The privacy rights of children and their families caught up in the child welfare system should be protected. But all too often, they are used to shield agencies from questions about their actions.
In my last column, I wrote about Ashley Rhodes-Courter and her efforts to find out the truth about the death of a foster child who was briefly in her care. The story of a child welfare system trying to suppress information about the death of a child is unfortunately all too common.
But a recent story from upstate New York illustrates an agency hiding behind privacy rights at the expense of a living child. A 13-year-old in Warren County, New York, is being kept in foster care so that the child welfare agency can keep secret the circumstances under which she was allowed to stay with a heroin addict and convicted felon who was unrelated to her.
The child in this case had been in the system most of her life. She was living with her maternal grandmother, but they were not getting along. A crisis was reached on July 4, when the grandmother called police and the girl threatened to run away.
The next day, the girl was picked up by a family friend, Shannon Dickinson. The sheriff’s office told the Glens Falls Post-Star that Dickinson was a known heroin addict who overdosed last December after injecting heroin while driving. He is also a twice-convicted felon and a paraplegic as a result of a failed suicide attempt decades ago.
According to the Post-Star, the Warren County Department of Social Services (DSS) approved the placement with Dickinson. Because he was a family friend and the maternal grandmother approved the placement, she could be placed in his home as a “kinship placement” and a background check did not have to be done before she was placed. The child remained with him until July 30, when she reported that he had sexually abused her the night before. DSS then placed the girl in foster care. They later stated that they were not aware that the paternal grandmother had custodial rights.
On August 26, the paternal grandmother came to court to request custody of her granddaughter and get her out of foster care. Judge Jeffrey Wait told her attorney to file a motion. But he could not schedule a hearing on that motion because of a DSS appeal of his ruling about closing the court.
DSS wants the courtroom to be closed for further hearings. The judge has refused this request twice. But DSS announced its intention to appeal his decision, so the judge stated that he would schedule no more court dates at this time.
In the meantime, the 13-year-old remains in foster care with strangers. The agency claims that it wants the courtroom closed to protect the girl’s privacy. But the judge noted that the press has not reported her name nor the names of any family members. And according to a reporter who was there, the child’s court-appointed guardian urged the court to allow the case to go ahead.
On September 2, the Glens Falls Post-Star ran a hard-hitting editorial stating that DSS has “made the girl’s welfare secondary to their own interest in keeping details of this case secret.”
All of my information comes from the Post-Star, and the press can sometimes be an accomplice in blaming individuals when systemic problems are at fault. That is one reason why agencies are so preoccupied with protecting themselves.
I know how hard it is to be a social worker in the child welfare system, especially working with children old enough to run away. I once allowed an 18-year-old client under agency supervision to stay with a family member after her father kicked her out. There were some concerns about the family member’s home but I knew my client would run away if I placed her in foster care with a stranger.
Another family member, who was mentally ill, came over and got in a fight with my client, seriously injuring her. If God forbid my client had been killed, this could have been portrayed as my negligence, rather than choosing the option that appeared the least unsafe.
The press can be unfair and uninformed. But the answer for agencies is not in sacrificing their client’s interests to protect themselves. This is simply unethical.
We will not be able to improve policy or practice unless we know why things go wrong. Since the agency does not seem to be open to explaining and fixing its own problems, the public needs to be informed, so that those who truly care about children can step in to prevent similar problems in the future.