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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STEVE LISS FOR TIME
WHEN THE SYSTEM WORKS
CASE: Shawna Mitchell
She was reunited with her four kids after working with foster mom Norma Shaw, right, in Chicago

The director's replacement was no improvement. Although she promised a zeal for children, she also allegedly had a zeal to spend money. Even as children in the agency's care couldn't get dental exams and foster parents couldn't get first-aid training, Grace Home was spending $250,000 in foster-care funds to defend a sexual-harassment suit and gave an additional $130,000 to a board member. The books listed $6,725 in Toys "R" Us gift certificates with no receipt. The new director gave herself nearly $10,000 for a retroactive pay raise, car payments and bonuses. The findings were released by auditors in July 1999, a month after Gilbreania was beaten to death. Grace Home finally went out of business.

"A brutal indifference has spread itself through the system," says Andrew Bridge, a former foster child in Los Angeles who went to Harvard Law School and now heads the Alliance for Children's Rights. He chaired a countywide panel that reviewed the state's foster-care record. Last January it concluded that the system in Los Angeles County operates with minimal data on its wards and a safety-monitoring process that is random at best. Some departments are not aware of what others are doing, so a child's safety often relies on guesswork. "Fundamentally," says Bridge, 34, "we've come a very small distance from the days when I was in foster care." In short, he adds, Los Angeles County lacks the ability to know the full nature of the quality of care foster children actually receive, "the full extent of harm children may face in foster care and how to protect children from harm in the future."

The foster-care crisis is a many-headed behemoth, and no single weapon has been able to defeat it. "There are so many actors involved in the decision of what happens to the children," says Secretary Shalala. "Different people have responsibility for taking them away from their family. Another group of people is responsible for placing them." Last year the General Accounting Office issued a report on juvenile courts, finding that judges and caseworkers do not work well together. Many judges mistrust the judgment of caseworkers and order additional assessments "to compensate for what the judges perceive as professional inadequacies."

The chief evil, though, may be decentralization. While the Federal Government doles out most of the funding, the welfare of children has traditionally been a state matter. In fact, many states see it as such a local issue that they pass down the decision making to individual counties. The result has been unwieldy systems that are grossly mismanaged. Fearing that they may create bloated bureaucracies, the states usually earmark the money for the direct care of kids, meaning monthly payments to foster parents and salaries for social workers. In so doing, they neglect the infrastructure. There are not enough computers, secretaries and clerks to do the cheap paper work that consumes social workers' time. There are not enough administrators to review the cases or think outside the box about creative solutions. "We've grown accustomed to allowing the critical function of caring for children to take place in an abysmal business setting," says Anita Bock, recently hired to head the welfare agency in Los Angeles. "I'm a fiscal conservative. I'm not interested in throwing money at the system. I'm saying give me some flexibility."

But there is no flexibility because the system is stretched to its limit. Some agencies have become so desperate to place children that any bed will do. Kids are being sent to foster homes with no forethought, and the states cannot guarantee their safety. Furthermore, the number of kids needing foster care is exceeding the number of families available to care for them. Even the most devoted of foster parents are dropping out of the programs, frustrated at times by a lack of support--as well as legal roadblocks to adopting the children if they so choose.

Meanwhile, the annual turnover of social workers hovers as high as 70% in some states. "You can't even run a Burger King with a 70% turnover," says Howard Talenfeld, a Florida lawyer. Social workers have always been undertrained, exhausted and second-guessed--so much so that some have turned to a negative kind of creativity. In Milwaukee, for example, social workers don't answer the phone when their caseloads are full. In other places, they simply stop visiting homes where some children are known to be abused because death doesn't seem imminent. They take advantage of recently implemented policies that allow them to "waiver" a family. This means they fill out a report that says the kids look fine--and their supervisors usually take their word for it. Multiply this state by state and county by county, and the children barely stand a chance.

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