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Our View: Follow these fixes for Idaho’s broken foster system

Over the past several weeks, we’ve featured a three-part series on Idaho’s ailing foster-care system. It probably comes as no surprise to readers that Idaho’s system is in trouble – that’s the case in states across the country. But it’s the depth of Idaho’s problems that’s truly stunning.

There are far too few families willing to take in foster kids. Caseworkers are responsible for more children than they can handle. That’s lead to a “culture of compromise,” where children are shuffled through the system, corners are cut and rules are bent. And most important, there is virtually no statewide oversight of the system, which has allowed these problems to go unchecked for years.

Our series was sparked by a February report from the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations that suggested deep flaws in the system. We set out to show readers a first-hand look at these flaws. Our reporters spent dozens of hours inside Magic Valley foster homes. We talked to parents of children in the system, foster families, caseworkers and bureaucrats.

It’s one thing to expose the problems. It’s another to find fixes.

They may be challenging, but the solutions aren’t insurmountable. Here are four suggestions that emerged from our series:

Recruit new

foster families

Nick and Kelsey Peterson lived in a tiny two-bedroom home in Gooding, where they were licensed to shelter two foster children younger than 3 at a time. But in the two years they’ve been fostering kids, the Petersons have sometimes had up to five kids in their home at any one time. Once, they had seven. And many of the 19 children they’ve fostered have been older than 3 — a violation of their license for which the system continually issued waivers. There simply was no other place for those kids to go.

Their story is typical: Families who sign up to foster children often have to bite off more than they can chew. Not surprisingly, families often quit when they’re overburdened.

The foster system must step up its recruitment efforts, first by surveying each region of the state to determine how many families are really needed. Next, officials must do better to strengthen the bonds between foster families and their caseworkers. The OPE report suggested new retention plans that bolster communication with caseworkers and families.

And more money wouldn’t hurt, either. It was clear from our reporting that no foster family was in this for the money — foster parents typically receive about just 50 to 60 percent of room and board expenses per child. Upping the incentive may be enough to retain more families.

Hire more caseworkers

Our reporting also showed that caseworkers are grossly overworked. On average, they’re handling four more cases than is manageable.

As our reporting showed: “A workload analysis conducted by Child and Family Services in 2007 found a need for 36 percent more staff, but it has been able to add just 10 percent more caseworkers since then. The 2017 Legislature added six support staff and two social worker positions, but the state knows it needs more.”

Child and Family Services is also working to find efficiencies, such as considering a plan to hire support staffers to take menial tasks off of caseworkers. The agency is also overhauling its cumbersome data-management system, a move that could save time and money.

Change the ‘culture

of compromise’

Hiring more caseworkers and recruiting more foster families seem like easy fixes compared with addressing the deep and underlying sense of defeat that plagues the foster-care system.

“There is a permeating belief among staff that more is demanded of them than they can do,” the evaluators found. “Because of this belief, each aspect of the organizational culture is undercut by a need to address the constant feeling of crisis.”

Foster families say they don’t get enough guidelines; caseworkers say families and judges complain too much; and nearly everyone says there isn’t enough accountability.

Put simply, the system has deep organizational flaws that perpetuate a culture of distrust. Individuals in the system – the foster families, the caseworkers – nearly all have good intentions, but the system isn’t organized to support these intentions. Instead, it’s leading to disillusionment.

A conference this summer for managers and supervisors may offer solutions. It aims to identify the organizational limitations and how to address the shortfalls.

Create an

oversight board

Above all, foster families and caseworkers told us, there’s no one really steering this ship. Child and Family Services plays the biggest role, but others are involved, too, such as lawmakers, the court system, community partners.

Idaho has no oversight board to police these partnerships. One is badly needed.

The OPE report reached a similar conclusion: “We recommend the formation of a formal, system-wide oversight entity with authority to ensure ongoing accountability, visibility, and accessibility for all child welfare partners and stakeholders.”

The OPE report suggested a permanent legislative committee, a suggestion that could be difficult to implement because of separation of powers within the government.

But this much is clear: Without a stable oversight board, none of the other solutions will amount to much. As our reporting suggested, what good is it to recruit more foster families if caseworkers are still overburdened?

Idaho desperately needs top-down reform.

The question now is: Does the Legislature realize it, and what will they do?


Columns
OTHER VIEW
Other View: A welcome special counsel

This appeared in Thursday’s Washington Post.

Washington and the country received a much-needed shot of good news Wednesday evening with the revelation that the Justice Department will appoint a special counsel. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein named Robert Mueller III, a former FBI chief.

This was an essential and reassuring step after a series of alarming developments. The first question for Mueller will be whether the Russian government meddled in the 2016 presidential election. The second question will be whether anyone in the Trump campaign colluded in the meddling. And the third question will be whether anyone in the administration, up to and including President Donald Trump, illegally tried to interfere with investigations into the alleged meddling and collusion.

