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Lawmakers discuss tightening screenings for foster parents

Wednesday, May 5, 2004

A couple didn't disclose domestic problems in their application.
HARRISBURG (AP) -- A criminal case in which two foster children were bound with duct tape and photographed has prompted state lawmakers to call for stricter screenings of prospective foster and adoptive parents.
On Tuesday, members of the House Children and Youth Committee discussed legislation to strengthen the screening process with representatives of state government and county child welfare agencies at a public hearing.
Sponsored by Rep. Bernie O'Neill, the bill would require the state to add more criteria for approving foster parents. Along with child-abuse and criminal clearances that are already required, county agencies would have to consider factors such as financial stability, protection-from-abuse orders and previous addresses over the past 10 years.
"The intent of this legislation is not to discourage qualified people from becoming foster parents," O'Neill said. "However, there are people getting through the cracks of the system."
Levittown couple
O'Neill said he and Sen. Robert Tomlinson, a fellow Bucks County Republican who is sponsoring similar legislation, introduced their bills in response to the arrests of Colleen and Neil Broe, of Levittown, in April 2003.
Authorities alleged that the Broes bound their foster children -- a 1-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy -- with duct tape to keep them under control. Colleen Broe had accused her husband of staging the photos and using them as leverage in their divorce.
Although the couple passed criminal checks, a newspaper's review of civil records after the duct-tape allegations revealed that a former girlfriend won a protection-from-abuse order against Neil Broe. He denied taping the children but pleaded guilty to child endangerment and was sentenced in January to 12 to 30 months in prison. His wife was acquitted of child-abuse charges in November.
Agency didn't know
Evelyn Miller, executive director of Bucks County's child welfare agency, told the committee her staff never knew of the Broes' domestic problems because the couple did not disclose them on their application. Miller said her agency has since expanded its screening process, and O'Neill's bill would provide a consistent set of guidelines statewide.
"While a family's past indiscretion ... should not automatically disqualify them from loving and caring for a child, a pattern of behaviors may do just that," she said.
Foster parents agree with most of the bill's provisions, but object to the consideration of financial status as part of the application process, said Pat Feaster, president of the Pennsylvania State Foster Parent Association.
"I think they are putting a lot of emphasis on finances and not taking into account that people of all walks of life and all financial segments can be good parents," said Feaster, who has been a foster parent for 30 years.
Although the Department of Public Welfare generally favors the idea of expanding the screening criteria, Secretary Estelle Richman expressed concern that certain provisions would hamper efforts to encourage relatives to become foster parents.
Among other things, counties would have to obtain information on any drug- or alcohol-related arrests, convictions or hospitalizations within the past 10 years. Richman said the department favors a window of two to five years, except for serious crimes.
A shortage of adoptive and foster parents has left 1,174 children waiting for adoption, and approximately 20,000 are in foster or adoptive care at any given time, Richman said.
"My primary emphasis is making sure that children are in safe families," Richman said. "At the same time, we want to be careful that we don't end up with fewer [foster] parents and more children end up in more compromise because they're in institutions or they're separated from siblings."
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