State Politics

Idaho foster parents push for reform, hope legislation will help

Eagle couple talks about experience as foster parents

Val and Brian McCauley were foster parents to an infant boy who was removed and placed with another foster family, prior to adoption by an aunt. The McCauleys say they wanted to adopt the boy and the state didn't act in his best interests.
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Val and Brian McCauley were foster parents to an infant boy who was removed and placed with another foster family, prior to adoption by an aunt. The McCauleys say they wanted to adopt the boy and the state didn't act in his best interests.

Jamie Law has fostered 28 children in her Treasure Valley home. She never wants to do it again.

Law adopted her first son about five years ago, when he was a toddler. She was in her 20s, and she and her then-husband could not have children. So they had signed up as foster parents with the idea of adopting in the back of their minds.

“I knew instantly, the second we met him, if I could handpick a kid, this would be him,” she said.

Then, in April 2013, she learned a 2-day-old baby boy needed a home.

“I picked him up from the hospital and thought, ‘This is totally my kid,’ ” she said. “It was like deja vu.”

The boy stayed with the family for a year and a half. The couple signed paperwork to adopt him. But in November 2014, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare notified the couple that an aunt in a Southern state had decided she wanted to adopt the baby, who was 19 months old and, according to Law, had no previous contact with that side of his family.

“It was devastating. I took a week off of work,” Law said. “I started calling around, trying to find an attorney who would even talk to me about it. But there was nothing we could do, because we’re not a party to the case. You’re just a foster parent.”

Law is one of several foster parents who say the state has failed to uphold the best interests of children in Idaho’s foster system. Twelve of those parents met last week at the Eagle home of Brian and Val McCauley to discuss legislation they hope will be introduced soon before the House Health and Welfare Committee.

TOO MUCH PREFERENCE FOR RELATIVES?

Law’s foster son went to live with his aunt at the end of 2015, more than two years after Law brought him home.

Attorney Merritt Dublin worked on the case, not for Law or the state, but to defend the child’s best interest. Dublin, too, has been a foster parent. She also is concerned about how the state is handling some foster cases, based on what she’s seen multiple times.

She volunteered to work as a lawyer with the guardian ad litem program, advocating for children during the foster and adoption processes. She also has worked with the McCauleys on legislation that she thinks would address some gaps in Idaho’s law.

To keep children from lingering too long in foster care, birth parents generally have 12 to 15 months to show they are capable of regaining custody of their children. Among other things, the legislation would add a time limit for a relative’s ability to adopt a child.

All the federal legislation is based on the health and safety of the child being paramount, and permanency as soon as possible. ... It’s kind of outrageous to say that the parents run out of time but the relatives don’t.

Merritt Dublin, attorney

The draft bill also clarifies the role of foster parents and judges in the complicated and emotionally fraught process of deciding the fate of foster children.

Dublin said other states, such as Florida and Oregon, have laws in place to give equal consideration for adoption to foster parents when a baby or toddler has been in their care for a certain amount of time.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare said it receives complaints from foster parents about its handling of a handful of cases each year. But officials say the department’s sole priority is doing what is best for the child.

“Placement stability is something that is critically important to us, because every move has an impact on a child, so it’s not something we take lightly at all,” said Miren Unsworth, a deputy division administrator for the Division of Family and Community Services at the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

DUBLIN GAVE UP A FOSTER CHILD, TOO

“My story wasn’t as extreme as a lot of the cases that I saw,” said Dublin, an attorney who was chief counsel for the protective-services section of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office before moving to Idaho. “But it was a life-changing experience, and an eye-opening experience for me, too, with respect to what’s really happening with kids in foster care and how strained and resource-deprived our foster care system is.”

1,045 State-licensed foster homes in Idaho in fiscal year 2015

2,424 Children in foster care in Idaho in fiscal year 2015

Dublin and her husband fostered two sisters who had already moved from foster home to foster home.

“The youngest child, the baby ... when she came to our house — vacant, she was in shock,” Dublin said. “She just looked at you, and her eyes were hollow. She didn’t smile, she didn’t have any emotion.”

The older daughter ended up being placed with a relative, but the state’s case workers wanted the Dublins to “be the option” for the baby, she said.

“We decided it was right. She had become so close to my daughter, they followed each other around,” Dublin said. “There was no question that it was what we wanted.”

The baby ultimately was placed with another family, at age 2  1/2.

STATE ACKNOWLEDGES PLACEMENT ISSUES

Unsworth, the Health and Welfare administrator, said the department hears from former foster children who were placed permanently outside of family.

“They understand why their parents’ rights were terminated,” she said. “What they don’t understand is why they had to lose their grandparents, their siblings. ... We have to be able to answer that question.”

And sometimes, there are reasons for a relative stepping up at the last minute to adopt a child, she said.

223 Average yearly adoptions through state, past four years

42% Share of foster children placed with relatives

“For a variety of reasons, relatives may be reluctant to step forward,” Unsworth said. “I think sometimes, in families, there are dynamics where, ‘I really want my brother to be able to reunify, and I don’t want to step in now and complicate matters.’”

There also are cases where the department moves a child out of foster placement “because foster parents are struggling to move toward a reunification plan or a permanency plan,” she said. “It’s to either enhance permanency, or at the foster parent’s request.”

There isn’t a specific requirement or provision in law around (time limits for relatives to seek adoption). We try to make the selection very early in the case, so folks are very clear on what the expectation is.

Miren Unsworth, deputy division administrator for Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Division of Family and Community Services

A SUDDEN MOVE

About 1,300 children in Idaho are living in foster care on any given day, according to the department.

The McCauleys’ former foster son is in that group, having been moved from their home to another foster home without any advance warning, according to both sets of foster parents.

The McCauleys became foster parents in May 2013. The first two children they fostered went to a grandparent and a birth parent, with their full support. The reason for their mission to push a change in the law came home with them in September 2014, in the form of a baby who was born with complications.

“We were under the assumption that child was not going to stay with us, because there was a relative and birth mom” who both wanted custody, Val McCauley told the Statesman.

But as time went on, the McCauleys spoke up about wanting to adopt the baby if he could not be reunited with his birth mother or an aunt from out of state. They raised questions to the department after the baby began acting up after visits with his aunt.

“He started coming back with a lot of aggressive behaviors, and pulling out his hair, screaming,” Val McCauley said.

The department did not seem to heed their concerns, the couple said.

Then, last September, the McCauleys dropped off the baby with his birth mother for what they thought would be a visit. The baby instead was moved to a second foster home, where he lives now, while awaiting adoption.

His current foster mother told the Statesman that the baby struggled to adjust to changes in his home. He seemed to light up, becoming a different child, when he saw the McCauleys during visits after he was moved into her care.

The removal should not have happened so abruptly because there were no safety concerns, the McCauleys said.

The reason the state gave for removing the baby was that the McCauleys were “nonverbally communicating anxiety to the child,” Brian McCauley said. But the McCauleys argue that by moving him, the state caused disruption by taking the boy out of the only home he’d ever known.

They, and other foster parents, acknowledge that the state is given the difficult task of trying to predict the best living situation for a baby, toddler or adolescent.

“I want people to understand that the department didn’t follow their own laws and rules” about giving children stability in foster care and moving as fast as possible to find children a permanent home, Brian McCauley said.

Audrey Dutton: 208-377-6448, @IDS_Audrey

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