Monday, May 2, 2011

UPDATED, 4:20PM When a child dies in foster care: Some states give a damn, some don’t


The two tragedies are strikingly similar. Both involve children with serious mental health problems.  In both cases, the children were placed in foster care.  In both cases the children died there.  In one case, the child was found with a shower hose around his neck, in the other case it was a belt.

But there is one huge difference: the response of officials in the states where the child died.


When seven year old Gabriel Myers died in Florida, the state Department of Children and Families saw it as a wake-up call.  They convened a special work group to examine every aspect of the case, soon zeroing-in on the possible role of the misuse and overuse of psychiatric medications.

DCF made public just about everything it found out, even devoting a special section of its own website to the case.  And that website doesn’t just include the agency’s side of the story, there’s even a page with links to more than two dozen of news accounts, including stories and editorials critical of DCF.

DCF even approached the federal government seeking their help in order to ban the use of foster children in drug trials.  The feds were not interested.

It all resulted in a series of changes in policies designed to reduce the likelihood of such tragedies in the future.  Will it work? We don’t know.  But at least Florida DCF made the effort.  Because, at the time, DCF had bold leadership that genuinely cared about the kids.  (A new governor has brought in new leadership; whether they share that commitment remains to be seen.)


There actually was even less reason for Billy Mitchell to be in foster care than Gabriel Myers.  As KETV in Omaha reported last week, no one had accused Billy’s parents of mistreating him in any way.  Rather, they made the terrible mistake of asking the state child welfare agency for help to cope with Billy’s mental health problems.

There was nothing wrong that couldn’t have been fixed by providing Wraparound services or bringing other intensive help into the family home.  But the child welfare agency didn’t offer that.  Instead, they had the parents sign a “voluntary” placement agreement surrendering the child to foster care – where he died.  The foster parents have not been accused of any wrongdoing.

But Billy Mitchell died in a state where the attitude toward foster child deaths is very different from Florida.  Billy Mitchell died in a state whose God-awful child welfare system sometimes seems to exist solely to make everybody else’s look good.  Poor Billy died in Nebraska.

You remember Nebraska.  That’s the state that, year after year, tears apart families at one of the highest rates in America.  That’s the state that also holds more children in foster care on any given day than almost anywhere else.  That’s the state that was home to the safe-haven debacle. 0

Nebraska is the state where the former head of the human services agency made a sick joke at the expense of suffering families – only to be topped by an official at Boys Town who held all such families in contempt.  Nebraska is the state where a family squabble by the side of road can get your child thrown into foster care more than a thousand miles from home – especially if you’re from the wrong state and the wrong race.  Nebraska is the state where the foster care review board is constantly using its inexplicable clout with the state’s media to push the state to tear apart even more families – even as its longtime director survives one scandal after another over alleged misuse of state resources.

So no one should be surprised by how the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services replied to KETV when the television station started investigating Billy’s death.  There was no special panel convened, no top-to-bottom search for answers.  There was just this statement:

The death of any child is extremely sad, especially for us, when a child is a state ward and placed in our care.  Department staff did review this case after Billy’s death. The services that had been identified for Billy were provided. There was never a request or concern that he be monitored 24/7, and foster care was an appropriate placement.

In other words: Nothing to see here, folks, move along everyone.  A little boy died with a belt around his neck in one of our foster homes, but so what?  We don’t care, and neither should you.

That’s how they do things at Nebraska DHHS.

PS: As if to add insult to much-worse-than-injury, Nebraska DHHS just put out a press release filled with the usual boilerplate - and no useful information whatsoever - to remind us that tomorrow is "Children's Mental Health Awareness Day."

UPDATE: The latest issue of Rise, a magazine written by parents who lost children to foster care, has an excellent lead story about another family failed by two states when they simply needed help with a child's mental health problems.