CINCINNATI – Every time a foster child dies from abuse or neglect, many good foster parents drop out of the system, Moira Weir says.
With the number of foster kids soaring, there's a critical need for foster parents in Hamilton County and a crisis state-wide, the I-TEAM has discovered.
The murder of 3-year-old Marcus Fiesel by his foster parents 10 years ago led to new laws and other changes designed to keep children safe. Nevertheless, nine children in foster care in Ohio have died from abuse or neglect since Marcus in 2006, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
"Unfortunately it began to give foster parents a negative image in the public and so we had many, many awesome foster parents saying, 'I don't want to do this. I can't do this,'" said Weir, director of Hamilton County JFS.
In Hamilton County alone, there are nearly 250 more kids in the system than a year ago.
"Forty percent of our children are being placed outside of our county," Weir said.
Weir said her office made big changes after Marcus was killed. Butler County Children's Service had removed him from his mother's home in Middletown due to abuse and neglect. A private agency placed him with Liz and David Carroll in Clermont County, who killed him.
"We started doing instant checks on any foster parent, any caregiver, anybody that was in the home so we knew who was in the home. And we do those daily," Weir said.
The state also stepped up training for caseworkers. But it hasn't stopped all the suffering, she noted.
"We can change as much as we want. When kids continue to suffer and die, our changes are just not enough," Weir said.
Weir believes the community is key to stopping the cycle of forgotten foster kids.
"We need people to rally around foster parents and thank them for the job that they're doing. If you don't want to be a foster parent, be an alternative caregiver."
How to become a foster parent in Ohio:
> Butler County: http://www.hopes-closet.net/
Holly Schlaack agrees. She was a social worker in Hamilton County when Marcus was killed.
She recalls a conversation with one of the children assigned to her, a 5-year-old named Joey.
"'Do you know about the little boy who died in the closet?'" he asked her. "My mom told me about him. She said if I told anyone her boyfriend was living here, then I would have to go to foster care. They would tape me up, lock me in the closet, and kill me."
That proved to be a life-changing moment for Schlaack.
"In that moment it was almost just like this breakthrough of, for me, this can't be what comes of Marcus's story."
Schlaack left her job on the front lines of foster care to start a non-profit called the Invisible Kids Project and give Marcus's life some meaning. Now, she trains other social workers.
"If I can help them understand how to work a case, and then they help a child, that's a child that I got to influence without ever touching them," Schlaack said.