One unfortunate part of being a foster parent is knowing how to protect yourself against false or unfair allegations. When you sign up for foster care, you sign up for increased scrutiny from your state’s child protective services. Foster children are more likely than biological children to make accusations, out of either malice or misunderstanding. Birth parents may be desperate to proved that they are better parents than you, and may seize on innocuous incidents to accuse you of not taking care of their children. As with all youth service, there is no way to completely prevent unfounded allegations. But there are ways to lower the risk to something that we can live with.
The best time to start defending yourself is before any accusations arise. Know your legal rights as a foster parent in you state. The Georgia Office of the Child Advocate has an excellent checklist of what federal law requires states to provide to foster parents. Another OCA list gives you questions to ask your placing agency, and recommends that you get the answers in writing and have an agency representative sign it. Having those documents ready to go could be an important safeguard for you.
State and local foster parent networks can be an important source of both information and support. Get the information now, and start building relationships that can provide support later. Whenever an allegation hits, you will need to know who will have your back right away.
Finally, find out what professionals know this area. You may need a lawyer, for example, and not all lawyers will know how to defend foster parents. Find out from your foster care network which attorneys, mental health providers, and other professionals know this field well enough to help you.
Screen Your Placements
One of the biggest drivers in foster care problems is inappropriate placements. If you do not have the skill set to deal with, for example, sexualized behavior in a child, then you have a much higher risk of misunderstandings and unfounded allegations. Unfortunately, case workers don’t always have the full story on a child, and sometimes they are so desperate for a placement that they don’t tell prospective foster parents all of the facts. Nevertheless, do what you can to get all of the pertinent facts before the placement, or at least as early as possible after your foster child moves in. The Georgia OCA has an excellent checklist of the information that you need. That office recommends getting the answers in writing with an agency signature. Having written information will avoid any competing claims and fuzzy memories about what you knew when.
Keep a Journal
Some precautions that most youth organizations use, such as having two adults involved in all interactions with children, simply are not possible for foster parents. The next best precaution is to document everything that you can. Contemporaneous records are persuasive, and can be the best substitute for an eyewitness.
A daily journal is best, because you can document incidents and conversations that might be important in hindsight. Even if you never need the journal to respond to allegations, it can be a rich resource of information for a future placement, therapist, case worker or other people working with your child.
If you don’t have time for a daily journal, at least document any unusual incidents or conversations. Include not only what happened and who said what, but when it happened, where, and who else saw it. We hope you won’t need witnesses, but if you do need corroboration from those people, you will need to know where to find them.
Document, Document, Document
Finally, document everything that you can. Keep all of the paperwork that you receive from your caseworker, the school, or the child’s therapist. If you have a problematic relationship with your child’s biological parents, communicate as much as possible through emails and texts. If you discuss anything substantive in verbal conversations, send an email confirming your understanding of what you discussed.
Take frequent pictures of your child. Not only will you be documenting memories for your child, but you may need them to show absence of injuries. Again, if your child’s biological parents are prone to accusations, frequent pictures (especially before and after visits) can protect you.
Facing unfounded allegations is a topic that no one wants to think about. We would much prefer to concentrate on the amazing rewards of caring for foster children. We have to be realistic, though, and be prepared for disaster. These steps can be the difference between showing that the accusations are unfounded and having them trail behind you for years.