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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

June 28, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

The nation’s foster care system is getting an in-depth look by no less than the United States Senate’s Finance Committee as reported here (Buzzfeed, 6/24/15). Not the whole foster care system of course, but one important part of it, the private company, National Mentor Holdings.

The company trades on the New York Stock Exchange as Civitas Solutions LLC, and markets itself as The Mentor Network. It is controlled by New York-based private equity fund Vestar Capital Partners.

The Committee is seeking information about Mentor’s activities as one of the largest providers of privatized foster care in the country, but that profile is about to get much smaller as Mentor pulls out of almost half the states in which it’s been doing business.

The leaders of the powerful US Senate Finance Committee last week sent a six-page letter to the nation’s largest for-profit foster care company, National Mentor Holdings, requesting detailed information about the firm’s business practices and treatment of the thousands of children in its care.

That request to Mentor marks the latest step in the committee’s sweeping inquiry into privatized foster care, which began in April when the committee, citing BuzzFeed News’ reporting, asked all 50 state governors about their foster-care contracting practices. The letter to Mentor, signed by the committee chairman, Sen. Orrin Hatch, (R-Utah) and ranking member, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) cites “deeply disturbing” news articles that focus on “what appear to be serious deficiencies” in the company’s foster care operations.

BuzzFeed News has published extensive reporting about the foster-care giant, detailing problems such as deaths and abuse in foster homes run by Mentor in Maryland and Texas, Illinois, and Massachusetts.

Yesterday, a week after the Senate letter was sent, the company announced it was pulling out of foster care operations in five states. In a statement, Mentor said that the move was the result of a “comprehensive review” that began in January “to ensure we are delivering service excellence to every child in every home, while maintaining stable, sustainable financial performance.” Mentor will continue to provide foster care in at least seven states.

The company has had six children die in its homes since 2005. One of them, Alexandra Hill, was murdered by her foster mother, Sherrill Small, a case on which I reported here. Small was subsequently indicted on a murder charge, convicted and is serving a life term in a Texas prison. At the trial, Small’s background was revealed. She had gone into foster care herself at the age of two and been abused there. The Buzzfeed article shows that

Mentor put the girl in Small’s custody despite the fact that five children had been removed from her care as “failed placements.” An internal Mentor document stated that Small “reported feeling stressed out, and will express that she is unable to care for the children in the home.” Mentor has expressed regret about the “poor judgment” it made in that case.

The Milam (Texas) County prosecutor who put Small in prison asked this about Mentor’s decision to continue placing children in her care:

“How could they have been any more negligent?” he said. “Abject negligence!”

Mentor’s internal memoranda on Small citing her inability to care for children and her history of “failed placements,” contrast starkly with their public pronouncements immediately after her murder of Alexandra Hill. As I quoted in my post last year,

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.

But beyond Small’s killing of Alexandra, Mentor had a long history of citations by its overseers in the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services that finally caused the DFPS to stop placing children in Mentor Homes.

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.

If the Buzzfeed article describes things accurately, Mentor’s record in Texas may not be much worse than elsewhere. Whatever the case, Mentor is folding the tents in five states and is under investigation by the Senate Finance Committee. The remaining seven states in which Mentor operates are surely wondering whether to continue contracting with the company. Injured children tend to beget lawsuits and nothing says “negligence” quite like hiring a company that’s already been removed from the foster care system in one state and fled five under the cloud of a federal investigation.

Meanwhile, the issue of secrecy dogs Mentor as well. Of course, I’ve inveighed against secrecy in the child protective system, including foster care, for a long time. The more we shield the behavior of public officials and those they employ from scrutiny by the press and the people, the more we open ourselves to their wrongdoing. And when children are living behind those closed doors, the more vulnerable they are. Child protective agencies routinely claim that secrecy keeps children safe from stress brought on by press inquiries. More importantly, it hides their injuries, sometimes their deaths and any agency malfeasance that may have occurred.

Another aspect of secrecy that I’ve never mentioned before, the Buzzfeed article does.

The letter (from the Finance Committee) also requests information about whether Mentor uses non-disclosure agreements in settling cases with children who may have been harmed in its care. “Since January 2005, has Mentor entered into any agreements concerning non-disclosure/confidentiality clauses with the legal representatives of children who were, or who are now, placed in Mentor foster care homes?”

I can all but guarantee they do and that the Committee already has in hand information to that effect. Non-disclosure agreements have become commonplace in all areas of civil law. Defendants want to settle, but they don’t want the public to know the terms. That gives them deniability about how seriously defendants themselves view their misconduct.

So of course Mentor has used those agreements to shield itself from opprobrium when children in its care have been injured or killed. And,

Sources have told BuzzFeed News that former employees of Mentor sometimes have signed restrictive confidentiality clauses, and that the firm has required confidentiality when it settled lawsuits with children harmed in its homes. A Mentor spokesperson said that the firm does not have the ability to keep an incident a secret.

That of course is so much nonsense. In many states, virtually all incidents are secret. Cases that don’t result in a child’s death are closed to the press, so it takes a lawsuit to pry the information out of the state child welfare agency and, if those services have been privatized, the company with the state contract.

It’s hard to tell whether, on average, private companies do a better or worse job of caring for children whose parents abuse or neglect them. What’s certain is that neither does a particularly good job and that’s often because of the refusal of state legislatures to devote the time and money that’s necessary to do the job properly.

The State of Texas, for example, hired Mentor in the hope of realizing cost savings from the supposedly greater efficiency of a private enterprise. The jury’s out on whether the state saved money or not, but kids’ outcomes certainly didn’t improve. That’s why the state showed Mentor the door.

It’s time to stop rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic and do what actually needs doing for our most vulnerable children. That means higher salaries, better training, fewer cases, more caseworkers, etc. It’s a bean-counter’s nightmare but a little child’s dream.

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