Opinion: The All-Too-Common Tragedy of Foster Care

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The New York Times | December 18, 2021
By: Jane Coaston

In 2006, 3-year-old Marcus Fiesel was murdered by his foster parents near Cincinnati.
They left him in a second-floor closet in August wrapped in tape and a blanket in a
playpen with no food or water while they went out of town to a family reunion, dog in
tow. When they returned home, they took his body to an abandoned chimney, doused it
in gasoline and burned it, throwing most of the remains into the Ohio River. Days later,
his foster mother called the police, claiming that Marcus had gone missing after a visit
to a local park.

I was back home in Cincinnati that summer when Marcus disappeared. Every news
station and every newspaper was locked on the case, with hundreds of people searching
the park where his foster mother told the police she had last seen him. Everyone wanted
to find Marcus, a little boy whose neighbor said loved flowers. He had been placed into
the foster care system because his mother, already enduring domestic abuse at the
hands of a boyfriend, wasn’t able to care for him.

The same year Marcus was murdered, my mother was named Volunteer of the Year at
ProKids in Cincinnati, where she served as a volunteer court-appointed special
advocate, known by the acronym CASA. Developed by a Seattle judge in 1976, the
program is based on CASA volunteers who are designated by a judge to represent in
court the interests and needs of a child who has experienced abuse or neglect. They
interview families, write reports, work with foster parents and group homes, and stand
in court, making sure that the child at the center of every child-welfare legal proceeding
is heard throughout the case.

All CASAs go through an extensive training program, including court observation and
classroom instruction, and they receive ongoing training throughout the year. They visit
with the child and get to understand what the child needs — not what their biological
parents want, not what the courts want, not what their foster parents might want, but
what’s truly in the child’s best interest. Sometimes that means going to a child’s band
concert. Sometimes it could look like advocating for a child who has witnessed severe
domestic abuse at home and tells his CASA: “You know what’s in my best interest?
Being adopted by another family.”

There are roughly 400,000 children in foster care in America. In my home state of
Ohio, nearly 16,000 children live in foster homes or other group-home settings. The
median age of a child in foster care is 7, and they have often suffered abuse the likes of
which I shudder to imagine. Most children, like Marcus, enter the child-welfare
system because of neglect — adversity beyond the challenges of growing up in poverty.

When Marcus was removed from his biological mother’s custody along with his siblings,
it was after he was found with a large bruise in a home infested with fleas, after he fell
off a roof, after he was almost hit by a car while wandering outside.

But according to Ohio child-welfare officials, the private foster agency assigned to find
him a placement didn’t adequately check the foster parents’ backgrounds and
didn’t require the typically necessary training expected of foster parents. The foster
agency also failed to follow up during visits to check on Marcus. On one such attempted
visit in the summer of 2006, the caseworker was told that Marcus was sick and,
amazingly, did not push to see Marcus anyway. By that time, Marcus was already dead.
The foster agency, Lifeway for Youth, lost its license to operate in Ohio in 2008 but still
operates in other states under the name Benchmark Family Services.

The job of a CASA is to ask questions: To talk to teachers, social workers, parents and,
most important, the children themselves. They ask what would make them feel safe and
secure. Would a different foster placement get them closer to support systems that
would help them reach their goals? Is the goal to reunify with a parent who might be
working to get sober? If they’re close to aging out of the foster care system, do they have
what they need to find a place to live?

What a child’s goals or wants look like might not look like what the state wants, or what
parents want, and a CASA’s job is to prioritize the child above everything else.

There are just over 90,000 CASA volunteers managing cases around the country. In
2020, they served 242,236 children, working out of 950 member state and local
organizations. But with nearly half a million children in foster care and thousands more
entering the child welfare system every year, CASA volunteers are often juggling
multiple cases at once. But they do it every day, even over Zoom. They do it for Marcus
and for Noah and for the approximately 1,800 other children who die on average every
year as a result of abuse and neglect. Because they can stop it from happening to another

And you can do it, too, either by volunteering as a CASA yourself, or by supporting
either CASA or your local CASA organization.

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