Whistle-blowing foster parents fighting possibly race-based removal of child

Norfolk’s practice of letting parents who’ve lost custody of their children request a specific race of foster parents runs counter to federal rules and guidelines on foster care.

Human Services director Stephen Hawks told Norfolk City Council yesterday that “we do have to consider the will of the biological parents as one of the factors in making a decision on the appropriate placement of the child.”

NewsChannel 3 later asked him: “Is it true that a parent can request that a foster child be raised by a family of one race or another?” His answer: “Yes sir, they have a right to request that, and that is one factor. It’s not the only factor, but that is one factor in determining the appropriate placement for a child.”

But federal guidelines say parents do not have that right.

The United States Department of Health’s Administration for Children and Families publishes a “Child Welfare Policy Manual” on foster care. In the Frequently-Asked Questions section, the manual says this:

Question: May public agencies honor the request of birth parents to place their child, who was involuntarily removed, with foster parents of a specific racial, national origin, ethnic and/or cultural group? What if the child was voluntarily removed?
Answer: No, not even if the child is voluntarily removed.

Norfolk Human Services provided dozens of pages of policies and practices from the Virginia Department of Social Services, saying those policies guide their foster-care decisions. But nowhere in those pages was any mention that birth parents could request a specific race of foster parents.

The issue surfaced this week after Ben and Sarah FitzPatrick, a white couple fostering a black baby through Norfolk Human Services, were told social workers would move the child to a different family. Sarah FitzPatrick said social workers told her it would be best for the black child if she were with a black foster family.

To address this growing controversy, Hawks told Norfolk City Council Tuesday night that his workers do not make race-based placement decisions, but they do consider “the will of the biological parents.”

“If the biological parents are affected by that and make that request to us, that would be one of many matters we would consider in making the appropriate placement,” he said.

NewsChannel 3 could find no other local or state policy that allowed birth parents to voice specific racial preferences in foster families.

The policy in Tennessee states: “Any consideration of race must be narrowly tailored and individualized, focusing on the best interests of the child.” There is no mention of the parents’ interests.

In Michigan, an “assessment of race in all placement decisions is not appropriate and must only be made when the individual needs of the child justify consideration.”

And in Oregon, social workers “may consider the race, color or national origin when a particular child presents specific compelling special circumstances (such as an older child’s statement of preference) and consideration of race, color or national origin in his/her placement decision is the only way to achieve the best interest of that child.”

Sarah FitzPatrick said she expects Norfolk social workers to take her foster baby as early as Thursday. She says she and her husband have cared for this baby more than five months without Norfolk raising any racial concerns. The visit this week from a pair of social workers came days after the FitzPatricks were featured in a NewsChannel 3 investigation about foster care in Virginia Beach.

The FitzPatricks were the first foster parents for baby Braxton Taylor. After he was moved to another family, his second foster mother abused him to death. The FitzPatricks faulted Beach social workers for overlooking obvious signs of Braxton’s abuse, and for failing to step in to save the baby. The story led Virginia Beach Human Services Director Robert Morin to apologize and promise a state investigation.

The story also prompted an email from a Norfolk social worker who said she was “concerned” and “anxious” about the FitzPatricks appearance in the story. Days later, Norfolk social workers announced they would likely remove the FitzPatrick’s foster baby. The couple believes this is retaliation for speaking out.

Hawks, the Norfolk director, said he could not comment on the specifics of the FitzPatrick’s case. But he did say that if a black parent feels strongly that a child should not be with white foster parents, that could hurt the eventual goal of reuniting birth parent and child. That, Hawks said, could be a reason for considering a race-based foster request.

Sarah FitzPatrick said Wednesday she is contacting the baby’s court-appointed attorney Robert Smith to see if he will stop the move.

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