They are taken from their homes and families.
They’re asked to live with strangers, sometimes with foster siblings who also come from troubled backgrounds, and to trust a system.
The Department of Social Services tries to carefully screen foster parents, visit foster children regularly and take seriously complaints of abuse or neglect.
But some child advocates in South Dakota have pointed to cases of rape or abuse in foster homes as evidence of a failure to protect children.
They say the state’s Department of Social Services has too much discretion as to whether claims of abuse or neglect are valid, whether a child should return to an abusive home or whether a foster home placement is right for a child.
Native American activists often accuse the Department of Social Services of seizing children unnecessarily and placing them with white foster families. A group of families sued social services in federal court last year, alleging children are taken for months, though hearings last less than five minutes and don’t offer parents a chance to respond.
But South Dakota’s secrecy — abuse and neglect hearings are closed to the public — makes it difficult to evaluate the arguments.
The state’s confidentiality laws prevent social services from commenting on specific cases, even when there are criminal charges.
States such as Nebraska, Michigan and Minnesota are more transparent. In Minnesota, for example, the records and reports from abuse and neglect investigations are open for public review.
System’s secrecy barrier to evaluation
Almost 700 families and group homes provide foster care in the state at any time. An Argus Leader records request showed 121 investigated complaints of abuse or neglect in foster homes from 2009 to last year. Of the complaints deemed worthy of follow-up investigations, only eight were substantiated, and licenses were revoked in each case.
It’s far below the thousands of complaints filed for other kinds of family households. But without more information, it’s difficult to gauge the depth of problems in foster care.
Court proceedings involving juveniles are closed to the public,so disputes about the placement of abused or neglected children with parents, relatives or foster providers come to light only after criminal charges are brought or a lawsuit filed.
Even then, the process and the conclusions largely are protected from public view. Disclosing the results of abuse and neglect hearings is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.
Claims of abuse or neglect against foster parents after placement also are confidential.
Some child advocates say recent incidents in Aberdeen highlight a pattern of insufficient investigation and an agency more concerned with covering mistakes than correcting them.
? Fred Slota, a former foster father from Aberdeen, will be sentenced next week for raping a child in his home.
? One-time foster father Richard Mette pleaded guilty to rape in 2012 in a case that involved years of abuse of children whom he and his wife had adopted out of the foster system.
? The guardian of another girl sued the Department of Social Services after being placed in a foster home with a teen boy who had molested other children. The lawsuit, which was settled out of court, claimed the teen molested her on several occasions.
“I believe that there are kids in foster care in Brown County right now who are not safe,” said Shirley Schwab, a former head of the county’s Court-Appointed Special Advocates Program who closed her office after a high-profile falling out with social services.
Problems have surfaced beyond Brown County. Earlier this year, a former Canton city commissioner and longtime foster father, Jeffrey Nolte, was indicted on rape charges related to a child in his care, although the victim was not a foster child.
How foster care investigations work
Complaints against foster parents can come from children, neighbors, teachers, doctors or anyone else involved with a child who suspects abuse or hears the child talk about abuse or neglect, said Virgena Weiseler of the Department of Social Services.
If the department deems the allegations worthy of follow-up investigation, it passes it along to private contractors. The reports can be included in civil abuse and neglect proceedings. But unless there are criminal charges, the public wouldn’t know anything took place. Even substantiated claims of abuse or neglect leave unanswered questions.
In response to an Argus Leader records request, the state offered a spreadsheet with details of each case investigated from fiscal years 2009 through 2013.
The information includes when a report was made, the type of report, the age of the child or children involved, the office through which a foster home is supervised, a ruling of substantiated or unsubstantiated and the date of that decision.
Not cited were the cities in which the investigations took place, the age of the perpetrators and the relationships of alleged perpetrators and victims.
The information also doesn’t indicate who made the report to social services. In cases ruled substantiated, including three of sexual abuse, the agency would not say whether criminal charges were filed or where charges would have been filed.
Openness worksfor Minnesota
In Minnesota, that information would be available. In 2001, the state opened all abuse and neglect hearings and records after a two-year pilot project. The response has been positive, said Judy Nord, a lawyer with that state’s Judicial Branch.
