State limits foster homes to 6 children

By any parent's standards, Tracy Dossman had a full house.

When 4 1/2-year-old Amariana Crenshaw died in her care in January 2008, the single foster mother had nine children, ages 4 to 19 living in her North Natomas home – plus an assortment of young adults and other kids drifting in and out.

That scenario is about to change in California, where the state is planning to reduce the number of children foster parents can oversee, the result of a process started years ago.

This week, the state Department of Social Services will begin imposing new limits on foster-care capacity that officials hope will improve quality of care – and potentially weed out profiteers.

The revised limits initially will apply to state- or county-licensed foster family homes but eventually will extend to those providers, like Dossman, who are certified by private foster family agencies, according to Lizelda Lopez, the department's spokeswoman.

"Children in foster care deserve every opportunity to thrive," Lopez said. Limiting the number of children, she said, allows each to receive better care.

Under the new rules, the state will take into account all the children living in the same household, whether they are biological or adopted, foster children or those under legal guardianship with relatives. Effective April 3, a licensed foster provider can house a maximum of six children, regardless of the mix.

In the past, providers were allowed six foster children but no limits were set on other children in the home, creating wide leeway for foster parents like Dossman with large families of their own.

At the time Amariana was killed, her body pulled from a burning home, the single mom had six foster children, ages 4, 8, 15, 15, 16 and 17. Dossman also was raising a biological daughter, then 9, a son, 19, and she was the legal guardian for an 18-year-old nephew.

The Bee found that Amariana suffered at least 11 injuries in the home, five of which Dossman blamed on scuffles with other children – including a 1-year-old nephew, state and county records show.

The crowded conditions were noted in state reports.

Over the Christmas holidays in 2007, a month before Amariana's death, Dossman left the older children in charge while she worked. A Sacramento County Child Protective Services supervisor found that the home was in "chaos" because "the younger children didn't know who was in charge," according to documents from the state.

Amariana's burned body was removed from Dossman's vacant rental property around 3:30 a.m. on Jan. 11, 2008, after at least one Molotov cocktail ignited in the living room.

The criminal case remains unsolved, but the state recently ordered that Dossman's certification be revoked. She is appealing.

New limit applauded

The state's move to limit capacity is "a really good step," according to Jill Duerr Berrick, a professor and foster care expert at the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare.

Berrick said many children in foster care have been traumatized in their birth homes or by being removed from their parents. They are much more likely to have health problems, behavioral and emotional issues and learning difficulties.

"That means they need a very high degree of sensitive, very thoughtful care provided, 24-7," she said. "You can't do it if you've got six or nine kids in your household. It's very difficult to pull that off."

The revisions in capacity, part of a broader set of changes statewide in foster care regulations, would bring California more in line with limits posed by other states.

Children's Rights, a New York-based advocacy group that has sued child welfare systems for poor performance, has raised concerns about foster-care overcrowding in lawsuits brought against five states, said associate director Susan Lambiase. In each, the settlement agreements included capacity restrictions that mirror California's plan.

Lambiase and other legal advocates were stunned that Dossman was permitted to raise nine children, with such wide-ranging ages.

"That's just bizarre," said William Grimm, a senior attorney and foster care expert with the Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law.

Dossman's foster family agency, Positive Option Family Service, told The Bee in a written statement in January that the agency "has had a good experience with Ms. Dossman due to her obvious affection for the children and willingness to comply with standards and requirements."

But the agency recently came under its own state scrutiny for having an excessive number of complaints and failing to adequately monitor its homes. The state ordered that any new homes certified by it be held to two foster children, except for sibling groups, for at least six months.

Most providers are private

The state's plan to address foster-home capacity highlights a disparity among types of providers in California.

Today, the overwhelming majority of California's foster providers are certified through private, nonprofit agencies like Positive Option. The Legislature signed off on the arrangement in the 1980s to serve more challenging children, who could benefit from the added support of a fully staffed agency.

The numbers rapidly took off, as more licensed agencies sprang up and providers generally could count on higher per-child payments. California has 13,176 homes certified by private foster family agencies, compared with 3,433 foster family homes directly licensed by the county or state.

At first, the new limits on capacity will not apply to agency-certified homes, though the intent – following public hearings – is to have the same limits for all, Lopez said. The state has made clear that some exceptions may be made for sibling groups, or instances where the state is assured children's needs can be met.

Some certified homes in California already are limiting capacity because they sought special accreditation.

Carroll Schroeder, executive director of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, said accredited homes must agree to limit foster children to three. However, only about 24 percent of California's private foster family agencies are accredited.

None of the three private agencies that placed children with Dossman was accredited, according to alliance records.

Schroeder said his agency applauds the plan to tighten control on foster-home capacity. Some agencies are known to pack homes for financial gain, he said, while individual providers take on more children to collect the higher agency payments.

For example, a foster family agency provider who cares for an older teenager can count on about $711 a month, compared with about $627 for the same child in a state- or county-licensed home.

So-called "foster mills," Schroeder said, remain a harsh reality in California.

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