New foster care bill includes stringent background check

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 29, 2007

Sen. Tom Niehaus recently introduced Senate Bill 163, a foster care reform bill spurred by an incident in Clermont County — the Marcus Fiesel case.

The 3-year-old boy’s foster parents bound him, tied him up and locked him in a closet where he died while they went to a family reunion in Kentucky for the weekend.

The bill provides some requirements for additional background checks for foster parents. This would include a Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Identification background check and other additional checks that are required.

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According SB 163, in part, the list of offenses that disqualify a person from providing out-of-home care, being certified as a foster parent, or being approved as an adoptive parent will be expanded to include the following: cruelty to animals, permitting child abuse, menacing by stalking, menacing, soliciting or providing support for act of terrorism, making terrorist threats, terrorism, identity fraud, inciting to violence, aggravated riot, ethnic intimidation, or two or more state OVI or state OVUAC violations committed or substantially equivalent offenses within the three years immediately preceding the submission of the person’s application.

It also allows a public children services agency to access the otherwise confidential criminal records checks for prospective out-of-home care providers, foster caregivers, or adoptive parents.

“This list of violations is an obviously necessary list and probably should be expanded to more violations of the law,” said David Lambert, director of Mended Reeds, a small faith-based foster care and full-service adoption agency in Lawrence County. “Any violation or any illegal act that would jeopardize the safety or health of a child should be included in that list. This bill is long overdue.”

The qualifications to be certified as a foster parent are not that stringent, he said.

“But, there are some safeguards built into the process,” he said. “The laws been changed in the last few years to put more of a collaborative effort on social workers coming together and having a placement matching meeting so that professionals consider the parents and the needs of the child so they can match them more closely.”

They have always completed criminal background checks for employees and foster parents and anybody who is more than18 years old and lives in the home.

“There is also a process called the central registry check where we can check throughout the state of Ohio to see if anybody applying has ever been investigated for abuse and neglect of children,” said Bilreka Ferguson, foster and adoption manager at Mended Reeds. “Even though there’s no criminal record, there is still a process to see if they’ve ever been investigated or charged. So, there are safeguards.”

One concern that people in the social work field have about the central registry is that it may not be updated and properly funded so that it has accurate information, Lambert said.

Faye Blankenship, a social worker and certified home assessor, investigates the families who want to foster or adopt a child.

She interviews each parent separately, asking about their marriage and home life.

“Most of them are pretty honest because we’re in a small community,” she said. “We tell them that we will verify everything so they are aware of that. We do a very thorough investigation of all of our homes. We feel very secure before we ever place a child there.”

“Everyone who has been involved in an assault or domestic violence or in an alleged child abuse or neglect situation … will be placed on this registry and it will have an impact on the future,” Lambert said.

There are two levels of placement, he said.

One is to be approved for certification. The second layer is that social workers get together and make a subjective decision to make sure the family is a good match.

“Our license and reputation is on the line every time we do one of these,” said Nancy Varney, case manager at Mended Reeds. “We are incredibly thorough.”

Varney visits each foster home weekly to see what may be needed in the home and help connect them with services they may need.

“The most important thing about SB 163 is that it allows the agencies that work with foster care children both public and private to share information, which they could not do before and we’ve set up some electronic means for them to do that,” Niehaus said. “This is designed to be prospective. It links to some other systems.”

If, for instance, a foster parent is picked up for DUI, it would give the agency a red flag and they could check into the situation.

Niehaus and other senators worked on the legislation for more than six months. Several foster parents and foster children from both public and private agencies were involved in the meetings.

“Under this bill, the agency would get a red flag,” Niehaus said. “It has passed the Senate and pending before the House. I expect it will move pretty quickly over there and we hope it will be passed by both houses by the end of the year.”