A Critical Look At The Foster Care System: How Safe the Service?
HOW SAFE THE SERVICE? A recent TIME Magazine article references a troubling report commissioned by the Reagan Administration during the late 1980s, which concluded:
Foster care is intended to protect children from neglect and abuse at the hands of parents and other family members, yet all too often it becomes an equally cruel form of neglect and abuse by the state. In the State of California, two San Diego County Grand juries would echo these concerns, finding that: "Professionals working in the field of child abuse voiced strong concerns that the children removed from abusive homes were being abused again by a system designed to protect them."
A Santa Clara County Grand Jury reached similar conclusions, having determined that children often face greater risks in its existing foster care program than they do in their own homes:
Sometimes, foster care placements are made that are just as abusive, if not more so, than the home from which the child was removed. The Grand Jury learned of placements where sexual and physical abuse took place. There was even a case where the infant died. In Washington State, a blue-ribbon Governor's task force concluded:
The effect of our present foster care system is disastrous. Children are moved from one foster home to another, their school attendance is disrupted and health care needs often go unmet. They are sometimes exposed to abuse by other children in care. . . Elsewhere, a report by the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services determined that the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services "has no assurance that the quality of care being given to foster children placed by child-placing agencies was adequate." Federal reviewers found "many cases" of children "in potentially harmful situations." At least one fire or health deficiency was found at 40 of the 48 homes reviewed. In 28 of the 48 homes, no record could be found to prove that required criminal background checks had been made. The report described some foster homes as filled with trash.
Terry's story is in many respects typical of the plight of America's 500,000 foster children. He entered foster care at the age of one after he was found with his five siblings suffering from frostbite in an unheated home, his mother in a drug-induced sleep. When he was five, he and two of his siblings were adopted by a foster family.
To hear the adoption proponents of today tell it, this should have provided the happy ending to Terry and his sibling's travails. Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of a long journey through the labyrinth of the child welfare system.
Terry and his siblings had to be removed from their new home due to extreme abuse and neglect after the subsequent death of abuse of his five-year-old adoptive brother.
Thereafter followed a sequence of sixteen placements, during which Terry began to exhibit increasingly serious behavioral problems.
By the time he turned 11, Terry was placed in a residential facility where he began making suicidal comments, saying that he wanted to go to heaven to be with his deceased adoptive brother. He left the facility during severe thunderstorms without any shoes on. When he was found, he had to be hospitalized for over a month. He has since been diagnosed as suffering from the psychological effects of the extreme abuse and neglect he had suffered while in various placements, complicated by a lack of permanence over his ten years in government custody.
The child welfare system responsible for Terry has since been held in contempt for failing to comply with a court-ordered consent decree, and has created an internal receivership to help move toward compliance, thanks to the efforts of the private advocacy group Children's Rights, Inc. For Terry, there came a happy ending. He has recently been adopted by a warm and stable family. But it took years of difficult and costly litigation to bring about this result.
Similar narratives are everywhere to be found. In Lynchburg, Virginia, a 23-year-old blind and mentally retarded woman was denied food, restrained with socks, and was regularly beaten by her foster mother. She received the maximum punishment under the 1992 law; one year in jail. What is even more amazing is that the foster mother did not even realize that she had done anything wrong.
According to an Associated Press report, a 1994 Department of Health and Human Services audit of six states found foster homes that were crowded and unsafe.
The report continues, illustrating that cases of foster parents inflicting harm on their wards are all too common:
A Sacramento, Calif., man was charged last December with raping and murdering one of his three foster children, a 16-year-old girl. He was arrested after holding the other two children at gunpoint during a standoff with police. The Cook County public guardian's office recently sued a Chicago private social agency for placing an 11-year-old girl in the home of a convicted rapist who allegedly raped the child. In a separate case, Chicago police say 2-year-old Corese Goldman was killed in February by a foster mother who held him under a faucet to toilet-train him. The woman, a distant relative, was not required to go through training, background checks and a home inspection before taking the child. In Massachusetts, the Department of Social Services has knowingly approved scores of convicted criminals to be foster parents, including child abusers, drug dealers, habitual drunk drivers, kidnappers, armed robbers, and other violent offenders, according a recent Boston Globe series.
The Department of Social Services allowed these criminals to become foster parents by granting "waivers" that would ordinarily have caused the foster parents to be rejected.
This may explain--at least in part--why after a five-month investigation based on hundreds of interviews with Department workers, court personnel and families, a Massachusetts legislative committee found that children in state care were often worse off than they were in the original homes from which they were removed.
Similar reports are everywhere to be found. From New Jersey, comes a 270 page report issued by a panel of 26 experts appointed by the Governor--one which makes hundreds of recommendations for revamping the state's failed child protection system.
Among the panel's findings was that children alleged to have been abused or neglected are abused once again--by the very system intended to help them.
The report followed on the heels of another scathing report issued by the Association for Children, in which 75 percent of the 772 respondents--among them police officers, foster parents, caseworkers and other individuals involved with the system--rated the agency's performance as inadequate, ultimately forcing the agency's director, Patricia Balasco-Barr, to resign.
SPEAKING OUT In Alaska, foster parents testify that the worst of the abuses endured by foster children is not the abuse and neglect allegedly suffered before the state takes them from their natural parents. Rather, the real abuse comes from the actions of the state itself.
