Ohio Foster-Care System Under Scrutiny
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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.
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More than half a million children in this country live in foster homes. That number comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. When the foster care system breaks down, when something goes wrong, the results can be catastrophic, even fatal for the children.
NPR's Karen Grigsby-Bates reports now on an Ohio foster care case that's opened a court battle over the privacy of families involved in the system. And this warning, some listeners may find the contents of this story to be disturbing.
KAREN GRIGSBY-BATES: August is a family focus month. It's usually filled with vacations and reunions but the August dog days were abruptly shattered in Ohio last summer when three-year-old Marcus Fizel(ph) disappeared. He was living in foster placement with Liz and David Carroll in a Cincinnati suburb.
Leanne Hamilton(ph), an editor at the Cincinnati Enquirer remembers the intense community interest.
Ms. LEANNE HAMILTON (Cincinnati Enquirer): So an alert went out across the community and the community responded in droves. Hundreds of people came out over days to help comb the woods and park to try and find Marcus.
GRIGSBY-BATES: According to Liz Carroll, Marcus had wandered away during an outing at a local park. Then came a break in the case. Amy Baker(ph), the Carroll's housemate, who has also been described as David Carroll's girlfriend, turned state's evidence. In exchange for amnesty, Baker offered a grim account of what happened to Marcus.
Enquirer editor Leanne Hamilton details the allegations.
Ms. HAMILTON: They had taken Marcus and wrapped him in a blanket and bound him with tape and put him in a tiny closet in their home and left him for the weekend to go to a family reunion.
GRIGSBY-BATES: When the Carroll's returned one or two days later, there's still some dispute, the little boy with long brown bangs was dead. At a press conference, prosecutor Joe Deters outlined what his office knew so far.
Mr. JOE DETERS (Prosecutor): Marcus' body was taken by David Carroll and we believe incinerated in Brown County and the Sheriff's office is working hard to find Marcus' remains.
GRIGSBY-BATES: By the end of the day that had been accomplished.
(Soundbite of reporter)
The search for Marcus Fizel has come to the saddest possible end tonight. Detectives have recovered the three-year-old's body in Brown County. Earlier today Marcus' foster parents were arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter.
GRIGSBY-BATES: The Fizel case shocked and angered many people in Ohio. There were myriad agonized retrospectives examining how this could have happened. One of the most anguished came days after Marcus' murder from Michael Burner(ph).
Burner, an evangelical minister is executive director of Lifeway for Youth. Lifeway is a company that takes in millions of dollars in public contracts to place children with foster families in Ohio and other states. Many critics pointed to Lifeway as the weak link in the Fizel case since it had the responsibility of screening and training the Carroll's. Burner, in an emotional press conference, protested.
Mr. MICHAEL BURNER: You can analyze the system, you can blame Lifeway, the county, the state system, but you will not find a legitimate scapegoat here. I'm afraid we're all in this together.
GRIGSBY-BATES: The Enquirer's Leanne Hamilton has a team of reporters and editors who are investigating Marcus Fizel's death and the foster care system. She said there is plenty of blame to go around.
Ms. HAMILTON: The foster care system in Ohio is a disjointed system that's run with very little oversight from anywhere and that comes down to the fact that there are 88 county agencies with individualized supervision in their counties and none of them are accountable to much of anybody else.
GRIGSBY-BATES: Marcus Fizel's death raises a number of questions. How carefully are potential foster parents screened and trained? How can the state tell whether there's anything in potential parents backgrounds that would make them unsuitable to receive a foster child.
To get some answers the paper has petitioned the Ohio Supreme Court to make the names of the state's foster families public. Again, Leanne Hamilton.
Ms. HAMILTON: The state of Ohio spends approximately $300 million a year to provide foster care to 10,000-plus kids. We believe that if foster parents are going to seek state certification to provide this valued service, the taxpayers are going to pay for it, it doesn't seem like it's asking too much to know who these people are.
GRIGSBY-BATES: But Barbara Reilly(ph) does think it's too much. Reilly heads the Ohio Department of Jobs and Children's Services. It's responsible for administering Ohio's foster care programs. Reilly believes publishing the names of foster parents will harm not help the state's foster children. Many she says have been removed from situations where violence was a factor.
Ms. BARBARA REILLY (Ohio Department of Jobs and Children's Services): A potential for revealing the child's whereabouts, making the child more vulnerable in a world where they are already a child at risk is, you know it's a risk I'm not willing to take.
GRIGSBY-BATES: And Reilly points out another potential problem.
Ms. REILLY: By having them identified and stigmatized I think is adding to the burden. To someone who's already suffering, the fact that their family was unable to care for them for whatever reason.
GRIGSBY-BATES: Richard Burt agrees. Bert is a professor at Yale Law School and a recognized expert in the field of family law. He says the bulk of America's foster families are doing a pretty good job. Oversight is needed he says, but he warns that overly aggressive scrutiny may result in fewer available foster families in the future which raises the specter of large scale institutional housing.
Professor RICHARD BURT (Yale Law School): Sometimes privacy can be used as a claim to cover up misbehavior. But when you're dealing with foster families, the goal is to make them as much like regular families as possible. I mean you know you don't want them to be boarding homes like out of some Charles Dickens novel.
GRIGSBY-BATES: Burt doesn't find the Enquirer's right to know argument particularly compelling.
Prof. BURT: What is compelling is that there should be some aggressive oversight that makes sure some kind of governmental or quasi governmental agency - to make sure that foster care agencies are doing their job. And newspapers should check up on those agencies but they shouldn't do the check-up jobs by themselves with regard to individual foster families.
GRIGSBY-BATES: The Enquirer and the Department of Jobs and Children's Services are awaiting the court's decision. There's no word as to when that might happen.
Meanwhile, a state board of inquiry has studied the Fizel case trying to determine where failure occurred in the system. Its recently released findings made 58 recommendations. They include mandatory FBI criminal checks for all foster care applicants and better tracking of applicant's attendance at parental training classes. One little boy's death may be the catalyst for a huge transformation.
Ms. REILLY: Nothing will atone for Marcus Fizel's death but at the very least maybe we can make some changes that will benefit other children.
GRIGSBY-BATES: The Carroll's will be tried separately for Marcus' murder early next year.
Karen Grigsby-Bates, NPR News.
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