The U.S. Senate Committee on Finance has completed a report finding that at least 86 children died under the supervision of the nation's largest for-profit foster care network between 2005 and 2014. The report lays bare the alarming lack of oversight and accountability in the privatized foster care system, and it has prompted new legislation that boosts visibility and takes aim at a system that may be prioritizing profits over child welfare.
The Senate investigation began partly in response to a BuzzFeed News article about the Mentor Network. Mentor touts itself as a therapeutic care network for children and adults, but the core of the company is the for-profit foster care system, the largest privatized system of it's kind in the country.
Before companies like Mentor, nonprofit religious organizations handled the bulk of foster care duties outsourced by state and local governments. In 1980, retired Marine E. Byron Hensley began Mentor after running a group home in Boston for at-risk youth. Hensley believed that foster children would flourish in private homes, and that a for-profit model would unburden an organization from the constant chore of fundraising. By 1997, Mentor had expanded to seven states and was paving the way for privatized foster care. In 2006, hedge fund Vestar Capital Partners purchased National Mentor, Inc., then took the company public in 2016 under the name Civitas Solutions, Inc.
Ideally when states outsource foster care to private companies those companies are then entrusted to hire case workers who in turn vette potential foster parents, and after thorough screening and training place children in those homes. In the case of Mentor however many of those safeguards were poorly utilized or disturbingly absent. Case workers appear to have been derelict in conducting background checks of potential foster parents and may have also repeatedly ignored warning signs of the neglect or abuse of children. In one case, after reports of repeated sexual abuse a child was removed, but Mentor continued to send other children to the same home.
After being taken from her parents by the state child welfare agency of Texas in 2012, Alexandria Hill was placed in a Mentor network foster home, but after signs of neglect and physical abuse Alexandria was placed with Sherill Small, another Mentor parent. While Small passed a background check Mentor also approved her husband Clemon who in the past had been addicted to crack, though he claimed to have been sober since 2000. A glowing review from Smalls' daughter Amber Forester weighed in her favor, but Mentor never bothered run a background check on Forester who had been convicted of aggravated kidnapping and robbery in 2002.
Small was approved as a foster parent in September of 2012, but by December all 5 children placed with Small had been removed as "failed placements". An internal Mentor document obtained by Buzzfeed noted comments from the state's Early Childhood Intervention program, “ECI expressed concern about Mrs. Small being very frazzled and not certain what is going on with the children.” Despite the previous issues and a number of warning signs Alexandria Hill was placed with Small in January 2013. Alexandria appeared to be thriving initially, but Small’s sisters Donna Winkler and Diana Baines who spoke with Buzzfeed said she was being treated poorly. While Mentor did conduct home visits they were prearranged. Small staged her home for the inspections and Mentor workers continued to miss red flags.
In July 2013 Small murdered Alexandria. "Small admitted to police that she’d been frustrated with the girl, and described how she’d swung her until her head crashed into the floor in what she said was a tragic accident."
In a 10 year span 86 children died while placed in homes within the Mentor network, of the 86 deaths Mentor conducted internal investigations into only 13 cases. Mentor categorized 26 of the deaths as "expected", likely related to illness, but 62 deaths were characterized as "unexpected."
Despite claiming that their fatality rates were on par with national averages the Senate committee's findings show that “Mentor’s death rate among foster children is 42% higher than the national average.”
One of the reasons Mentor can continue to operate so dysfunctionally is a lack of proper documentation and standardized practices within the system. In it's investigation the Senate committee sent out a 50 state letter asking for individual reports of the states' foster care systems. 17 states never responded. “Some States collect information, perform reviews, and maintain data in paper files that are never entered into an electronic database or that are never synthesized into a single report or review.” Of the 33 states that responded only 9 indicated that proof of abuse would unequivocally result in the revocation of a foster home license, in the other 24 revocation is only one possible outcome.
After the findings of the report committee chairman Orrin Hatch and ranking member Ron Wyden introduced new legislation, the Child Welfare Over-sight and Accountability Act. If passed the bill will require states to disclose any private companies contracted for foster care as well as requiring reports on their performance.