After Robert Manwill: Idaho puts the family first, but what happens when it breaks down?

December 28, 2009 

In the weeks following Robert Manwill’s disappearance and death, the community asked what it would take to prevent another child from dying as he did. In this three-day series, the Statesman looks at the challenges — and opportunities — that lie ahead.

If there's one thing everyone agrees on, it's that the family has a central role in a child's well-being.

The long-held belief is supported by liberals and conservatives alike, and has been the basis for reforms like The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Reform Act of 1980, which emphasized keeping families intact whenever possible.

"First and foremost children belong with their parents. We provide services and supports that are designed to increase the extent that children are safe," said Steve Sparks, regional program manager in the Division of Family and Community Services for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

"This is not only recognized as best practice, but is a federal requirement."

Conservative state Rep. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, sees families - not the government, churches nor private charitable organizations - as the ultimate providers of social services.

"That includes meals, day care, housing, education, comfort, clothing and medical care," Thayn said.

But how do you strengthen Idaho families so the children in them are safe and healthy? And when do you make the call that the children are better off outside the home?

Roger Sherman, director of the Idaho Trust Fund for Children and a former lobbyist for progressive causes, said Idaho has been slow to adopt family programs that have been proven to work.

Some communities have "crisis nurseries," or places where parents can find support and relief, and get some time away from their kids to keep tensions from escalating.

The Treasure Valley doesn't have such a place.

"We're also one of a few states in the country without any statewide programs for home visitation," Sherman said.

One of the most studied and successful programs for preventing child abuse, he said, is the Nurse-Family Partnership model that connects first-time, low-income mothers with nurses who visit before a baby is born, and continue to visit until the baby turns 2.

"That program is spendy, but there are many other curricula out there that also focus on helping parents help their kids," Sherman said.

Locally, programs like Families First and Parents as Teachers provide some of that kind of support, but don't have the resources to reach all the families that could benefit.

Families with religious affiliation may also have some built-in networks and support.

Craig Rasmussen, Idaho area director of public affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said that his church offers parenting classes for young married people and programs for children beginning at age 3.

Also built into LDS life are weekly "family home evenings," when families get together to pray, talk, tell stories and study.

Sparks believes in strengthening families through a mix of formal and informal programs, "everything from parenting support to recreational opportunities," he said.

"I'm not one who believes it's all up to the public sector. Informal supports are often very strong."

WHEN A CHILD LEAVES A PARENT'S HOME

Despite the core belief that children belong with their families, it's sometimes impossible.

But how do kids fare in state custody? It's a mix.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is doing well when it comes to safety - including the timeliness of investigations and keeping kids safe from abuse and neglect when they're in foster care, according to the department's 2008 self review.

Other areas of strength include "well-being" of kids in care, specifically educational needs and physical and mental health.

But the same assessment says improvements are needed. The department is falling short when it comes to "permanency."

Problems include reuniting families prematurely - before issues like substance abuse have been resolved - moving kids in foster care around too much and failing to find permanent living arrangements for older kids.

Case workers, the report says, are also contending with large caseloads and long travel distances, which keeps them from visiting with children and families as often as they should. The staff turnover outpaces most of Idaho's other large agencies.

And the challenges have gotten harder in recent years. Between 2000 and 2005, Idaho's population grew at twice the national rate. That growth, plus the spread of methamphetamine abuse, meant an added burden for social services.

THE FOSTER FIT

Finding good foster homes continues to be a challenge.

Enough foster homes are usually available in a pinch - but they're not always available in a kid's home neighborhood, said Sparks, of Health and Welfare.

The department's self-assessment also noted the difficulty in finding culturally diverse foster homes for children of Latino and Native American descent.

"Having to leave your school, your church, other things that are familiar, makes a traumatic situation more so," Sparks said.

Health and Welfare is actively recruiting families and parents in all neighborhoods with the specific intention of keeping kids close to home.

Need is especially great in West Boise, Garden City and the Collister area - and for the temporary care of sibling groups and adolescents.

"The group I pity are teenagers in foster care," said Andrew Ellis, Ada County deputy prosecutor.

Teenagers who have spent years in neglectful and abusive homes with their birth parents often manifest troubling behaviors: aggressive and confrontational behavior, sexual "acting out," vandalism and theft from the foster homes, Ellis said.

