According to this story from The Roanoke Times, Virginia has just voted to become one of the more than twenty states to hire a children’s ombudsman as part of their child welfare department. What is an ombudsman, and why does it matter?
The National Conference of State Legislatures describes the role of a children’s ombudsman like this:
“an independent, impartial public official with authority and responsibility to receive, investigate or informally address complaints about government actions, and, when appropriate, make findings and recommendations, and publish reports[iii]”National Conference of State Legislatures Web Site
An ombudman is a confidential mediator—a neutral go-between and advocate—who has the authority to influence systemic change. Within the system of child welfare, an ombudsman is someone (or an office of someones) parents, foster parents, case managers, social workers, teachers, principals, and even foster youth can go to for help resolving disputes or escalating concerns, with a strong emphasis on addressing systemic concerns.
It is not uncommon for foster families to have problems with their local social service offices, but have no place to go with those complaints. It is no secret that social services offices can be a bureaucratic nightmare, and while the system is filled with hard-working, well-intentioned individuals, the bottom line is that most of those individuals are working against incredible odds, with impossible case loads and constantly moving parts. Because of this, complaints can often be passed around or fall through the cracks without being addressed.
Moreover, while this has never been my experience, and I have worked with incredible case managers who took my concerns seriously and showed incredible support for the children in our care, I have spoken with other foster parents who have not had the same experiences I’ve had. These foster parents have feared retaliation if they complained about how their foster child’s case was being handled. The ombudsman office is meant to offer a place where foster parents can bring their complaints without fear of how it might affect their license or placements.
If you are a foster parent and have a concern about the way your foster child’s case is being managed, start by exploring whether your state has an ombudsman. If it does, get in touch. This web site lists all current state ombudsman offices along with their contact information (you have to scroll to the bottom).
And if your state does not have a children’s ombudsman, write to your state legislators and encourage them to create an office as part of their department of child welfare. It is vital that the systems put in place to manage the well being of vulnerable children have the necessary checks and balances and accountability in place to ensure that no child’s well-being falls through the cracks.