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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Then politics intervened. James and Nachman sued to contravene the rulings, which the Governor deemed obstructive federal intervention. A hiring freeze left social workers' positions vacant. Nachman refused to disburse "flex funds" that the court allowed counties to spend at their discretion, and social workers had to open charge accounts at Wal-Mart to buy diapers and clothes for children. Nachman later resigned amid controversy over allegations she had lied on her resume and had withheld information from a grand jury investigating whether the foster-care problems in Mobile were the result of criminal negligence.

By then David Dohilite, 15, had been sucked into the system. An incorrigible kid, David had rebelled against his working-class parents in Magnolia Springs, Ala., near Mobile, in a yet unreformed county. Under state law, parents could turn over custody of defiant children to the department of human resources, but the agency lacked "therapeutic foster homes" for kids more troubled than abused. If kids threatened suicide or suffered the slightest mental disorder, they would be bounced to the Department of Mental Health. If they had broken the law, they would go to the agency that handles juvenile delinquents. The screening process involved a brief interview by an intake worker.

With no other place for David, a judge sent him to the Eufala Adolescent Center, 150 miles away, where kids who escaped were hunted by dogs. David was kept secluded in Building 112, locked in a 9-ft. by 6-ft. cell with metal crates as a wall and a door painted black. Even though he talked of suicide, banged his head against the walls and screamed profanities, staff members treated him as a behavior problem. In March 1992 a center worker found David trying to hang himself and placed him under observation. Two days later, he tried again, using a shoestring. He suffered severe brain damage. "Till the day we die, we'll have to take care of him," says his father Michael, a school custodian. "There's a lot of anger for what they allow to happen to these kids--how these kids cry out for help and nobody answers."

Fob James was defeated in the 1998 gubernatorial elections. But his legacy is a state of delay. Only a third of Alabama's 67 counties have yet fully converted to the new systems mandated by the court order.

CALIFORNIA: Private Solutions? In the past decade, as the foster-care population has soared, California and other states have contracted out more and more services for their poorest children. In theory, kids should be safer because private agencies have the flexibility and funding to deal better with children. In Los Angeles County, for example, state-licensed foster homes had 1 caseworker for every 70 kids. Private agencies routinely have 1 social worker dealing with only 12 to 15 kids. But the private agencies have presented a new set of problems.

Gilbreania Wallace, a two-year-old African-American girl, was a ward of the Grace Home for Waiting Children, a private foster-care agency in Los Angeles founded in 1992 by former and on-leave bureaucrats of California's department of children and family services, as well as members of its Black Employees Association. They set up the Grace Home, hoping a knowledgeable black staff might attract larger numbers of African-American foster parents and work more efficiently with them.

Gilbreania was placed in the home of Doris Jean Bennett, who was called Miss Doris. Her record was spotty. Miss Doris, a homemaker, had seen two children in her care suffer broken bones under questionable circumstances; an infant boy had come to the hospital comatose allegedly after being shaken. (She convinced investigators that the shaking occurred before she got the child.) On June 1999 she took the fatally injured Gilbreania to a hospital, claiming she had slipped and fallen in the bathtub. But doctors examining her discovered injuries so severe that the child's brain had been pushed into her spine as a result of blunt trauma. She died a week later, and Miss Doris was charged with murder.

The case helped focus light on another potential evil of private contractors: corruption. Early on, concern was raised over employees on leave from the department of children and family services starting their own agency. Critics noticed the department had quickly assigned children to the agency, a result of blatant favoritism. Thus Grace Home was off and running, supported by county revenues. An audit alleged, however, that the agency's director had misspent hundreds of thousands of dollars on trips to Washington and Atlanta, as well as a six-week stay in Africa. The director even charged the government for his subscription to Travel & Leisure magazine. The 1995 audit found numerous safety violations in the agency's homes: untrained child watchers, unchecked criminal backgrounds, unsecured knives, broken glass, inoperable smoke detectors and toxic substances within reach of children.

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