Foster Care Ombudsman: The Need Is Real

Foster Youth Ombudsman: One Way to Ensure Well-Being and Safety of Children in Foster Care

There are a number of measures that can be implemented to ensure the well-being and safety of youth once they actually come into the foster care system.  One measure I propose is the implementation of a Foster Youth Ombudsman.  Many states already have a Foster Parent Ombudsman where foster parents can turn to get support or to assist in addressing issues they may face while fostering, but only a handful of states have an ombudsman for foster children and young adults.  

In 2010, there were 13,965 victims of child abuse/neglect in Maryland.

As a result, 6,098 of these children lived in out-of-home care (foster care).  The Child Welfare system works diligently to place foster children in the care of foster family and group home arrangements to protect them from the abuse and neglect of their families.  Unfortunately, there are many cases where youth in foster care become victims of abuse and neglect in their foster placements. Sometimes it is at the hand of a foster parent, a foster parent’s relative, group home staff or other youth in care.

There are federal and state mandated reporting procedures that child welfare professionals must follow when a child becomes victim of child abuse or neglect within the foster care system; however many of these cases go unreported by children and youth for fear of retribution from those who provide their care and services.

A Critical Look at the Foster Care System – Maryland, states that over 28 per cent of the children in state care had been abused, with "a pattern of physical, sexual and emotional abuses" inflicted upon children in the custody of the Baltimore Department. A 1992 study found that substantiated allegations of sexual abuse in foster care are four times higher than that found among the general population. (www.liftingtheveil. org). And these are just numbers that are reported. 22 states and the District of Columbia have been ruled inadequate by the courts and now operate under some form of judicial supervision as a result of failure to provide adequate supervision and oversight of workers and failure to provide safe child care facilities. Unfortunately, you won’t find accurate numbers of child abuse reports WITHIN the foster care system should you venture to find them. The Children Bureau’s website listed the percentage of maltreated youth in foster care in Maryland in 2013 as .46%, with 99.54% of children in foster care not being maltreated. Anyone working with foster children knows these numbers are inaccurate.

There is a serious need for a Foster Youth Ombudsman Office and hotline in every state that is independent and autonomous from state systems that would influence the reporting of children and young adults who experience abuse within the foster care system. There is also a lack of sufficient data on foster youth who are or are at risk of becoming victims of sex trafficking. According to research compiled by Teri Benson, former State Foster Parent Trainer at the University of Maryland School of Social Work,   most prostituted youth have been sexually and otherwise abused in their homes or foster care settings, and many have run away or have been thrown out of their homes. Many of these youth don’t have stable, loving families or basic necessities, and they often suffer from low self-esteem and have limited access to educational and occupational opportunities. For some, emancipation and exiting foster care mean a direct route to the street. The pressure of not having a place to live can push youth into being sex trafficked or entering into abusive relationships in order to meet their needs for food and shelter.

According to the National Foster Care Coalition, there are approximately 100,000 children in the United States that are victims of sex trafficking.  Many come from foster care, group homes and are runaway and homeless youth shelters.  Currently, California, the District of Columbia, Oregon, Texas and Utah are a few states taking the lead on implementing a Foster Youth Ombudsman.  

The Office of the Foster Care Ombudsman was established by legislation, California Senate Bill 933 (Chapter 311/Statutes of 1998) and has been mandated to do the following:

• Ensure the voice of foster children and youth is heard, and act on their behalf.

• Create an avenue for foster children and youth to file complaints regarding their placement, care and services without fear of retribution from those who provide their care and services.

• Act as an independent forum for the investigation and resolution of complaints made by or on behalf of children placed in foster care and make appropriate referrals.

• Provide children and youth with information on their rights when placed in foster care.

• Maintain a toll-free telephone number which foster children and youth may call from anywhere in California to express their concerns and complaints.

The implementation of a Foster Youth Ombudsman would compliment state’s efforts in implementing the Fostering Connections to Success Act of 2008 especially as it pertains to the provisions for Older Youth in the foster care system. The Ombudsman can ensure existing federal requirements for transition plans are upheld throughout the state by collecting data on those youth who are requesting resources/support from the program.

Currently, Maryland (the state I am from and work within) has a Foster Parent Ombudsman, which is housed within the Department of Human Resources; however, there are very few independent org   anizations foster youth can reach out to designed to respond to their for information regarding their rights and their complaints regarding their care.  

This 2015 legislative session a bill has been introduced to implement a Foster Youth Ombudsman. I am hoping Maryland will join the other states setting the example of honoring the voices of foster children.

There are several ways to implement an Ombudsman, as explained by the National Conference of State Legislators; however I propose the possibility to operate in partnership with, but autonomous of, the state agency providing child welfare services. Four states (California, Texas, Oregon, District of Columbia and Utah) have established Children’s Ombudsman offices that operate within the state’s division of child welfare services, but are established to act autonomous of the  agency they oversee.  

