Post-Gazette, June 11, 1998

Foster father's criminal past revealed
5-year-old girl placed with man once convicted of incest returns to court after spanking

A 5-year-old girl who was placed in foster care with a man who had served time for incest but had lied to placement agencies about his criminal record was back in juvenile court yesterday.

This time, it was because she told a doctor that the man's wife -- her foster mother -- was spanking her with a wooden paddle.

But the child's attorney urged the judge to leave the girl with the couple, a foster father who pleaded guilty in 1960 to sodomy and incest after impregnating his 13-year-old daughter, and a foster mother accused of violating state regulations forbidding physical discipline.

Judith Patterson, an attorney with Legal Aid for Children, told Common Pleas Judge Max Baer that the child wanted to stay where she has lived since August. "She feels safe," Patterson said.

After learning that Legal Aid for Children had for the second time changed its position in this case, Child and Youth Services attorney Barbara Hanley asked Baer to postpone the hearing until a regularly scheduled review in July.

The child, whose mother is dead and whose father cannot care for her, was placed in the home after the foster parents said they had no criminal record, and a routine check failed to uncover one. CYS found the foster father's criminal history when the agency conducted a background check because the foster parents sought to adopt the child. The CYS check is more sophisticated and covers more sources of criminal information.

Although CYS officials said three years ago that the more complete CYS background check would be used to screen all potential foster parents, it didn't follow through. CYS used it only to check potential adoptive parents and foster parents it recruited, not foster parents hired by private agencies under contract with CYS. The foster parents in this case came through a private agency.

Allegheny County Human Services Director Marc Cherna said until the case of the 5-year-old, he didn't know that three-quarters of all foster parents were escaping the more complete checks. CYS checks will be done on all potential foster parents beginning July 1, according to Cherna.

When CYS discovered the foster father's record in November, it asked Common Pleas Judge Patrick McFalls to move the child. James Robertson of Legal Aid, then the girl's attorney, asked the judge to keep her in the home.

Although Robertson admitted he never spoke to the child, he told McFalls she had bonded with the foster mother, that he felt she didn't want to be moved and that the court could order the county to pay the foster family even though the state and federal governments would never provide reimbursements for a foster father who had pleaded guilty to incest.

Similarly, Three Rivers Adoption Council, which CYS contracted to monitor the foster home, told McFalls, and a second judge at the next hearing in January, that the 5-year-old should remain in the foster home.

McFalls said the child could stay while a psychological evaluation was done on the foster father.

At the next hearing, on Jan. 14 and before Baer, the child's Legal Aid attorney switched positions and said she should be moved. Attorney Patterson said: "I think there are probably other opportunities for a 5-year-old that perhaps would be in her best interest, rather than a questionable placement."

Baer ordered the child to remain in the foster home. CYS appealed that decision to Superior Court, where a decision is pending.

At yesterday's brief hearing, CYS attorney Hanley told Baer she wanted additional evaluations done on the foster father. She also argued that the child should be moved based on new information, including the improper spanking.

Baer scheduled the hearing about Hanley's request for July 13. No other details about the spanking were given in court yesterday.

In her appeal of Baer's January decision to keep the child in the home of the felon, Hanley wrote that state law required CYS to keep such children safe and that the judge's decision had put the agency in a position where it couldn't ensure that in this case.

Baer ordered CYS yesterday to provide the family with services in the home, which would help make sure the child is safe.

In addition, Hanley wrote to Superior Court, the judge's decision rewards the foster father -- at a rate of $15 a day in foster payments -- for his initial lie about his criminal history. The child never would have been placed with him had he been honest, because both state and federal laws prohibit agencies from hiring incest perpetrators to care for children.

Judge Max Baer allowed the Post-Gazette into this normally closed hearing on the condition that the child's name not be used.

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