Snuffing Out Secondhand Smoke in Foster Homes
As a smoker for 24 years, Lee Collins can recall sitting in a restaurant and not thinking twice about lighting up after dinner. "That was the old days," says the Director of San Luis Obispo County's Department of Social Services (DSS) in California, who quit smoking 15 years ago.
Today, states and localities nationwide are taking steps to ban smoking from bars, restaurants, and other public facilities. Some states and counties are now adding foster homes to the list. Alaska, Maine, New York, Oklahoma, and Washington State, for example, have all set rules on foster parent smoking habits. In California, where social services are county administered, San Luis Obispo County is the latest jurisdiction to jump on board with regulating when and where foster parents can light up.
Last November, San Luis Obispo County's five-member Board of Supervisors unanimously voted in favor of a new policy crafted by DSS that limits smoking in foster homes. The San Luis Obispo County Foster Parent Association backed the policy.
Anyone who has custody of a foster child, including relatives, cannot allow children in their care to smoke, nor buy them tobacco products, according to the new policy. Also, children in foster care must maintain at least a 20-foot distance from secondhand smoke, and cars used to transport children in foster care must be smoke-free for at least 12 hours before the child gets into the car.
"In San Luis Obispo County, we have about 350 foster children in our care, and as the legal parent of all those children, my belief is that they ought not be exposed unnecessarily to something that is going to affect their health and ultimately kill them if they continue being exposed," Collins says.
For children, breathing secondhand smoke can lead to a \variety of health problems, including asthma, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, bronchitis, pneumonia, and ear infections.
Collins notes that if foster parents violate the policy, it's unlikely DSS will remove the child from the home, unless the child has severe asthma or another health condition that warrants immediate removal. DSS will instead remind the parent about the county's policy, which now clearly outlines smoking regulations.
Collins doesn't believe the new policy will put a dent in foster parent recruitment efforts. If it does, "It's a risk that's worth taking."
Foster parent recruitment was a particular concern for Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine (AFFM) when Maine began regulating exposure to secondhand smoke in foster care homes a few years ago. "The timing was poor for creating a new potential barrier to recruitment and, moreover, to retention," recalls AFFM Cofounder and Liaison Director Bette Hoxie. The organization also opposed making the regulation a licensing violation with limited licensing staff in the state to police the situation.
Otherwise, Hoxie said she is glad Maine has moved forward with the new nonsmoking licensing policy. "As a nonsmoker with asthma, I am personally pleased whenever individuals are forced to not smoke."
Maine's policy prohibits foster parents from smoking while a child is in their care. If the child leaves the home, smoking is not permitted in the home within 12 hours of the child's scheduled return. Maine foster parents are also prohibited from smoking in their cars while transporting a child in foster care, or less than 12 hours before traveling in the car with the child.
So far, Maine's Bureau of Child and Family Services has not rescinded the licenses of any foster parents who have violated the smoking policy, but it has created working agreements with violators to ensure future violations don't occur, explains Linda Brissette, Foster Home Licensing and Children's Services Program Specialist for the State Department of Human Services. Maine has approximately 2,516 children in care, and about 1,193 licensed foster homes.
"I don't think it's caused a reduction in the numbers of parents smoking, but I do think they are complying with it and going outside the home to smoke," Brissette says.
In general, people in Maine tend to be environmentally conscious, Brissette explains, and they have embraced smoking bans in public facilities throughout the state. Adding foster homes to the ban has not caused much of a stir. "I think it makes sense to people."
As far as Brissette is aware, the policy has not thwarted parents' interest in bringing children into their homes. Hoxie agrees, admitting her earlier worries about a negative effect on foster parent recruitment have not materialized. AFFM's office regularly handles foster parent allegations and complaints, but nobody has called to complain about the ban on smoking in foster homes.
"I'm guessing people are adapting to it very positively," Hoxie says.
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