“We still have arguments in Minnesota about whether a child should have been placed in one home or the other. That hasn’t stopped,” she said. “The difference is that now, if something happens, you can go back through and find out what happened throughout the process.”
Before the pilot project, opponents argued that opening records would lead to disclosure of the names of the children and families involved, that people would be less willing to report abuse for fear of the spotlight, and that parents would contest the allegations and press for a trial instead of admitting them in public.
Those concerns were unfounded, Nord said.
“The hearings are open, the records are open, and we haven’t seen any problems,” she said. “We still have people reporting abuse, we still have as many admissions as we did before opening the hearings.”
Now, Nord said, relatives, teachers and others close to a child have started appearing at the hearings to offer help.
Noy Davis, a lawyer for the child advocacy organization First Star who used to represent children in abuse and neglect proceedings, said arguments about openness are heated and common.
“Those of us who’ve worked as advocates or represented children tend to see the way we’re doing things in our jurisdiction as the way things ought to be done,” Davis said.
First Star pushes states to open all child protection records in the event of a child’s death or near-death. South Dakota law has a provision allowing that, Davis said.
The organization hasn’t taken a specific position on opening abuse and neglect hearings or records, but Davis said the discussion is worth having.
“The thinking behind confidentiality, at least in part, is that you don’t want to stigmatize the child or the child’s family,” Davis said. “The downside is that if the system isn’t working at its best, it’s very difficult to determine what the problem is.”
In South Dakota, Weisler said, social services tries to avoid conflicts of interest and protect itself and children. Since 2007, private contractors have investigated allegations of abuse in foster homes.
“It kind of puts the department in a difficult situation, because we are the ones who go out and recruit foster families. We also license foster families. We license group and residential child care services, registered providers and child care centers,” Weiseler said. “So we’re doing the licensing piece and then, when these reports come in, we have to change hats and do the enforcement piece.”
Claims of abuse and neglect in foster homes are far fewer than in other types of homes.
That can be attributed to background screenings, training and regular visits with a case worker. Add on teachers and counselors involved with a foster child, who are mandatory reporters. “Kids are surrounded by a lot of people who have eyes on them,” Weiseler said.
But some child advocates say even pointing out issues can backfire.
Schwab, once the head of Aberdeen’s now-defunct Court Appointed Special Advocates program, and Brandon Taliaferro, a former Brown County state’s attorney, were charged with witness tampering in 2012. They were accused of encouraging rape victims to testify against their adoptive mother.
A judge tossed the case midtrial, but it was enough to scare Schwab into shuttering the county’s CASA program for fear of further retribution, she said. Some of their allies said they won’t work for children in the Aberdeen area now for the same reason.
“When I saw what happened to them merely because they were trying to protect children … I didn’t want that type of treatment,” said Marlys Mardian, a former Brown County volunteer who watched the trial of her former supervisor.
Social services’ motives questioned
The Brown County issues are well documented.
When Slota, 42, was convicted in March of raping a 7-year-old girl who had been placed in his home after physical abuse by her mother, he tried to have his case heard only by a judge. He worried a jury wouldn’t give him a fair trial in Brown County in light of the Mette case.
Richard Mette pleaded guilty in 2012 to first-degree rape of one of the children he and his wife, Wendy, had adopted. Local media interest became national once Schwab and Taliaferro were charged with witness tampering.
The state accused the two of trying to influence the children to testify against Wendy Mette, who was charged with 11 counts of child abuse and neglect from 2005 through 2010. The charges were dropped in 2012, with prosecutor Mike Moore saying evidence had been compromised.
Moore said Schwab and Taliaferro had persuaded the girls to lie, but Judge Gene Kean tossed the case midtrial. The judge remarked that he had done that only twice before in decades on the bench.
As a result, defense lawyer Mike Butler didn’t have an opportunity to present evidence. But in his opening statement, he said the case was about retaliation against two advocates who had challenged social services.
The victim in the rape trial made similar sexual abuse allegations against Richard Mette in 2007, which social services had ruled unsubstantiated. Foster children had alleged physical abuse in the home in 2001, shortly after the couple had been licensed to provide foster care. Even then, Butler said, there were warning signs.
