Written by Michele Bittner
One of the nation’s largest for-profit foster care agencies, Mentor, has recently come under scrutiny after investigation has revealed a string of missteps leading to abuse, mistreatment, and several deaths. While organization executives have dismissed claims that National Mentor Holdings’ negligence has resulted in substandard services, the company has received some of the highest numbers of serious violations in several states, including Massachusetts, Georgia, and Texas.
In some of its most severe instances of abuse, failed background checks on foster parents had detrimental results to the children in Mentor’s care. At Last Chance Farm in Maryland, boy after boy was sexually abused at the hands of foster parent Stephen Merritt. Even after reports by foster children, a letter from a former victim’s psychologist, and several police investigations, Mentor continued to place young boys in Merritt’s care for at least seven years.
In Texas, failed screenings of potential parents allowed for several failed placements with Sherill Small. Mentor failed to interview adequate numbers of relatives, relying instead on the reference of Small’s daughter, who was herself convicted of aggravated kidnapping and robbery. Meanwhile, Small’s husband was also approved as a foster parent despite his admission to a long-time cocaine addiction. After several failed placements, two-year-old Alexandria Hill was placed in Small’s care, and then murdered at Small’s hand in a fit of frustration.
And while both foster parents would never have been approved had adequate screening and background check policies been in place, poor decision-making by Mentor staff enabled the abuse to occur. Such cases have lead to investigations into the company as a whole, and as a result, Mentor’s organizational goals have been questioned.
Instead of a strong focus on quality services to children, former staff members of Mentor claim that the central focus of operation is increased profit margins. According a former employee, “You feel the pressure. You have to make those targets. I went there because I care about services for kids. I eventually became a machine that cared about profits. I didn’t care about kids.”
As a company traded publicly on the New York Stock Exchange, there were undoubtedly times when the costs of quality services at Mentor have come into conflict with the demand for higher shareholder profits. Foster care agencies are intended to serve as a safety net for vulnerable children, and the rapid expansion of corporate entities for increased market share in such human service industries capitalizes on resources that should be passed on in services to those in need.
With this in mind, many foster care agencies contracted by state and local governments are nonprofit agencies focused on quality service over profits. Yet the past thirty years have seen increases in for-profit companies entering the field. While some local and state governments have restricted contracts with for-profit agencies, strong partnerships between entities such as Mentor and nonprofit sister organizations have allowed their position in foster care to continue. Similar to the relationship between charter schools and related for-profit entities, such intertwined relationships between nonprofits and for-profit entities bring questions of accountability and motive in a variety of industries.—Michele Bittner