The death of a two-year-old girl, Avalena Conway Coxon, while in her foster home in Auburn, Massachusetts has once again put the spotlight on the struggling foster care system. The cause of the child’s death is currently unknown, but we do know that on Saturday, August 15, her foster mother, Kimberly Malpass, reported that Avalena and another foster child, 22-months-old, were unresponsive. Avalena died in the hospital and the 22-month-old remains in critical condition.

On Monday, it was reported that since 2008, there have been more than 2 dozen calls to 911 made from the home where Avalena died, including calls for assaults, threats, breaking and entering, a domestic disturbance and a medical emergency. However, only a few of those calls happened after 2014, when Malpass was licensed by the state to be a foster parent. Neighbors have said that Malpass seemed like a good mother to the children.

While it still remains unknown whether Malpass’s actions or inactions contributed to Avalena’s death, the child’s birth parents have voiced their anger at Malpass and at the foster care system. The birth parents are accusing Malpass of being unfit and demanding answers from the state as to how their daughter was placed with Malpass. Again, we don’t know if Malpass did anything wrong, however, it is helpful to know how the system works to understand how Avalena was placed in Malpass’s custody.

When a child is no longer able to stay in their home because of abuse and/or neglect, or unsafe and/or dangerous conditions, they are placed with a foster family if the Department of Children and Families (DCF) cannot find anyone else in the child’s family or extended family who can take the child. The goal is for the child to be placed with a foster family only temporarily and ultimately end up returning to their families. On average, a child is in foster care between 3 and 18 months.

In Avalena’s situation, her birth mother, Jessica Conway, was struggling with addiction and was incarcerated, making her unable to care for Avalena. Conway was released from jail on August 9, less than a week before her daughter’s death. Similarly, the birth father, Ronald Green, Jr. was unable to care for Avalena because of addiction and incarceration issues. Without any family or extended family suitable to care for Avalena stepping up to the plate in the absence of her birth parents, Avalena was placed in foster care.

The criteria for being a foster parent include the following:

  • You must be at least 18 years old;
  • Your marital status does not matter;
  • You can rent or own your home. It just needs to be big enough to provide adequate space, privacy and safety for anyone living there, as well as comply with any other state regulations;
  • Your family must have a stable source of income to be able to support the household members;
  • You can be a stay-at-home parent or work;
  • Your home has to meet certain safety requirements and standards;
  • Anyone over the age of 14 living in your home must pass a background check;
  • You must complete 10 hours of training (and to maintain your license you have to complete 10 hours of training every year);
  • A social worker must visit your home, meet all the household members, and check your references. The social worker will create a report on your family’s strengths and weaknesses;
  • A DCF supervisor must approve of you after reviewing the social worker’s report.

Once someone becomes a foster parent, the state gives them a stipend to help cover the expenses for each foster child placed in their home. For a majority of the families, the stipend is somewhere between $20 to $25 per day per child, with an additional $185 to $282 every quarter for clothes and an annual $150 to pay for birthday and holiday expenses. Approximately 25% of foster parents receive around $50 per day because they are caring for a child who qualifies for intensive foster care services. Another 15% of foster parents receive the basic daily rates plus an additional $7.50 per hour up to 40 hours per week to care for a child who has a higher level of needs. All of a child’s medical and dental costs are paid for by the state. We do not know the stipend amount that Malpass received for caring for Avalena.

A social worker is assigned to the child and is supposed to monitor the child’s well-being. In this case, Malpass and her children were being monitored by 10 DCF supervisors, managers and frontline case workers. The question is if there were that many social workers involved, how could this happen?

There is no question that the foster care system needs help. Some may complain that the criteria for being a foster parent is too lenient, but the reality is that there are around 8,000 foster children in Massachusetts and not enough foster homes. The children need to go somewhere and DCF does not have the budget to enlist the manpower it needs to oversee the system. It is easy to criticize an organization when something tragic like this happens, but unless the criticism induces change, it does not do much good.