“(In) 2001, the Mettes have to sign a contract to keep their porn away from different kids they had in the home then,” Butler said during opening statements.
Taliaferro and Schwab maintain that social services is more concerned with protecting foster parents and the state from lawsuits than with fully investigating claims.
“DSS could determine in their investigation that the foster child was, in fact, hit by the foster parent yet still find the allegation of physical abuse to be unsubstantiated,” Taliaferro said. “So, a foster child’s allegation of being hit by a foster parent was indeed true, yet the allegation gets filed away as unsubstantiated because DSS deems the ‘hit’ not to be sufficient physical abuse in their wholly subjective opinion. I used to have many disagreements with DSS on this type of issue.”
Taliaferro points to the Mette case as the clearest example of faulty decision-making by social services.
The Mettes kept their foster home license after numerous allegations and troubling discoveries, he said. Schwab was shocked by what her defense team gathered about investigations.
“Just because a case is ruled unsubstantiated doesn’t mean that nothing happened,” Schwab said.
In defenseof the investigators
Moore, the Beadle County prosecutor who handled the criminal cases against both Mettes and later against Schwab and Taliaferro, contends social services is thorough.
The 2007 allegations against the Mettes did not rise to the level of prosecutable offenses. Criminal cases must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The standard for abuse and neglect is a “preponderance of the evidence.”
One bar is lower than the other, but both require more than an allegation.
If the Mette case stood out, Moore said, it was because it involved foster parents.
“In 20 years, it’s the only one I’d seen,” Moore said.
The department immediately contacts law enforcement if criminal charges could be possible, Weiseler said, regardless of whether it involves someone in the home of a biological or a foster parent. Sometimes a foster-care license is suspended during an investigation.
Still, predicting behavior is difficult, Weiseler said.
The department fielded no complaints against Slota or Nolte until the allegations that brought criminal charges.
Tom Wollman, the Lincoln County state’s attorney who has prosecuting the Nolte case, said he everything he saw suggested social services aggressively pursues cases of alleged wrongdoing.
“I am not even remotely concerned that the South Dakota Department of Social Services has done anything to cover up any allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct against foster children,” Wollman said. “To the contrary, I find them to be vigilant investigators of such allegations.”
Notable cases in foster homes
Mette and his wife, Wendy, received a foster care license in the late 1990s. In 2007, one of their adopted children accused Richard of sexual abuse. The Department of Social Services ruled the accusations unsubstantiated, and the Mettes adopted another child. In 2010, allegations surfaced again. Mette was indicted and pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree rape in a deal that put him in prison for 15 years. Wendy Mette was charged with abuse and neglect, but charges were dropped in 2012 over concerns of tainted evidence.
“Doe” was first placed in a group home in 2005 in Sioux Falls over concerns of physical abuse. While there, she said her father sexually abused her. In late 2007, she was transferred to a foster home in Aberdeen, along with a 17-year-old boy with a history of molesting minors. In 2008, according to a lawsuit filed in 2011 by Doe’s guardian, the teen molested her. The lawsuit alleged failure to protect by social services. The department and the Aberdeen agency contracted to place her in a home did not admit wrongdoing, but they paid settlements of $25,000 and $63,000.
Slota and his wife had a foster care contract in 2012, the year a 7-year-old girl and her brother were placed in their home. The girl told investigators Slota had touched her inappropriately, a charge Slota denies. A jury convicted him in late March. He will be sentenced Wednesday in Aberdeen.
JEFFREY LOREN NOLTE:
Nolte and his wife cared for children as foster parents from 2006 through 2012. The former Canton city commissioner and Oldham-Ramona math teacher was accused of multiple instances of rape in his home, involving two victims who were not foster children, early this year. He was indicted in February. His trial is to begin later this year in Canton.
Investigations of abuse and neglect, fiscal years 2009-2013
35 investigations, three substantiated
34 investigations, three substantiated
19 investigations, none substantiated
19 investigations, none substantiated
14 investigations, two substantiated
Investigations of abuse and neglect, fiscal years 2009-2013
3,800 investigations, 853 substantiated
3,669 investigations, 788 substantiated
3,692 investigations, 814 substantiated
3,681 investigations, 777 substantiated
2,650 investigations, 605 substantiated