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Fingerprint Mom and Dad

July 1, 2010 permalink

Parents in Cleveland Ohio who want to get their children back from CPS will have to be fingerprinted.



Cuyahoga child-welfare agency to fingerprint parents

Harlan Spector, The Plain Dealer

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The Cuyahoga County child-welfare agency for the first time is expanding criminal background checks to biological parents, a move that has raised concerns that the agency is overstepping its bounds.

Director Deborah Forkas has ordered caseworkers to fingerprint parents and all other adults living in a household after the county takes temporary custody of children, and also as a condition for reuniting families. The new rule follows a string of cases that raised questions about whether the county is doing enough to protect children from abuse and neglect.

In some circumstances, the policy requires parents to be fingerprinted even when allegations about their ability to take care of their kids are not severe enough for the county to take custody. An official at the Department of Children and Family Services says the rule is designed to make children safer.

But the Child Welfare League of America, a national advocacy group, said child-protection agencies should not be checking parents' background because it has no bearing on a person's ability or rights to be parents.

"If you do get a criminal background, what are you going to find that's going to say that person can't be a parent?" said Terri Braxton of the child welfare league. "It can be abused and used in many different ways. It could be incredibly subjective."

County officials would not say whether any specific cases inspired the rule, but the department had been criticized recently for recommending custody of an infant to a convicted cocaine trafficker with a long criminal history. Several weeks later, Stephon Davis was charged with killing Angel Bradley Crockett, 28, and dumping her body on Interstate 90.

The department posted the new rules on its website earlier this month. But last week, the agency took down the policy, which was outlined in a June 4 memo from Forkas, after The Plain Dealer asked Forkas about it in an email.

Forkas did not respond to several interview requests. Mary Louise Madigan, a county health and human services official, said the policy was removed from the web site so that it can be clarified for social workers.

It's been routine to require background checks and fingerprinting when children are placed with caregivers who are not their parents. Officials said the agency extended the checks to biological parents because it needs better information about parents.

"It's the agency being responsive to needs to make sure safety comes first," said Madigan.

Asked if the decision was based on expert recommendations or modeled on programs elsewhere, officials could not identify any. The Child Welfare League of America was not aware of other jursidictions fingerprinting parents.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio also took issue with the policy.

James Hardiman, legal director of the Ohio ACLU, said the policy disproportionately affects low-income and minority parents, who are subject of most county custody cases.

"We believe the focus should be on social workers, actual home visits and meaningful interactions that would have a chance of making children safer," Hardiman said. "We don't like expanding the policy. We don't know it will accomplish any government objective such as making children safer."

Forkas has promised reforms in the way the department reunites families after children are removed for abuse or neglect. In two such cases earlier this year, one child was scalded to death and two brothers were found starving after the county returned them to their mothers.

The department has scaled back services due to budget cuts, as it faces questions about whether it's doing enough to protect children in high-risk situations. Last year, Forkas started a call screening policy for the 696-KIDS hotline, which led to a sharp decline in investigations. This year through April, half the calls for abuse and neglect had been screened out, according to department data.

Source: The Plain Dealer