By Marc Kovac
Courts should have authority to end parental rights after multiple instances of mistreatment of children, and foster parents should be allowed to be more involved in legal proceedings concerning youths in their care.
That’s according to a new report by a state panel that studied Ohio’s foster care system and offered recommendations for improvement.
“We need to do everything possible to get foster kids adopted, to match them with a loving family and to make sure they have a stable, permanent home,” Attorney General Mike DeWine said during a news conference at the Statehouse on Monday. He added later, “We want to ensure that all Ohio children including foster children grow up in the best possible environment and have a chance to achieve their dreams.”
DeWine announced the formation of the Foster Care Advisory Group late last year, with an eye toward improving the lives of 12,000-plus foster children. Goals included increasing permanent homes for youngsters, ensuring they are not returned to abusive biological families.
The report released Monday calls for better legal representation for foster children and increased mentoring programs.
Recommendations include allowing courts “to terminate parental rights after there have been three distinct adjudications of child maltreatment.” The change could make it easier to foster parents to adopt children in their care, rather than shuffling youngsters between their biological and foster parents.
“A revolving door of foster care is traumatic for a child,” DeWine said. “Ohio should work to reduce the number of times a child enters and exits foster care to give him or her the best chance of securing what every child should have, and that is a safe, loving and permanent home.”
The report also calls for increased foster parent involvement in custody and other legal proceedings.
“Foster parents who have direct knowledge of a child’s daily activities are today not always allowed to be part of the court process,” DeWine said. “Ohio should emphasize the importance of foster parents’ input and their right to attend court hearings and to present information to the court.”
Tim Schaffner, executive director of Trumbull County Children Services, which handles foster parenting in Trumbull County, said “in general,” his agency “loves this,” adding that the agency was part of regional meetings held to write the panel’s report.
“We’re in support of the focus being on the foster parents’ involvement in the whole legal process.”
“As a system, we have to get better at notifying the foster parents of court dates,” Schaffner added. He likewise feels that changes would be welcome to “normalize” the environment for foster children so that they can do things like get a driver’s license and attend a sleep-over.
Courts currently “have the ability to terminate parental rights” if they and child welfare agencies have substantial evidence that children are at risk, said Dave Arnold, interim Mahoning County Children Services Board director. “We do need to always keep in mind that our major job in society is to protect kids from abuse and neglect,” he added.
“I don’t think there are any agencies who are returning kids to their own homes, who think that the kids aren’t safe being there. I think that sometimes we’re trying to predict what’s going to happen in the future, and that’s not nearly as easy as looking back and seeing what bad happened in the past and saying: ‘We shouldn’t have done that,”’ Arnold said.
“Foster parents are generally not parties to the case, and therefore not part of court proceedings,” Arnold said. However, he added that they participate in quarterly and semi-annual case reviews.
“It’s a bigger issue for me that we really try to provide supportive services to parents to try to strengthen families” and extended families “to keep kids with their families” because studies show outcomes for children in other settings, especially group homes, are not as desirable, Arnold said.
State Sen. Peggy Lehner, a Republican from the Dayton area, plans to introduce legislation implementing some of the advisory group’s recommendations. She said Monday that she hoped the changes would be “swiftly adopted” via new policies spearheaded by the Ohio Supreme Court, state agencies and lawmakers.
“Every child deserves to belong to a loving, supportive family,” Lehner said. “Unfortunately, far too many of our children see that only as a dream that they hold silent in their hearts as they move from one family to another.”