Updated: Jun 27
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Across the nation, foster parents are twice as likely to be the subject of a child maltreatment case.
And it's no wonder.
The foster care system is riddled with cracks and holes where children end up in unsafe homes or new foster parents cope with children who need resources far out of their scope.
"You're supposed to receive a comprehensive exam but sometimes issues can be missed or not seen just yet," explained Marí Gomez, a Florida-based mom who spends her time raising awareness online. "Kids often travel with incomplete medical histories as well. So, if the child doesn't know, can't speak or the doctor can't find it on that screening, it essentially 'doesn't exist.'"
Until that child is fostered.
Sometimes, the new parents are more diligent about health care and specialists are able to detect problems that went unnoticed. Instead of being able to get the care they need, they're often blamed for the issue.
"This system is failing," acknowledged Mary Zemler Wu, Co-Founder & Executive Director of Foster America. "For families—especially low-income families and families of color—becoming involved with the child welfare system is both traumatic and distressingly common."
Finding ways to get children out of unsafe situations is critical and has allowed adults across industries in health, education and public spaces the right to become mandatory reporters. This has saved countless lives, helping to advocate for youth who may have been unable to do so for themselves. Educators/teachers, medical professionals, child care providers and law enforcement officers are some of the people who can and must immediately report abuse.
However, for families who are truly just trying to help their newly fostered child, and given few resources to begin with facing abuse abuse allegations can become overwhelming.
"It highlights a major problem with how doctors can have such control but too late in the process," explained Gomez. "I had my children taken for a bit and moms already face stigma over bottle feeding or breastfeeding. Imagine seeking help because someone thinks you're abusive. So, we want children who are in unsafe situations to be able to get out, that's not the problem. The problem is when we remove them from safe situations and put them in unsafe ones."
Tanya Ilic and her husband, Novica, a Cleveland, Tenn. couple, already had two biological daughters when they decided to expand their family. They knew they wanted to foster and soon found three girls– sisters. They ranged in ages, 14, 8 and 15-months-old and were leaving their home because their parents were incarcerated for physical and sexual abuse by their mother and step-father respectively.
The family quickly learned that the girls had more mental health and physical health needs than originally planned for, so Tanya immediately began setting up doctor, dental and vision appointments to catch the girls up on physical exams, vaccinations, and any necessary prescriptions.
"I was particularly worried because the youngest had a lot of head [swelling] that bulged on one side and was missing major milestones," she explained, saying that the 15-month-old struggled to grasp items, sit up and often "zoned out." "She fell a lot too, so we were worried about her movement skills."
But she was determined to work with the infant, moving at her pace, setting up appointments with a cranial specialist, neurologist, and other specialists as needed. There was some growth, but Tanya continued to see what she called an overall "shakiness" and, still, the now-toddler continued to struggle with walking and speaking.
"I remember on Memorial Day of 2019, when the toddler was 20 months old, she woke up appearing much weaker than usual. She had trouble standing up for a shower that day, even more difficulty than usual eating, tipped over several times while sitting, and stumbled while walking."
The plan was to go to the mall that day and let her rest in the stroller while the family hung out. However, as they were getting ready to go, the infant, waiting for her clothing, fell back and began having a seizure. The paramedic that soon arrived at the scene immediately assumed this was not an accident and instantly, all the other children were taken away as Tanya and Novica were accused of abuse.
There are other medical causes, such as a SLF, same level fall, to explain what happened that morning, explained Dr. Joseph Scheller, a Baltimore-based pediatric neurologist. He's worked on other major cases throughout the nation for parents wrongfully accused of abuse. Because of current laws, when foster children are removed due to an unsafe environment, often all of the kids (including biological) are taken as well.
Currently, Tanya is facing more than 16 years in prison for a crime that she never committed due to being found guilty of felony child abuse. In such cases, parents are not innocent until proven guilty, but rather are found trying to prove their innocence. Meanwhile, her husband and daughters are devastated by the unfair process.
"Despite having a nationally renowned pediatric neurologist from the documentary 'The Syndrome,' Dr. Scheller, testify that the initial injury the child sustained occurred several months ago, Tanya was convicted. Despite it being proven in court that the baby had had 'issues' that went undiagnosed before being placed in Tanya’s custody, Tanya was convicted," said her sister, Tamara. She continued, “The system failed Tanya. The final decision was based on the baby’s little to no medical history that was actually withheld from Tanya. I wish the baby had a more thorough screening before placement that included a scan of the baby’s macrocephalic head to find out what was wrong and to help her on time. I wish Tanya was given training on how to handle a medically fragile foster child put under her care.”
Both Tamara, their mother and Novica have been working to exonerate her, but say the appeal process takes years and tens of thousands of dollars while Tanya sits in jail, innocent, having done everything in her power to help the baby.
Possible Law Changes
In Texas, mom Lorina Troy faced a similar problem. Her youngest son had a form of hydrocephalus that presented continuous head swelling. She lost both of her sons when her husband was accused of abuse and spent months fighting to reunite her family. She has since been able to get a critical legislation change allowing parents the right to get a second diagnosis before having their children immediately taken.
Now, she's working with families like Tanya's to change the law across the nation and gaining support of major legislators along the way to eventually propose a federal law.
"As it stands, in a lot of places, all it takes is one doctor to make an accusation of abuse and this can be enough to lead innocent people to be convicted of felonies," said Tamara. "We need to raise the threshold because parents accused of abuse should be entitled to a second opinion at a minimum. Policy change should not stop at a second opinion, though, we need more."
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