Nor is it working in Chicago, where a boy was beaten to death by two foster brothers who were known to be violent. It is not working in Bibb County, Ga., where a girl with cerebral palsy was placed in a home with a swimming pool; she was left unattended and drowned. And children are not protected in Dallas either. There two-year-old Joel Hernandez allegedly was beaten so severely that he had to be placed in a body cast. Yet social workers let him stay with his parents, then never set eyes on him--even after 15 visits to the family home brought no one to the door. All the social workers did was send a certified letter. Joel's body was later found in a shallow grave. His stepfather and uncle are charged with his murder.
Untimely death is often the only occasion for the public to catch a glimpse of the foster-care system. But there are living hells, and at times you can smell the brimstone a long way off. At others the evils come in disguise. In Gillette, Wyo., Homer and Beth Griswold were pillars of the community who were asked to be foster parents. She was a psychologist, a former member of the child-protection team. Her specialty was identifying sexual abuse. But while Beth baked Halloween cookies upstairs, Homer was downstairs molesting two of the girls in their care. Had anyone spent a couple of hours checking his background, they would have found previous allegations of abuse and harassment. Homer Griswold was sent to prison, and the girls were returned to their birth parents. "They take kids away from someone like me who hasn't got an education and money, but they give them to Homer?" asks a girl's father. "Now what am I supposed to do for my baby? You know, when she came home, I didn't know how to hold her. I didn't know if, after what she'd been through, she should sit on my lap."
Five years ago, there were about a quarter of a million children in the country's foster-care systems. Today that number has doubled, to between 550,000 and 560,000 children. Often these are held hostage to abuse and neglect, to bureaucratic foul-ups and carelessness, condemned to futures in which dreams cannot come true. President Clinton and Congress boast of new legislation and funding to move children more quickly from foster care to adoption. Indeed, there has been an increase in those numbers. Many foster parents too continue to act selflessly as important way stations for at-risk kids while their biological parents get their lives together. However, neglect and a quagmire of child-swallowing bureaucracies plague the system. And the incidence of neglect, physical and sexual abuse of children in the various foster-care systems is feared to be significantly higher than the incidence in the general population. Nobody bothers to keep an accurate count, but in round numbers, more than 7,500 children are tortured under what is technically government protection. Together with the many more who linger as long as 10 years in protective-custody systems, they are America's generation of lost children, forsaken and forgotten.
The Department of Health and Human Services deemed its own auditing process so flawed that Secretary Donna Shalala did not protest when Congress suspended its ability to collect funds from states that did not meet federal eligibility requirements. State foster-care systems are in such poor shape that case files are still hard copy-bound. Without modern databases, tracking the fate of children remains a maddening paper chase. "These systems should be a national scandal," says Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights Inc. "In virtually every state, there is no accountability." Says Don Keenan, an Atlanta lawyer who has sued Georgia posthumously on behalf of children who died in foster care: "This is a meltdown. This is critical."
It costs at least $7 billion a year, or about $13,000 a child, to care for America's foster kids. The problem is not a single black hole but a series--each state affected with its own distinct problems. A yearlong investigation by TIME has found the crisis mounting in at least 20 states as lawyers file class actions asking judges to take control of entire agencies and Governors to appoint task forces to review child-welfare programs. Three states in particular--Georgia, Alabama and California--show the severity of the crisis.