An independent inquiry is needed because of statements and actions by Trump that raised serious concern about executive interference. These include his reported request in January that then-FBI Director James Comey swear his loyalty to the president; his reported attempt a month later to persuade Comey to drop an investigation of Trump’s first national security adviser, who had to quit after he lied about the nature of his contacts with Russian officials; and his decision last week to fire Comey. Trump initially put forward false explanations for that firing but eventually admitted that he was motivated by his displeasure with the FBI’s investigation of alleged Russian interference.

A few notes of caution are in order. A special counsel is essential in this case, and Mueller must be prepared to follow the evidence wherever it leads. But there’s always a worry when a prosecutor has only one mission that he will pursue it with excessive zeal. That’s less likely with a special counsel under current law than it was under the old independent-counsel statute, and it’s a trap that Mueller seems unlikely to fall into. But it’s worth keeping in mind.

More salient is the fact that the special counsel’s job is only to look for criminal behavior and, if he finds any, to prosecute the wrongdoers. His job is not to inform the public or to pass judgment on actions that may have been unwise, inappropriate or unethical—but did not violate the law. That is why this appointment does not let Congress off the hook. The American public needs a full accounting of Russian interference in the 2016 election; of American cooperation in that meddling, if any; and of administration efforts to impede investigations into the meddling and collusion, if they took place. The House and Senate intelligence committees are working on aspects of all that, and those must continue.But a full accounting is likely to emerge only if Congress appoints a special commission like the one that investigated the 9/11 attacks. With the Trump administration having led the way, Congress too should act.


Columns
OTHER VIEW
Other View: Mueller's presence will be good for Trump, even if he doesn't realize it

Robert S. Mueller III’s appointment as special counsel may actually be good news for this administration. Perhaps the Trump White House will follow the Justice Department’s lead and compartmentalize its cooperation with the special counsel. Perhaps Mueller’s involvement will bring an end to the pattern of President Donald Trump beginning the day’s news coverage with an alarming and disruptive tweet, followed by the usual Democratic punditry and all-too-regular leaks.

If this cycle is broken, perhaps the special counsel’s presence will at least stabilize the environment and allow Republicans in Congress to restore some semblance of governance and once again focus on the legislative accomplishments needed to stave off disaster in the 2018 elections.

To effectively manage its relationship with the special counsel, the White House will need to wall off its dealings with any Russia-related investigations. And, above all else, the president should assign the responsibility of scandal management to a few disciplined lawyers and utility players who can keep their mouths shut.

This administration knows all too well just how damaging leaks can be. Right now, everything from the White House needs to remain airtight. We should not see Sean Spicer at the daily press briefing reading out status updates of the investigation, propping up and legitimizing the media’s unfounded rumors, or speculating as to how things are going. He should only refer questions elsewhere.

The congressional affairs and communications offices should similarly divorce themselves from whatever inquiries intersect with those of the special counsel and ongoing investigations on Capitol Hill. At this point, the White House cannot risk being made to look as though it is slow-walking or spinning oversight or investigations—not when Democrats, aided by the mainstream media, claim the president has somehow obstructed justice.

But even if the White House does all of these things, the $64,000 question is: Will the presence of a special counsel and its ominous potential muzzle the president? Everyone knows the president should not stir things up and make matters worse by antagonizing the special counsel or suggesting that his administration’s cooperation is forced or insincere, but the president still might not hold back. Just this morning, Trump blasted off a tweet, arguing “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”

It must be demoralizing for the White House staff to witness Trump’s reaction. If you look how things have transpired and what led to the need for a special counsel, Trump’s tweets are near the top of the list. The idea that he is somehow communicating directly with the people and that it is helpful in getting his message out is absurd. He set himself up, and Democrats in Congress, liberal pundits on television and anti-Trump resisters are happy to make matters even worse. After all, Trump’s tweets, denials and grievances are all Democrats have to talk about.

But unlike the usual suspects on the left, I never believed there was any collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. The very idea has always been and will continue to be silly. Trump just needs to keep quiet and let the truth emerge. Now, however, the Democrats will slow down the process, and the truth will be months in coming.

Trump needs to remember that the advantage of being innocent can be squandered and undermined by reckless behavior. But if he stays quiet and the White House entrusts a core group to be responsible for cooperation with the special counsel, then Republicans may have a fighting chance of getting on with legislating and advancing a conservative agenda.

Congress is weary, and foreign leaders are watching. The president does not need tougher tweets or a more rapid defense. He needs to maintain composure, let the system work and build a record that Republicans in Congress can run on. It may be wishful thinking, but it is not too late.


Mailbag
Letter: Comic was offensive

Comic was offensive

We were offended with the Bizarro comic strip in the Wednesday, May 17, Times-News. This comic mocks Christianity. We are wondering why you chose to run a sacrilegious comic. If it was about the Muslim religion, Buddhism, or any another religion than Christianity, you would have not printed it due to offending those religions. Why is it that so many people are careful of offending other religions but don’t think anything of offending Christianity? In the future, please be conscientious of offending Christianity.

Glenn and Judy Schroeder

Twin Falls


DREW NASH, TIMES-NEWS  

Fiona Matala, 7, places a cutout of a lion while her family continues to prepare a room for their incoming foster children April 20 in Jerome.