"It takes a lot of courage for foster families, particularly those with biological children of their own, to open their homes to foster children who could, quite frankly, pose a safety risk. So, it's a conundrum."

But again, in keeping with that spirit that brought 2,300 of young Robert Manwill's "neighbors" out to look for him in July, lots of families take that challenge.

Greg and Kelly Collett, who live near Marsing and have 10 kids who range in age from 6 months to 14 years, spent five years as foster parents.

Their children are a mix, some adopted from the foster program, some through traditional adoption, some biological.

"The desire to help children isn't all that uncommon, but people might not realize how much taking in a child can change your life," Kelly Collett said.

"If you're already happy with your life, it might be more than you counted on. In our case, we wanted a large family to make us complete."

Life for the Collett kids, so many of whom started life on an uncertain road, seems pretty complete these days.

Kelly Collett has a degree in secondary education and homeschools them all.

On the day before Christmas Eve, the family was making caramels. The kids were learning to milk one of the family cows and were preparing to be part of a live community nativity scene.

In the 1990s, while the Colletts were still fostering, they often took in older children, sometimes runaways or others who arrived after an emergency call from a social worker in the middle of the night.

Some of these children needed a couch to sleep on until morning. Others ended up living with the Colletts for months while authorities worked through their cases.

"Some kids in foster care have spent their whole lives either being a guest - or being neglected," Kelly Collett said.

Greg and Kelly Collett didn't become foster parents for the money - but foster parents in Idaho do face a financial challenge. The state is in the bottom five for compensation, according to a first-of-its-kind study in 2007 by the University of Maryland School of Social Work, the National Foster Parent Association and Children's Rights, an advocacy group.

FAMILY ADVOCACY CENTER AMONG THE BRIGHT SPOTS

Many local resources are improving the safety net for children.

The Family Advocacy Center and Education Services is a nonprofit organization that combines law enforcement agencies from surrounding communities, medical services and victim services under one roof in Downtown Boise to help victims (of all ages) of sexual or domestic violence.

FACES allows victims to get health and medical services and tell their stories to law enforcement after a traumatic event- all under one roof.

Health services have improved, too, for children who do enter the foster care system after a police officer determines they're in imminent danger.

The Legislature recently allowed judges in custody cases to order the Department of Health and Welfare to do mental health assessments and create a plan of treatment for a child if authorities are concerned about the child's mental well-being.

The St. Luke's Foster Care Clinic, housed at FACES for about five years, is a one-stop shop where kids get a head-to-toe medical checkup that includes dental care, vision and immunizations.

In the past, medical records for kids in foster care were not consolidated, and often incomplete.

Ada County Prosecutor Greg Bower said his office has had a pool of lawyers dedicated to child protection issues for 25 years - plus there are two judges assigned exclusively to child protection.

"Judges get to know parents, families, all the kids and players involved," Bower said.

As state law requires, Ada County has a "multi-disciplinary team" of case workers, law enforcement officers, medical experts and representatives from the courts.

The team meets every week to share information about child welfare cases, to try to coordinate services and make sure children don't fall through the cracks because one agency isn't communicating with another.

The Ada County team has met for 35 years - long before the law required it.

COURTS STILL FACE CHALLENGES

Jean Fisher, who prosecutes child sexual assault crimes in Ada County, said one of the biggest problems with the safety net for children is that the courts that handle child protection cases are separate and kept confidential from the courts that handle family law and criminal cases.

"Specialization becomes our Achilles' heel," Fisher said. "We get trifurcated."

In child protection cases, the only parties allowed in the courtroom, privy to all the information about a child, are those directly involved: judge, parents, lawyers, the guardian ad litem appointed to every child in the court system.

The prosecutors who become involved if criminal charges are filed are not in the room. They have to file special requests to get information about a family, which takes time.

If Ada County Juvenile Prosecutor Michael Anderson could wave a magic wand and have anything he wanted, he said he would like to be granted the legal authority to require parents of young people in his court to be tested for drugs, like the young offenders themselves are.

"It's hard to correct a kid's problem when a family comes into the court and it's clear the parents have the same problems as the kid," Anderson said.

Anderson said he's seeing a growing number of young offenders with mental illness, and isn't satisfied with the tools courts have to address them.

He also wishes for a juvenile equivalent to the mental health court available in Ada County to adult offenders that puts them into intensive, supervised rehabilitation and counseling, instead of something more punitive - and ultimately less effective.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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