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Safe Families effort wins favor in Legislature

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A bill touted as easing the burden on the state’s foster care system sailed through the Indiana General Assembly without gaining much public attention. In a session marked by contention over abortion, school testing and civil rights, House Enrolled Act 1183 did not pick up a single opposing vote.

FrizzellFrizzell

Introduced by Rep. David Frizzell, R-Indianapolis, the measure creates a limited power of attorney for families who volunteer to care for children through the faith-based Safe Families program. The bill’s numerous supporters said the program gives struggling families the ability to seek assistance without fear of having the Indiana Department of Child Services take their children away.

Frizzell said he likes the legislation, in part, because of the “tremendous cost of foster care.” A number of families are overwhelmed and need help but the state has limited resources, he explained, and this bill offers a way for other people to help without any cost to the taxpayer.

The bill gained bipartisan support as it moved through the Statehouse. Rep. Karlee Macer, D-Indianapolis, who joined as a co-author, said the legislation can be especially beneficial for military parents preparing for deployment. Instead of placing children in foster care, which she said can be a tough environment, families will have an alternative.

“This isn’t about bad parenting,” she said. “This is parents really doing the right thing. (They) just want to do what makes sense, what is best for their children.”

The bill, which took effect July 1, is based on model legislation from the Foundation for Government Accountability, a conservative nonprofit based in Florida. Similar bills have been passed in 13 states including Idaho, Florida, Kansas and Kentucky, according to the National Conference for State Legislatures.

“This is a common sense solution,” said Andrew Brown, attorney and senior fellow at the foundation. “It benefits not only families but also the state.”

Changing relationship

The Safe Families program matches parents in crisis with host families who volunteer to temporarily care for the children. Many times, households facing trouble turn to their extended family or friends for help, explained Krista Shepard Seeds, executive director of Safe Families for Children in Central Indiana. However, for parents who do not have that supportive network, this program offers assistance.

Although Safe Families has been operating in Indiana since 2008, Seeds said the law resolves a concern of the Department of Child Services by clarifying that the liability for the children stays with the biological parents. Previously, with every new governor and new DCS director, the relationship between the nonprofit and the state changed. At one point, the state funneled about $60,000 of federal child abuse prevention funds to the organization in one year. Then the administration changed and the money stopped.

Seeds is hopeful the law will settle the worries over liability and allow Safe Families to again receive government assistance. With the additional funding, the nonprofit wants to expand operations around the state.

“I think it’s exactly what was needed,” Seeds said of the law. “I don’t anticipate we’ll need to alter anything (within the measure in future legislative sessions).”

Few family law attorneys contacted about this bill were familiar with it.

zoeller-brian-mug1.jpgZoeller

However, Brian Zoeller, partner at Cohen & Malad LLP, knows HEA 1183 well and sees it as allowing troubled families to ask for help without worrying about DCS intervention. From his own experience growing up in a poor household headed by a single mother who worked low-paying waitressing jobs, he knows families can get into crisis caused by a job loss or an eviction and may just need a short-term solution.

Few state resources

Supporters of HEA 1183 promote the measure as allowing people in the community to help their neighbors and save the state money. At the end of May 2016, DCS had 15,093 children in some type of out-of-home placement. Each child in a licensed foster home comes with a per diem ranging from $20.47 to $69.30 plus one-time allowances for clothing and travel.

Safe Families estimates it spends $150 per child. The fiscal impact statement prepared by the Legislative Services Agency found HEA 1183 would require no state or local expenditures.

Safe Families in Indiana is a small organization of 10 employees, mostly social workers. It relies heavily on volunteers who serve as host families and also monitor and coach the host families. Volunteers also work with the biological parents to connect them with other community resources to help them get back on their feet.

Seeds emphasized the nonprofit has an extensive process for screening host families and doing background checks. The reliance on volunteers does not concern Seeds even while she noted the nonprofit has grown from helping 23 families in its first year to helping 800 in 2015.

Zoeller acknowledged state oversight of the program would be good, but he said the trade-off could be putting impediments in place that hinder the work the nonprofit is trying to do. Government involvement could just create more red tape and bureaucracy, he said, while conceding he did not know much about the organization’s process for vetting volunteers.

As for getting DCS to provide oversight, Zoeller was doubtful.

“They can’t even handle what they have on their plate now,” he said. “They are so woefully understaffed and the caseload is so overwhelming.”

Limiting foster family involvement

HEA 1183 sets a few parameters on the Safe Families program. Namely, it provides for the host family to gain power of attorney over the Safe Families children but limits the term to no more than 12 months. A caveat allows for the power of attorney agreement to be extended for military parents on active duty so their children will be cared for during the entire period of deployment plus 30 days.

When presenting his bill to the Senate Committee on Family and Children Services, Frizzell also testified the biological parents retain their rights and can revoke the power of attorney at any point.

Host families operating under a power of attorney agreement will not be required to meet any of the laws, rules or regulations that are placed on foster family homes. However, Frizzell said the provision does not prevent DCS from investigating any allegations against a host family.

The state agency did successfully get the bill amended before it reached the House floor. The original bill prohibited foster families from providing overnight care to a Safe Families child but the amended version modified that prohibition. Although exceptions can be made, foster families cannot provide “regular and continuous care” to children from the Safe Families program while they are caring for foster children.

DCS legislative director Parvonay Stover told House committee members this provision will enable the state to continue to keep tabs on who is in the foster family’s home and ensure the foster child is safe. Foster families who violate this provision could lose their license.

Testifying before House and Senate committees, Beth Kinney, assistant director of Safe Families, credited the program with helping nearly 3,000 children. She said the law would enable the nonprofit to “better partner with DCS to keep kids out of the state child welfare system.”

According to Brown, Safe Families worked with DCS on the language in HEA 1183 which helped get the measure through the Legislature. In fact, Brown said the support for the bill was so strong he did not need to come to Indiana and lobby the Statehouse.•

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