Thursday, February 22, 2007

Unintended consequence of Adam Walsh law

State custody foster care delayed for needy tots
Short-term resource homes for kids taken from their parents are in short supply

Rosetta, Lisa. Salt Lake Tribune, Feb. 21, 2007.

Severely neglected for the first five months of her life, the infant girl didn't cry anymore. She stopped signaling when her diaper was wet, or when she needed to be fed or held. She just lay in her crib.

Melissa Schwitters, a short-term foster care mother in California at the time, was told by state case workers to cuddle the baby and feed her every four hours since she had stopped asking for food herself. Within a few short weeks, Schwitters said, the baby girl began smiling and snuggling.

That reward is just one of the reasons Schwitters, who now lives in Herriman, serves as a resource home, a kind of short-term foster care, for Salt Lake County, taking in children who are in limbo in the state system.

People like Schwitters, however, are in short supply, said Roger Gisseman, associate director of the county's Division of Youth Services. And because of a new federal law, resource homes are more needed than ever.

Children who are removed from their homes by the Utah Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS) are first taken to the Christmas Box House, which performs emergency intake and assessment services around the clock, he said.

Before the passage of the Adam Walsh Child Protection And Safety Act Of 2006, many of those children could then be placed with another family member, like a grandparent, or a friend of the family, until the child's shelter hearing took place and a longer term plan was in place.

The new law, however, requires that adoptive or foster care parents, including a child's kin, undergo a thorough background check conducted by the FBI, which typically takes between six and eight weeks - sometimes longer, Gisseman said.

In the meantime, children are placed in resource homes like Schwitters.' As more children trickle in, however, the number of available resource homes dwindles, which means some children often have to stay at the Christmas Box House for months at a time.

The Christmas Box House can accommodate up to 34 children, up to age 11, at once, Gisseman said. But already this year, the facility has had as many as 30 children in its dormitory-style rooms. - WHAT A STRANGE NAME FOR A SHELTER

"Obviously the care of the child is extremely important," Gisseman said, but "it [the new law] has made it more difficult to release the kids, and it's creating a bit of a backlog for kids looking for shelter resource homes outside of our residential facilities."

In January, for example, 47 children were taken in and assessed at the Christmas Box House, compared to 76 in the same month last year, said Heidi Roggenbuck, a resource home and recruitment specialist.

But of the 47 children taken in this year, 40 remained at the Christmas Box House or in a resource home, versus just 24 of the 76 children taken in a year earlier. Roggenbuck only expects that number to grow.

"It's creating a huge impact on the system," she said.

The problem is especially acute for those children who are toddlers or older, since some of the county's 20 resource homes will only care for infants.

Roggenbuck said she is hoping to recruit and license 10 new resource homes this year. Potential candidates must take a 32-hour service class, pass a background check, become CPR and First Aid certified and participate in about a month's worth of interviews and home visits. And, one of the resource parents must be available for a child, or children, around the clock.

"That's because so many of our children that come in do have higher needs once they've been stabilized," she said.

Some of the children who arrive at the Christmas Box House are in diapers and have been snatched from their parent's homes by police in the middle of the night during a drug bust, she said. Others come in filthy clothes, and have lice and other medical problems.

But caring for these children, and fulfilling the many requirements for licensure, are well worth the effort, Schwitters said.

Since November, she and her husband, Randy, and their four children have taken in four babies.
"You do it because as long as they keep calling us and giving us babies, that means there is a baby that needs somewhere to go," she said.

And like the infant girl they cared for in California, they all have their own stories.