One story all over the news lately is the New York foster parent accused of using the system to force young women into prostitution. From news reports, it’s hard to know exactly how the foster care system missed the signs here, but there are some lessons that youth-serving organizations can learn about screening.
Sharice Mitchell, the accused foster parent, told caseworkers that she did not live with her husband, Kareem Mitchell, who is a registered sex offender. According to other news reports, Kareem Mitchell was required to register after a previous conviction for transporting a minor to engage in prostitution. Apparently, Ms. Mitchell lied and her husband continued his previous activities with new people. Two of the alleged eight victims were foster placements of young adults, since New York allows them to remain in foster care until age 21.
I’m sympathetic to how easy it is to see connections in hindsight that are not obvious at the time. However, it would seem that someone knew that Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell had not separated, and that the caseworker doing the investigation simply did not find those people. Checking personal references is an essential part of screening employees. It is not enough to simply check a person’s criminal background; there is a lot of information that simply does not show up there.
This incident also illustrates the need to listen to the children in our care. Certainly the young women placed in the Mitchell home knew what was happening. It’s not clear from news reports when and how authorities learned about the problems. Perhaps one of the young women told a caseworker or other adult. Or perhaps, like far too many children in the foster system, none of the victims trusted anyone enough to seek help. It is extremely important, and unfortunately extremely hard, to build trust with the clients in your care.
The one thing we don’t need to do is the common easy fix of requiring case workers to make more visits to foster placements. That rule sounds good, and certainly if caseworkers had time it wouldn’t hurt. But it is not hard for foster parents to conceal bad things for short periods of time, and in this case it would have been easy enough for Mr. Mitchell to spend most of his time elsewhere. Having eyes on a foster family is important, but it is no substitute for other, more certain sources of information. Getting references from people who know the family, building trust with the client, and keeping open channels of communication all will help far more to keep children safe.