Sunday, May 27, 2007

Low numbers of foster parents lead to unsafe placements

New foster care safeguards reviewed
Simerman, John. Contra Costa Times, May 8, 2007.

MARTINEZ -- Deonna Green was pole-thin and getting thinner, but that's not what killed her. The 2-year-old died from eating baking soda out of a box in the fridge, the coroner found.
Still, her death in December while in the care of a 22-year-old Pittsburg foster mother exposed wide holes in Contra Costa County's child safety net.

Five months later, county health leaders have joined with child welfare officials in a plan they hope will plug some of those holes.

Presented Monday to a county committee, the changes include two new half-day health clinics for foster children, with doctors, nurses and social workers on hand; a mentoring program for first-time foster parents; and a computer tracking system for foster kids in the county health system.

Also planned are regular follow-up visits when children are placed for the first time in a new foster home and educating doctors and other "mandated reporters" of their responsibility to quickly report suspected child abuse or neglect.

The county Board of Supervisors in January demanded changes after officials acknowledged communication lapses prior to Deonna's death.

Doctors were concerned with her weight, but social workers never got the message. And child welfare officials never knew that the state had cited Deonna's new foster mom, also a licensed day care provider, for a failure to supervise.

There were red flags, officials admit, but none were waved.

"We had done what the state required us to do, but of course there were gaps," said Valerie Earley, director of county Children and Family Services. She also noted that the county does not have a "formalized way of supporting our foster parents once they get a license."

Deonna and her older sister entered new foster mom Khareasha Pugh's home in August. On Oct. 20, during an emergency room visit to the county Regional Medical Center, Deonna weighed 24 pounds. A doctor noted a "failure to thrive," county health officials said.

By Nov. 30, when she visited a Pittsburg clinic, she weighed 19 pounds. The doctor ordered tests and referred Deonna to a pediatric clinic, but the word back to county social workers "was not, let's say, adequately alarming," said Dr. Jeff Smith, who oversees the hospital and county clinics.

"Would it have changed anything? We don't know."

Prosecutors declined to charge Pugh, saying there was no evidence that she was starving Deonna, criminally negligent or endangering the child.

The foster care clinics will open in June, and the computerized system should be up this summer, said Joe Valentine, who heads the county Employment and Human Services Department. He said the reforms include "very specific and very measurable steps."

The county's health services director said part of the trouble in creating a coordinated system lies with how the state doles out foster care dollars to programs with tight restrictions.

"We're not going to break any state rules, but we're going to bend some around," Dr. William Walker said Monday before the county Family and Human Services Committee.

County Supervisor Federal Glover, who in January took child welfare officials to task for what he called unacceptable lapses, said he saw progress in the plan. Supervisor Susan Bonilla questioned why the agency would assign foster kids to a 22-year-old woman, but also expressed optimism.

"It's just such a tragic and sobering situation," she said. "But I feel the response has been quick, thorough and I think there's been a commitment to really making significant changes."

The supervisors asked for the agencies to report back on their progress in six months.

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