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Published: Sunday, 12/16/2012

Children’s best interest

Ohio's foster-care system seeks to place every child it supervises — more than 12,000 young people at any time — in a safe, loving, and permanent home. Yet the deaths of several children in recent years despite the intervention of the child-protection bureaucracy graphically illustrate the obstacles the foster-care system faces.

These challenges include inadequate funding; a lack of qualified foster parents, guardians, and other mentors, and unfair stigmas that attach themselves to foster children.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has named a panel of child-welfare experts to offer proposals by next spring to improve the foster-care system. In the meantime, he has issued a useful report that summarizes problems in the system, based on child-safety hearings his office held in Toledo and other communities.

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The report cites a number of irrational restrictions that remain part of Ohio’s foster-care system. So-called planned permanent living arrangements make the youths covered by them ineligible for adoption, even as they discourage reunification with birth families.

Such arrangements virtually guarantee that thousands of youths will never have safe, permanent homes before they become adults at age 18. If Ohio does not eliminate this custody status, the state should drastically curtail its use.

Foster parents are often excluded from court proceedings that affect the children in their care, even though they are well equipped to describe these children’s activities and behavior. Some courts appear to ignore state laws that encourage such participation.

Foster youths routinely are denied such basic elements of growing up as spending the night at a friend’s house, without the need for a background check of the friend’s parents. Many foster youths lament the lack of caring mentors to help them make the difficult transition to adulthood. Surely such organizations as Big Brothers Big Sisters could advise the foster-care system along these lines.

There are other problems. Guardians ad litem, who are supposed to advocate in court the best interests of foster youths, often fail to meet the minimum standards for case investigation that the state expects them to perform. If local juvenile court judges are not enforcing these standards adequately, then the Ohio Supreme Court needs to step in.

The report also notes that Ohio funds its child-welfare system less adequately than many other states do. Nearly half of Ohio counties do not have a local levy for children’s services.

Increased funding of the foster-care system is essential, accompanied by increased accountability. The creation of an independent state ombudsman’s office to monitor foster care and child welfare would fulfill the latter goal.

Youths who “age out” of Ohio’s foster-care system face long odds. Most will experience homelessness as adults. Nearly one-third will go to jail or prison. Fewer than 2 percent will finish college.

Children who have been neglected and physically and sexually abused surely must not be allowed to endure further harm in a system that is supposed to protect them. Mr. DeWine’s report, along with the proposals to be offered by his advisory group, offer the prospect of better care for these vulnerable children — assuming state officials pay attention.



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