On paper, Carey and Tom Paudler seem like ideal foster parents.
He’s a West Point graduate. She’s a volunteer legal advocate for vulnerable children in state custody. They’re raising five children of their own in Greenville.
The Paudlers have the time, space and inclination to welcome foster children into their home, but for one roadblock — a South Carolina law that caps the number of children one family may foster.
The cap varies based on the number of biological or adopted children already living in the home.
Parents with two biological or adopted children, for example, are allowed to foster up to three children in state custody, but no more. And with few exceptions, parents with five biological or adopted children, like the Paudlers, are barred from participating in the foster care system completely.
The rule is intended to set a reasonable limit on the number of children living under one roof and to discourage potential foster parents from taking on additional children for financial gain. But some say the law has become an impediment for large families who want to help, but can’t, in a state struggling to find more foster homes.
“We’ve passed everything,” Carey Paudler said, including the state’s mandatory home study and fire safety assessment. The Paudlers have been deemed eligible to permanently adopt four more children, but the state won’t let them temporarily foster a single one.
“I met family after family who had the same experience,” she said.
The rule may soon change in the Paudlers favor. The Legislature will consider a bill this session that would allow a family to foster up to five children in state custody, no matter how many biological or adopted children already live in the home.
The proposal could serve a dual purpose — to increase the number of eligible foster families and to cut the number of children sent to live in group homes each year.
Rep. Anne Thayer, a Belton Republican who introduced the legislation, said the state needs to recruit more foster families and this revision makes common sense.
“There are so many people out there who have five or more children — of their own children — and they’re not allowed to have foster children,” Thayer said. “I don’t know why we’re discriminating against those parents.”
These large families are often well-equipped and willing to foster children in state custody, she said.
Thayer acknowledged that the existing law is meant to discourage unscrupulous parents from fostering children to collect a paycheck, but she thinks the rule needs some fine-tuning.
“To me, it’s a pretty fast and easy fix,” she said.
Her bill may alleviate another problem, too.
The Post and Courier’s 2015 investigation, titled “Warehousing our Children,” cited a federal report that shows South Carolina sends its youngest foster children — those under 13 years old — into group homes and institutions at a much higher rate than any other state in the country.
Nearly a quarter of the children under 13 years old who entered the foster care system in 2013 were placed in group homes and institutions in South Carolina — by far the highest placement rate for this age group in the United States. By comparison, only 2 percent of the youngest foster children in Tennessee and 3 percent in North Carolina were placed in similar settings. The national average is 4 percent.
The numbers haven’t improved since 2013.
Department of Social Services spokeswoman Karen Wingo reported last week more than 22 percent of all children in the South Carolina foster care system currently live in some sort of group home or institution.
This happens, partly, because too few families are willing or eligible to foster children in South Carolina custody.
Nearly 4,000 children are currently enrolled in state custody, but only 2,334 families are licensed to foster them in this state. Of those families, 205 can’t accept any more children because they’re capped at the law’s maximum.
This forces the social services agency to place children in group homes, simply because caseworkers have nowhere else to send them.
Wingo said Department of Social Services Director Susan Alford was not available to discuss the proposed legislation.
Many child welfare experts find the agency’s practices dangerous.
“Warehousing our Children” revealed that an untold number of children in group homes and institutions are beaten, drugged, sexually abused and neglected inside these facilities. The state spends millions of dollars a year on children’s homes, but the public has no real way to evaluate where boys and girls are kept safe.
Dozens of group homes and institutions are investigated for child abuse and neglect every year by the state’s social services agency, but those reports are protected by state law.
Carey Paudler, who previously worked for foster care systems in other states, said she has been long concerned by the number of small children, even babies, that she sees inside Upstate group homes.
“When we first moved here and settled down here ... I was able to visit several children’s homes and see young children, even as young as the age of 1, living in group care,” Paudler said. “I was surprised.”
National research shows that most children thrive in family settings and should not be placed in group homes. Rep. Thayer conceded that some children, particularly those with complex emotional problems, are better served by therapeutic, group facilities.
In fact, too many children in one foster home can prove equally problematic.
The Post and Courier interviewed a young man last year who said older children sexually abused him inside a foster home because his foster parents weren’t vigilant and too many children were living under one roof.
Still, Thayer said, foster homes are typically preferable to group homes.
“If you have your choice of either/or, I certainly think going into a (family’s) home is going to be better for a child,” she said.
The Legislature may schedule a hearing on Thayer’s bill later this month.
Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.