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November 6, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Sherrill Small was convicted of capital murder last Tuesday in the beating death of a toddler to whom she was foster mother. The Cameron, Texas jury deliberated about four hours before finding her guilty. Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty, so Small was sentenced to life in prison. Read about it here (KWTX, 11/6/14).

Alexandra Hill was two years old when she was placed in the care of Small and her husband Clemon Small. Both had undergone screening by Texas Mentor, a private company to which the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services contracted both the vetting of potential foster families and the care of foster children. Its vetting of the Smalls included the following:

Sherill Small admitted to Texas Mentor that she was placed into foster care at the age of 2, the report says.

In the report, Sherill Small admitted that, "her father was a heavy drinker, and when drinking was verbally abusive towards his mother."

The study reported that Sherill Small had three children with two men and a 15-year marriage to a third man before she married Clemon Small in 2007.

Small later said in the report that the most traumatic memory of her childhood "was when one of her foster homes made her sit out in the dark, on the front porch, in the middle of winter in Missouri."

Still Texas Mentor later found in the report that, "Mr. and Mrs. Small appear genuine in their motivation for providing foster care in their home."

Wendy Bagwell from Texas Mentor sent News 10 a statement Tuesday afternoon saying, "The home study, while comprehensive, does not represent the totality of the screening process," she said.

"Both Mr. and Mrs. Small were unusually candid in their level of disclosure related to both their upbringings, his past substance abuse issues and her experience in foster care."

Bagwell continued saying, "their level of candor and self-awareness regarding their past challenges was viewed generally as a positive."…

A home study conducted by Texas Mentor in December of 2012 assessed whether the two were suitable to be licensed foster parents.

The study, released to News 10 on Tuesday, concluded that Small and her husband "were capable of providing a safe home environment."

The Smalls were approved in December of 2012. Nine months later, in August of 2013, Alexandra Hill was dead at the hands of Sherrill Small.

An arrest affidavit issued at the time said Small, "became frustrated with Alexandria, picked her up, and in a downward motion with a lot of force came down toward the ground with her."

"She did this twice and on the third time she lost her grip and the victim was thrown to the ground head first," the affidavit said…

The 2-year-old died in August 2013 at Scott & White's McLane Children's Hospital after she was taken off life support.

Doctors found that the toddler had "subdural hemorrhaging, subarachnoid hemorrhaging, and retinal hemorrhaging in both eyes," an arrest warrant affidavit said.

Too late, the Texas DFPS stopped referring cases to Texas Mentor.

State records show Texas Mentor has racked up 66 violations in the past two years.

In late September, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services stopped placing abused and neglected children with Texas Mentor.

Texas Mentor has nearly 70 foster homes in Central Texas and 400 statewide.

A statewide sweep of those homes revealed instances of substandard care, the agency said.

It goes without saying that many foster parents provide loving, safe, supportive homes for children in need. Sadly, they are a necessary part of our efforts to properly care for children. The simple fact is that some kids are in danger from their parents and need others to care for them. It may even be that Alexandra Hill was one of those children.

But what is also true is that foster care generally is less safe for kids than is parental care. Studies indicate that’s true even when foster parents are compared to biological parents known to be somewhat abusive or neglectful of their children. In other words, foster care can’t clear even that extremely low hurdle.

It can have escaped no one’s notice that Sherrill Small is herself a product of foster care and was abused there. We know what she admitted to in her interviews with Texas Mentor, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn there was more and worse done to her. Whatever the case, it’s a truism that adults who abuse children were probably abused as children, and so it is with Small. Abuse is learned, often from the earliest ages.

Second, the practice of allowing the same organization to vet potential foster families that also receives state money when those families receive foster kids into their care fairly screams “Conflict of interest!” As long as Texas Mentor was receiving state funds for deciding which families would be approved to do foster care and state funds when those families did so, the company was encouraged to approve the families it investigated. Predictably, it approved not only the Smalls, but others who were later found to be providing “substandard care,” in the words of the DFPS.

That conflict of interest needs to be abolished. That must be accomplished by tasking one organization with vetting foster families and another with overseeing them.

It’s too late for Alexandra Hill. It’s not too late for countless other children throughout the state.

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