These Ombudsmen are also established by statute.  

The department director generally is responsible for or assists in appointing the Ombudsman.  

The duties and functions of these independent organizational Ombudsman likely include: receive and investigate complaints related to child serving agencies; access information, without the power to subpoena; maintain confidentiality; and prepare an annual report which is usually made available to the public.  

According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJP), Ombudsman programs play an important role in safeguarding individual children in out-of-home placements, which include foster care, group homes, and juvenile facilities. They can generate early warnings that can alert policymakers and program managers to the need to intervene and resolve problems before they become systemic or result in unlawful activities, public scandal, costly lawsuits, or harm to the youth. Ombudsman programs can help protect the rights of youth in custody and work to ensure public accountability. They can also alert state oversight agencies and the public about programs, procedures, and other factors that may adversely affect the health, safety, welfare, or rights of resident children and youth.

Specific reasons for initiating an ombudsman program for children and youth in out-of-home placements include the following:

- Large numbers of cases and delays make the grievance process cumbersome; there is little time for proper investigation    of complaints.

-Some disputes are very complex and need more attention than a cursory review can provide.

-Reliance on internal resolution of complaints may lead the public to perceive that fact finders are not really neutral.

- Service providers cannot be insulated from the pressures of their agencies and may not be truthful in expressing grievances or complaints; they may not have the skill or will to judge critically what is wrong or make recommendations.

-Often times it is difficult for youth in foster care to reach their Case Managers and attorneys

-High Case Worker Turnover; often times once a foster child becomes close enough to their case manager to trust them, the case manager is promoted or leaves the agency altogether

-Some internal investigators, in fact, may be serving their agencies’ desire to keep complaints “under control” (Davidson, 1994).

-By reviewing complaints over time, patterns can be detected that a specific agency may not have recognized.

To my dismay, I have witnessed individuals that work within child welfare agencies dispute the need for a foster youth ombudsman. They say there are already procedures established for foster children to report grievances.  

Well then, I wonder why almost every single foster youth I have encountered over my 12 years of working in the child welfare system (and 9 years of living in it) has shared some sort of abuse they have experienced at the hands of their foster parent, a foster parent’s relative or group home staff; abuses that they were unable to get resolved because they weren’t believed.  

I even heard a few people state that foster children will only use the ombudsman to lie on their foster placements so they can change placements or they will call for small issues like not being able to go to the mall. I can assure you that the complaints I hear are much more egregious!  

Complaints like:
1. A Foster Parent has bed bugs and refuses to exterminate causing the foster child to have bed bug bites covering their arms.  

When the child tried reporting it to their Case Manager, they could not get a hold of him/her.  

The foster parent states the child brought them with her, yet when she goes to visit family members the bites disappear only to resurface when she comes home to the foster placement.

2. The Foster Parent locks the refrigerator so the foster child is unable to eat when hungry.
3. A relative of a foster parent sexual molests the foster child on a regular basis.  
When reported to the foster parent, the child was kicked out of the home and nothing was done to investigate the claims.

4 . A foster child was being “rented out” to a pimp by the foster parent.

The foster parent accepted money from the pimp so he could traffic the young lady and the foster parent continued to get reimbursements from the agency.

5. A group home staff member was sexually assaulting a young woman. When she gained courage to tell someone, she was kicked out of the group home yet, the staff member remained.

6. A foster parent makes a foster child sleep in the basement when there are available rooms upstairs with the rest of the family. The foster child is not allowed to bring her clothes upstairs and can only wear oversized clothes the foster parent provides her. When the social worker comes to visit, they say she is staying in one of the rooms upstairs when she is actually sleeping in the basement.

I could go on and on.  

These are all REAL stories that I have heard directly from the young people! Not all foster placements are bad. I REPEAT, not all foster placements are bad! However, for every 1 good foster placement a child has experienced there are 3 that have traumatized them for life through situations similar to those I’ve listed above (based on the stories of the young people I have worked with).  

There has to be a way these young people can report what is happening to them and KNOW that there will be actions taken to bring them justice and hold those foster placements accountable that are not in this for the right reasons.

But don’t take my word for it; ask the thousands of young people in and adults from the foster care system what they think. Oh, that’s right! You can’t because you have no way to gather their input. Unless you’re a networked former foster youth or an awesomely connected child welfare advocate, you wouldn’t even know where to start.  

This is why a Foster Youth Ombudsman is necessary.  

There will never be a child welfare system successful in keeping children safe and addressing their well-being within the foster care system as long as the voices of these foster children are kept silent and hidden from the public.  

I encourage you to advocate for a foster youth ombudsman in your state and hope the information I have provided in this article has proven helpful in at least beginning the conversation.  

Also, reach out to the existing Foster Youth Ombudsmans to hear from them what works, what doesn’t and their lessons learned.

Help break the silence.