Erie County relies on the word of foster parent applicants that they have no criminal records, but some legislators said this week that the county should check records to protect the more than 2,000 children in foster care.
Legislators suggested that the county Social Services Department's present reliance on applicants' voluntary disclosure cannot guarantee the safety of children removed from their own families.
Marion Schmidt, who supervises the foster home process, said welfare workers check in more detail than regulations require.
"We have no authority to pursue records of criminal convictions," she said.
Erie County has 850 certified foster homes, including 249 belonging to relatives of the children in care and 200 affiliated with private agencies. A home can have as many as six foster children, with parents paid about $600 a month for each child.
Legislators began questioning foster-parent screening procedures after a West Seneca man was accused of regularly sodomizing a 14-year-old foster son.
Legislator James C. DeMarco III, D-Tonawanda, said children removed from their families for their own protection must be carefully protected.
"You don't want to move these young kids from the fire to the frying pan," said DeMarco. "Some of the foster families I've heard about cast a bad mark on all the good ones."
A grandmother whose family lost a natural child to foster care and eventual adoption by the foster family claimed to legislators recently that Social Services is stricter in checking up on natural families than foster parents.
"They are stripping families from being able to see the children," said Eula M. Naylor.
Several Legislators, while not challenging what welfare requires of relatives, question the adequacy of the checks on foster parents.
When Ms. Naylor called for drug screening of applicants, Minority Leader Frederick Marshall, R-East Aurora, backed her up.
"It's a good suggestion to have drug tests and criminal-record checks when a child is in a foster home," said Marshall. "If the state law says we can, let's not let it down here."
After his arrest on the abuse charges, the West Seneca foster father disclosed that he was arrested for marijuana possession the year before the foster child moved in.
Ms. Schmidt said that an applying foster parent signs an affidavit that is supposed to show all criminal convictions. The system is based on word of honor.
"We have no way of verifying whether it is accurate," she said. "If they admit a conviction, we require them to get a record of it."
She said the county does check the state child abuse registry.
Some legislators said that conviction records are easily available to law enforcement officers and court officials and should be checked before any child is placed.
"A criminal matter is public record unless a person is under age, and a criminal check should be mandatory," said DeMarco. "It is required for gun permits. Certainly the state should extend it to something as important as certifying a foster home."
Ms. Schmidt said the applicant produces copies of legal records, including wage statments, birth certificates and divorce decrees. He or she submits a personal reference and a family reference.
After that, the child's caseworker visits every three months and recertifies annually.
The department does certify some single foster parents, mostly women, Social Services Commissioner Deborah Merrifield said.
Legislator George Holt, D-Buffalo, heads the Social Services Committee and asked the department to propose reforms of its foster-care procedures.
"You must take more protective approaches," he said. "You must bring them to the Legislature. It's got to start taking place."