Editorial: Protecting children 24-7

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Taking children away from their parents and placing them in foster care is difficult enough. What happens when something goes wrong at the foster care home? Very wrong?
The Rowan County Department of Social Services unveiled a response plan this week for a problem that’s not discussed much: abuse that occurs while a foster child is left with someone else. The incident that precipitated the plan involved the sexual abuse of a young girl in her foster home by a man left to care for her while the foster parents were out.
The public doesn’t know much about this case; fortunately, the system shields children’s identities. But this little girl’s plight revealed dangerous gaps in a foster system that is supposed to care for children 24/7.
Up until now, the Department of Social Services has not had clear policy on what to do if a child is abused by, say, a friend of the foster family. It doesn’t happen often; besides, the appropriate response would seem obvious. But obvious isn’t good enough, so policy now spells it all out. If abuse is suspected while a child is with a respite caregiver ó babysitters, overnight care providers, friends or relatives of the foster parents ó the DSS employee who receives the report must notify his or her supervisor, and soon a committee made up of the agency’s top authorities must investigate and decide what to do. If the child is removed from the home, no other foster children will be placed in the home. If the allegations prove true, the foster home may lose its license.
Foster parents who do their jobs well deserve a special place in heaven. They take in children who have been abused, neglected or abandoned. These fragile children, wrenched from the only home they know, find stability, safety and care in a foster home while authorities work out a plan for them.
That’s the best-case scenario. And admittedly, even the best foster parents may sometimes need someone to fill in while they go out, run errands or even take a trip. They can get the agency’s help in finding other foster parents to fill in, but some foster parents choose to make their own arrangements. From here on out, they’ll have to be more careful about who cares for foster children while they are away ó again, something that would seem obvious but apparently is not.
Foster parents have to be at least 21 years old, have a stable home and income, be willing to be fingerprinted and have a criminal records check and maintain a drug-free environment. There’s also required training, and a license to get from the state.
This incident should not reflect on all foster parents, and it shouldn’t scare anyone away from becoming a foster parent. If anything, it illustrates the need for more qualified, caring people to step forward and help care for children in need.