By Peter A. Kenny, Attorney
Foster parents are especially vulnerable to charges of child abuse and neglect. Charges may be leveled by the foster child, the birth parent, the caseworker, a neighbor, or a stranger. The reasons are many and the allegations may be exaggerated or patently false, often motivated by resentment. No matter the source or the merit of the charges or how absurd they appear, they must be taken seriously.
Once substantiated, they can be very difficult to counter. Should that happen, the foster parents are prevented from holding any job in child care. In some states, abuse can be substantiated on foster parents solely for mere policy violations, for actions that do not actually constitute criminal child abuse. Defending against them at that point can become a nightmare.
The best strategy is to be ready. The first step in dealing with such charges is to anticipate them, knowing that charges are likely to occur from one source or another. One simple and important way to prepare is to keep a daily journal. Among other things, carefully document any incidents which might lead to such an accusation. Prevention is the best strategy.
Here are some practical and common sense steps to take if and when you are accused of abuse.
- Anticipate. Be wary of placements that have failed. Find out why before you take a child. If the most recent foster parent has been charged with abuse, you may refuse the placement or at least be prepared.
- Prepare. Expect that you will be accused of abuse at some point. Keep a daily journal. Document everything.
- Know the welfare policies. Learn beforehand what constitutes abuse by a foster parent and what happens when abuse is investigated.
- When you learn you may be charged with abuse, write down everything you can think of about the incident.
- Take accusations seriously. Losing may cost you your foster care license and prevent you from working in any job that involves contact with children.
- If you plan to contest the charges, contact an attorney, one experienced with welfare policies and abuse investigations. Explain the situation and follow his or her advice.
- You may want your attorney with you at the initial interview, depending on the seriousness of the charges. Assume they will also interview your foster child.
- Err on the side of brevity. Answer the questions but don’t volunteer information. Don’t feel you can charm the investigator with how concerned you are for the child in your care.
- Don’t discuss the matter with others, not even your caseworker. If they question you or accuse you, tell them to talk to your attorney. That is why you have one.
- You will want your attorney present at any administrative law hearing. The administrative law judge will be interested primarily in the answer to two simple questions: Did it happen? Did it rise to the level of abuse and/or neglect?
Foster parenting is a tough job. Taking care of troubled children is difficult enough. Being vulnerable to charges of abusing them makes it even harder. Following the above steps to anticipate and deal with such charges will help you avoid wrongful substantiations.