Ohio bill designed to prevent tragedies with foster children

December 7th, 2006    Author: Rodney Beckwith    Filed Under: News

While an Ohio Senate bill passed earlier this year failed to stop the death of foster child Marcus Fiesel, measures within it are hoped to prevent further incidents involving the harm of foster children, and new discussions prompted from Fiesel’s death are hoped to close any gaps left by the current legislation.

“When senate bill 238 was initially introduced, it was primarily a technical bill that dealt with the state automated child welfare information system called ‘SACWIS,’” said Ohio State Senator Tom Niehaus. “The important thing about that legislation is it improves communication between the various agencies involved with adoption and foster care.”

According to Niehaus, senate bill 238 was conceived long before Fiesel’s death, but was actually enacted after his death. To this day, it is unknown just how the bill would have changed the outcome.

“This was passed earlier this year, I believe in May, and went into effect in September,” said Niehaus. “This was worked on long before Marcus Fiesel’s death. It’s still unclear if the provisions in 238 would have prevented that, but the improved communications certainly would have helped.”

According to Niehaus, the bill will, among other things, create a much quicker way for foster agencies and family services to keep tabs on foster children and foster parents. While the old system resulted in long waits for information, the new system would provide a web-based and nearly instantaneous way to keep tabs on incidents involving foster parents or children.

"The SACWIS system is now being tested as an internet-based system, which would make it much easier for jobs and family services to check on people, to check to see if there have been any violations reported or issues raised," said Niehaus. "Where before they would have had to wait days or weeks for information, it can now be at their fingertips."

Other notable portions of the bill include safeguards that kick in, such as when an already large family chooses to adopt or foster another child.

"Communication is the key," said Niehaus. "Before this, there was very little sharing of information. Another thing that legislation does that would have been a factor in the Marcus Fiesel case requires some extra steps, called a large family protocol. Basically, it says that if you are going to adopt a child into a family where it will be the fifth child or more in the family, there are extra precautions taken to review the circumstances to make sure the family is capable and the adults are capable of handling that size of a family. That would have applied in the Marcus Fiesel situation."

While bill 238 may have had no initial connection to the Fiesel case, it was inspired by another incident involving cruelty to foster children.

"We started working on 238 in the fall of 2005," said Niehaus. "Then, about a year ago, there was a case about a year ago in Huron County where special needs children were being kept in what some people called cages. They were removed from the foster home. That situation was investigated, and we determined to have two bills, one to deal with technical issues (238) and a second to deal with the recommendations that came from the study. That was bill 287. Through the legislative process, we merged 287 with 238."

Recently, the Clermont County Office of Job and Family Services issued a statement regarding a state review of their conduct in the Fiesel case, which noted a few minor areas in which the local agency was negligent in the case. However, the state report failed to issue any official reprimand or call for changes. A press release from the local agency responded the to the concerns listed by the state report, and indicated that some deficiencies regarding training and incorrect references on the part of Fiesel's caregivers were later rectified. Furthermore, the agency outlined some local changes made to help stop incidents like the Fiesel case from occurring again.

For instance, the agency plans to start processing FBI background checks on anyone age 18 or older in a foster care home, home inspections have been increased from two to four, including three surprise inspections, quarterly court record checks are now in place for foster care providers, and increased background checks for adults in foster homes and a new information sharing process is also in place.

A new bill could be created in the near future to address specific issues created in the Fiesel death. Senate bill 287 involved meetings of interested parties such as adoption agencies and juvenile courts to help in the planning process. A similar setup is being created now.

"As a result of the Marcus Fiesel situation, we are having a meeting this week to go through the same process as bill 287," said Niehaus. "We'll have those interested party meetings, and that will help us to know if something needs to be done immediately and will begin the process of creating legislation to deal with some long term recommendations."
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