Toddler's death raises questions about foster parent screening

Investigation into the death of a two-year-old girl in Texas reveals that the child's foster parents have a criminal background. How thorough are Texas's foster parent screenings? 

The death of a toddler who Central Texas police say died at the hands of her foster mother has raised questions about the screening and training given to foster parents by one of the state's largest child-placement agencies.

Sherill Small, 54, is charged with capital murder in the last month's death of 2-year-old Alexandria Hill. Court documents say Alexandria's head had been smashed against the floor. According to an affidavit, Small told authorities it happened as she was swinging the girl over her head as they played.

Alexandria had been placed in Small's Rockdale home by Texas Mentor, the state's No. 3 foster-care contractor.

But two months before Small was approved to be a foster parent, a judge issued an arrest warrant for her for writing a bad check. Her husband, Clemon Small, had at least four misdemeanor convictions, all from a decade ago. Small's daughters were in legal trouble themselves — one with a pending drug charge at the time her mother was approved to be a foster parent and another serving six years in prison for aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery.

Records show state licensing officials placed the Texas Mentor's Arlington office on a six-month evaluation in February after 114 deficiencies or violations were found at 56 foster homes in the previous two years. And Texas Mentor has been cited at least a dozen times over the past two years for failing to ensure that criminal background checks are done or updated on residents or frequent visitors to its foster homes.

But Child Protective Services spokesman Patrick Crimmins said the state doesn't fine child placing agencies for such failures. When problems are serious enough, he said, it stops sending children to the agency.

That hasn't happened with Texas Mentor, an agency that's part of Boston-based National Mentor Holdings Inc., a $1 billion-a-year corporation that provides health care and social services in 34 states, according to the Dallas Morning News.

In the eight months prior to her July 31 death, Alexandria had been in two foster homes. Investigators said they needed to remove Alexandria from the household because the couple had physical, mental health and drug problems.

"People make mistakes," Mary Sweeney, the toddler's mother, told the Austin American-Statesman. "But there was never a time that I didn't care for her, feed her or love her."

After the state takes custody of children, private organizations, such as Texas Mentor, find them homes. Subcontractors often study homes for eligibility.

The current system makes it nearly impossible for the state to know what's going on with the children, said Johana Scot with the Parent Guidance Center, which advocates for parents of minors in the foster system.

Texas Mentor said it couldn't specifically discuss Alexandria's case because of privacy laws and the ongoing criminal investigation. It did tell the Austin American-Statesman it takes numerous steps to ensure the safety of its foster homes, such as ordering background checks, conducting extensive interviews and performing home studies.

The Smalls met the legal requirements to be foster care parents, Texas Mentor state director Wendy Bagwell said. The company is "appalled" by the allegations against the family, she said, and is working closely with investigators.

"Our team is committed to providing safe and caring homes for the children of our state, and we take our obligation to select nurturing foster families seriously," Bagwell said.

Clemon Small and Sherill Small's daughters couldn't be reached for comment. Sherill Small is in jail, and her attorney declined to comment, the Austin American-Statesman reported.

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