The Crisis Of Foster Care

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STEVE LISS FOR TIME

CASE David Dohilite
AGE 15 years
DESCRIPTION The rebellious and defiant David, shown with his parents above, was taken by child welfare officials to Eufala Adolescent Center. He returned with severe brain damage

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GEORGIA: The Boy on the Table
Terrell Peterson was young and black, like 50% of the foster-care population. He was a victim of the crack epidemic that spawned not only a generation of addicts but also a generation of lost children, most of whom have found their way into the foster-care system. His mother was addicted to crack. He had two siblings with different fathers. The state opened eight files on his family in five years, and 21 different caseworkers from five offices were involved in the cases. Social workers, faithful to a policy trend of placing kids with family members, sent Terrell to the home of a woman who was the paternal grandmother of one of his siblings. Technically she was not a blood relative, but she was close enough.

Then they apparently closed his case file and forgot about him. "Terrell Peterson should not have happened," says Georgia Governor Roy Barnes. Earlier this year, he ordered a sweeping criminal investigation into the suspicious deaths of Terrell and 12 other foster children around the state. The boy's foster grandmother, Pharina Peterson, has been charged with murder, along with his foster aunt Terri Lynn Peterson and her boyfriend, Calvin Pittman. The Georgia bureau of investigation has spent much of this year trying to determine whether the negligence of social workers made them accomplices in the children's deaths. Bureau agents seized more than 30,000 documents last January when raiding state welfare offices to investigate the deaths. They believe some files may have been conveniently lost or perhaps pilfered by people with secrets to hide.

The stories of the children and their deaths fill seven cardboard boxes. Among the dead is Octavious Sims, whose family's suspected negligence had been reported over and over to social workers before he was starved, immersed in boiling water and beaten to death three days before his first birthday. Another is Raymond Ellis, 16, paralyzed in a car accident as a toddler and in need of constant care. For years doctors had begged caseworkers to remove him from his mother's care. No one did. Raymond died of a preventable infection and pneumonia.

The files, obtained by TIME, show a pattern of inadequate monitoring, poor record keeping and bad decisions. In the case of Terrell, the records show that social workers skipped home visits, missed a crucial court hearing and lied in reports that supervisors signed but did not read.

As appalling as is Terrell's death, the fact is that Georgia took steps years ago to keep such a tragedy from happening. After the death of a little girl named Kathy Joe in 1997, Georgia lawmakers vowed reform. Panic over foster care produced regulations designed to save children's lives. Until Terrell's death, however, no one had checked to make sure the changes were enforced. "I am not here to defend this system," says Barnes, who this year pushed for a children's ombudsman and laws to increase caseworker accountability. "We have not made this a high enough priority."

ALABAMA: The Perils of Politics

BURK UZZLE FOR TIME
WHEN THE SYSTEM WORKS
CASE: Mary Reed and Annie McNey
McNey, right, visiting her kids and foster mom Reed, who has care of her children until they are adopted. McNey chose a problem relationship over her parental rights

The state system still suffers from a decade of intervention by former Governor Fob James, a wily if obtuse politician of the old school, adept at surviving by switching parties and baiting voters. In 1988, riding a tide of states' rights fervor, he appointed a friend, Martha Nachman, as welfare commissioner, with a mandate to ignore federal court-imposed guidelines on foster care. The mammoth state agency quickly deteriorated.

Until then, Alabama had been in the forefront of foster-care reform. It had been set on that path after an incident in which local social workers used an unpaid utility bill to prove a man was unfit to raise his eight-year-old son, removed the child and placed him not in a foster home but in a psychiatric hospital, where the boy was isolated and heavily dosed with psychoactive drugs. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit on the father's behalf. As a result, the federal court not only remanded the boy to his father but ordered far-ranging changes in the system.

At that point, caseworkers did not even know which services might be available for children. They had no way of comparing notes or logging resources. They had no flexibility in meeting individual needs. They had no guidelines for contact between children in foster care and their birth parents. In most cases, the rules simply forbade it.

Following the federal ruling, social workers set out to retrain, refocus and reshape the welfare system county by county, inspiring a hands-on, more heartfelt attitude among hardened social workers and abuse investigators. Greater emphasis was placed on restrengthening and rebuilding families by setting up programs in their own neighborhoods and communities in order to lessen the disruption of children's lives. The average stay in foster care dropped from 14 months to three. Alabama, though a rural state in the American South, won early praise for its progressive ideas and was considered a potential model for national reform.

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