Special Report: State of the Child: Custody for Cash?
It's no secret the State's Foster Care System is broken.
Last year, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said so himself in his "State of the Child" report.
In November, we introduced you to Brittany Ogurkis, who spent years in the system and was remarkably adopted when she was 21-years-old.
After that story aired, many of you began flooding our phones and inboxes with your own stories.
"We have a baby that's passed away in Children and Youth and she has one that was beaten by the foster father,” one person told us.
You haven't stopped since.
"I'm just at my wits end, and I really need help,” pleaded another.
The overwhelming response from you made us wonder if something bigger was going on.
So, we've spent the past seven months researching, interviewing, and documenting.
Before we share more of your stories, we need to go back to the beginning.
Child Law Attorney Frank Cervone says the foster care system in the U-S dates back to the 1800s.
"The child welfare system as we know it in the U-S is public function that was taken over from a variety of private entities like churches and social service organizations. It’s always been the case that the community has stepped up to take care of its kids in need,” Cervone said.
You may be familiar with Judy Fisher.
She helped unravel the Kids for Cash scandal after Judges Mark Chivarrelli and Michael Conahan were charged in connection to putting her niece Amanda Lorah into the system.
Fisher says it's still happening.
Except this time, she's dubbed it:
"Custody for Cash,” Fisher said.
"That's where the children are, same thing, being trafficked through the system,” she clarified.
Fisher believes countless children in Pennsylvania, and maybe even around the country, are being moved through the system for money.
It all started with a phone call while she was at the "Kids for Cash" movie premiere in New York City.
"He told me horrific stories about what's going on in Children and Youth,” she said.
Fisher was exhausted from the events her family went through.
But she was also interested.
So, she started attending support group meetings and was surprised to see hundreds of families meeting at a church in Scranton.
"And they were telling the same story. They were saying their children were taken from them on false accusations and they couldn't get their kids back,” she said.
Before CYS removes kids from a home, they must show parents a signed document and the parents, by law, must turn their kids over.
"Then I found out they were showing up at people's doors with a warrant or a summons, but it was never signed down the right hand bottom of the page by a judge,” Fisher said.
But Cervone says if CYS believes a child is at imminent risk of harm, they are supposed to immediately go to a judge without the families being present or even knowing the children are about to be removed.
”If the judge approves the removal of that child, then they execute an order. Sometimes that order is signed, sometimes it’s executed verbally over the phone. And they bring that document to the local police, and with the police they go to that child’s house,” Cervone added.
But why would the system want to, as Fisher calls it, traffic children?
She believes it all comes down to Title 4-E funding.
Title IV-E funding in regards to foster care is part of The Social Security Act and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
The federal program is distributed at the state level and “provides for federal reimbursement for a portion of the maintenance and administrative costs of foster care for children who meet specified federal eligibility requirements.”
In Pennsylvania, Children and Youth agencies, like the one in Luzerne County, Title IV-E is one of the biggest sources of funding.
”The feds offer about 50 cents on the dollar for every dollar spent for basic child welfare, or foster care services. And for that 50 cents on every dollar spent, they expect certain due process protections in return,” Cervone said.
As part of the funding requirements, CYS must make an effort to keep the child at home.
”These are called reasonable efforts to prevent placement or to promote the return of the child,” Cervone said.
But Fisher says that didn’t always happen.
”No one got a reasonable effort. Nobody. Thousands of people. Telling me, 'what is it? We don't know what it is, we have no paperwork,” she said.
”It’s not a measure of the effort made by the parent, it’s a measure of the effort made by the government to keep that child safe and get that child back home in a safe manner,” Cervone added.
As frequent as each quarter, administrators can submit an invoice to the state asking for reimbursement for expenses used on each child.
And as long as they can prove it with the children’s personal information, the money comes back to them.
"The money comes to that amount of children in the system, which is a large amount. So, the Title IV-E funding has become a business. A way to make a lot of money,” Fisher said.
Fisher has a theory that's similar to the reality of the Kids for Cash scandal, a case that’s close to her heart.
"It's about greed, it's about money, it's about keeping that money coming in. It's become a business instead of what's best for our child,” she added.
But could that really be happening in our foster care system?
According to numbers Children and Youth provided to us, the amount of Title IV-E funding in Luzerne County has consistently gone down since 2009, from $9,525 in 2008-2009, to $6,700 in 2015-2016.
The number of children removed from their homes each year in Luzerne County has also gone down, from 104 children in 2015, to 92 in 2016, and 49 in 2017.
But when you look at the total number of children in foster care in Luzerne County as a whole, the numbers are much higher.
In 2009, 612 children remained in foster care.
By 2016, that number stood at 434 children.
That’s 434 children not in the custody of their biological parents.
”So, when we ask about reasonable effort requirements, and a so-called no reasonable efforts finding, this is really a damning indication placed upon the county worker and county agency that they haven’t done enough to keep that child safe, and they haven’t done enough to support that family,” Cervone added.
As Cervone pointed out, CYS’s ultimate goal is to reunite the children with their parents.
So why are nearly 500 children still part of the system?
We'll look into that as our investigation into PA Children and Youth continues.