

That spring, about a month after the baby came to live with them, Leclair-Turner said the baby’s mother had her parental rights severed in a dependency involving her older child, a son, due to neglect and failure to comply with the state’s requirements.

In the case of the baby girl, her parents did work their case plan, Leclair-Turner said, but since the girl has special needs, their ability to care for her was always in question.

“They were, and are, low-functioning parents,” she said. “The issue was, could they provide for her needs? Could they take care of her in the big picture?”

Nearly two years passed before a plan for severance and adoption was recommended by DCS and the Office of Children’s Counsel, she said. If the judge agreed with those recommendations, Leclair-Turner and her husband would adopt this child they had grown to love.

The trial for severance started that month, in January 2014, and lasted for 11 months, with about 30 hours of proceedings held on 15 different days.

The judge’s ruling came 60 days later: The child was to go live with her parents.

Distraught, Leclair-Turner and her husband had three weeks left with the little girl. In February, just weeks shy of her third birthday, she was taken away.

“We were her home, we were her family,” Leclair-Turner said. She couldn’t bring herself to say goodbye, but just held the child close. “You just keep giving them kisses and telling them you love them.”

DEPENDENCY CASES
have recently spiked

Numerous studies show that 90 percent of a child’s brain is fully developed by age 5. In Pima County and statewide since 2010, nearly half of the dependency cases to determine whether a child can stay with his or her parents or caregivers have involved children ages 5 and younger, with Pima County peaking at 51 percent of its dependency cases involving children 5 and under in 2014, data from the Arizona Supreme Court shows.

Dependency filings here have increased from 1,007 in 2010 to 1,343 in 2014. In 2012, the court experienced a 50 percent increase in dependency petitions — 1,459 that year — with the average number of days for case closure rising from 669 days to 716 days.

Since 2010 only one new judge has been added to the juvenile bench, for a current total of 14 judges who handle both dependencies and delinquency cases.

During the last five and a half years, a Tucson aunt and uncle say they have agonized over their nephew’s case, starting with his birth in 2009 through his final departure from their home — and back to the custody of his father — less than two weeks ago.

When the boy was born, doctors were concerned about his mother’s mental stability. His father, entrusted by DCS not to leave mother and baby alone together, was arrested within weeks for the latest in a series of DUIs, Pima County Superior Court records show.

The boy went to live with his aunt and uncle, and was returned to them again and again, through two failed placements with his parents, a choking assault by his father against his mother, a near overdose on Orajel and two severance trials — one led by DCS and the second, in opposition to DCS, by the Office of Children’s Counsel, a county office through which attorneys represent children’s interests in court.

When their nephew was brought to their doorstep again, in 2013, his aunt and uncle said they would take the boy only on the condition that they could adopt him.

“I should have gotten it in writing,” his uncle said. By this time, the child’s mother was no longer considered a possible placement.

They say they can’t believe how long the case dragged on, and how the rights of the father were seemingly more important than the child’s well-being.

PARENTS have
‘way more power’

Tucson’s challenges are part of a national phenomenon, said Richard Gelles of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice and author of “The Book of David: How Preserving Families Can Cost Children’s Lives.”

“You do see it, nationally, this real problem with child-protective service professionals not making the difficult call and saying, ‘Enough is enough,’” he said.

“I’m an outlier because I say, ‘How many opportunities do you want to give them?’ For me, it should be one. Future behavior is best predicted by what’s been done in the past.”

Many states erroneously function under the standard that preserving families is paramount, he said, and that the parents are the clients.

“The parents have way more power to get what they want than the children do,” he said.

Andrea Bartolo, of the Child Welfare League of America, said many factors can influence outcomes, including caseworkers’ own biases and the kind of information that gets passed on to the judge.

“Yes, in a lot of instances, the court’s timeframe has come and gone,” Bartolo said. “In some places, the judges will just allow continuance after continuance. There are many judges that are very reluctant to terminate parental rights.”

There is, she said, a lot of room for “subjective decision-making.”

“As we work around the country, unfortunately, the practice is so inconsistent that this is where we run into trouble in terms of good outcomes for kids and families,” she said.

LOOKING FOR ANSWERS

Martens, of the National Family Preservation Network, said if a child can remain with his or her parents, and stay safe while the parents improve their skills and grow, that should be the highest priority.

If underlying issues such as poverty, mental health and drug abuse are addressed, it can ease or eliminate many of the problems children and their families face, she said.

Pima County’s nationally recognized Family Drug Court is an example of a program that helps families deal with one of the most common elements in dependency cases: addiction.

Each year, about 90 to 120 parents participate in Drug Court, along with about 200 of their children, ages newborn to 17.

For parents who graduate, the reunification rate is about 90 percent, compared to about 50 percent for all dependency cases.

Martens’ organization is best known for promoting a family assessment tool that is used in more than 800 agencies nationwide, as well as 20 countries internationally.

If the family is properly assessed, she said, it will be evident to everyone whether the child should stay in the home.

This can dramatically reduce the number of dependency cases, she said.

“The goal should be to keep as many children as possible safely with their families,” she said.

“It’s very difficult to predict in advance which families will benefit from services and which families won’t, but you will have a much greater impact overall if you can provide these services to every family.”