To make matters worse, just as state officials are forming ambitious efforts to deal with the severe failures in the state's child protection system, a 2-year-old in the care of Anchorage foster parents dies.
Foster parents were speaking out in Utah, as well. When James Sebaske and his wife, Corinn, got their foster care license, they were prepared for troubled teens--but not for the bureaucrats in the child protective services system.
After five frustrating years of dealing with the department, the couple planned to allow their license to lapse. "The system is so corrupt, I fear for my children or any reasonable person's children," said Sebaske.
But speaking out against the system can have its price, state representative Marie Parente (D-Milford), chairwoman of the Massachusetts House Foster Care Committee told Boston Globe reporters in February of 1992. Foster parents are afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals--the ultimate threat being that DSS will take away their foster children.
Her fears were ultimately proven to be well-founded. After Lynn Sanborn--a long-term foster mother with a flawless record--rendered testimony critical of the department's removal of a foster child from her home before the House Foster Care Committee, she suddenly found herself the subject of two child abuse reports.
"After 14 years of being a foster parent and three months ago I was an exemplary home, I get two complaints in a week," Sanborn said. "Doesn't that sound odd to you?"
So, too, did another foster mother who testified during the hearings, find herself the subject of an anonymous report, sparking charges from both women that the agency was retaliating against them for speaking out against the department.
The anonymous charges were filed against them within days of their testimony. "I feel hurt and I feel sad," said Sanborn. "If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody."
The price to be paid for speaking out against the system can be equally high for biological parents. Elizabeth Sayers--by her own admission in need of support services--said in an on-air radio interview that she was not being offered the help she required from the Massachusetts department to keep her children.
Just 90 minutes after she complained on the air to a radio talk show host about the lack of services, her children were taken away and placed in foster homes in an "emergency removal."
Similar narratives are everywhere to be found, as parents, foster parents and many others who advocate on behalf of children often report the fear of retaliation from child welfare agencies seeking to silence them.
In Alaska, foster parents sat with trembling hands as they told legislators of the treatment they and their young wards endured at the hands of child protective services. Fear of retaliation was reportedly a common theme throughout the meeting.
Prior to a 1994 hearing held in Illinois, several parents were told by Department of Children and Family Services caseworkers "if you ever want to see your children again, don't go to the hearing," according to Champaign County Board member Robert Naiman.
Thus, the most dedicated of foster parents--those who would dare advocate on behalf of the children in their care--are pushed out of the system. As a result, the abuse of children in state care continues to mount even as the number of children in state care continues to increase.
In Milwaukee, complaints of children being abused or neglected by their foster families increased dramatically over a 10-month period in 1997, compared with the same period a year earlier.
In Peoria, Illinois, the state's child welfare agency "rescues" Donte May from a neglectful and possibly abusive mother, only to place him in a foster home where he dies suspiciously from bleeding in the brain.
One of the most tragic aspects of many of these cases is that the children suffer needlessly, for in their zeal to protect them against the perceived shortcomings of their natural parents, child protective workers placed them into dangerous homes that inflicted upon them precisely the injury they had hoped to prevent.
In the District of Columbia, social workers removed four of Debra Hampton's children from her home placing them in foster care. According to the testimony of a social worker, the children were removed because Mrs. Hampton had left them alone and was not properly supervising them, and her home was "generally uninhabitable."
Three months later, the foster mother left two-year-old Mykeeda Hampton at home for over ten hours. While she was out running errands, Mykeeda was beaten to death by the foster mothers' twelve-year-old son. An autopsy later established that the two-year-old died of "blunt force injuries to the head, abdomen, and back, with internal hemorrhaging." As of September 1995, several years after the incident, the case was still under litigation.
In August of 1995, San Francisco officials took custody of Selena Hill a few days after her birth because of concerns that her parents, Stacey and Claudia Hill, had physically abused each other and didn't seem capable of caring for their newborn.
In September, seven-week-old Selena Hill was rushed to Children's Hospital in Oakland with a fractured skull and other injuries that almost killed her. In their efforts to protect her from her actual parents, child welfare workers placed Selena into a foster home with a history of domestic violence. In the nine months before the infant was injured, Berkeley police had visited the residence three times after receiving reports about violent disturbances in the foster home.
The state of Georgia placed Clayton and Kelly Miracle in foster care with Betty and Joe Wilkins in June of 1993. Two months later paramedics would arrive at the foster home in response to a 911 call, finding Clayton barely breathing, with two large knots on his head, one in the front and one in back. Clayton died as a result of blunt force trauma to his head. The doctor who performed the autopsy testified that Clayton's fatal injuries could not have been caused by an accidental fall and that injuries and bruising found all over Clayton's body were consistent with battered child syndrome. Doctors also examined Kelly and found the same pattern of bruising.
Newsday reports the tragic story of one father whose desperate pleas to the family court fell on deaf ears. David Roman fights back tears as he recounts the shooting death of his son who had been placed into foster care in the Jamaica section of New York City:
My son was going to turn 15 this coming Friday. I begged the family court judges to get my children back. I looked at the neighborhood . . . and I could tell it was no good. That place was a drug-infested neighborhood.
FATALITIES - A CLOSER LOOK During a recent two year period, one foster child died on average every seven and a half weeks in the state of Arizona. Four of them were reported as having been "viciously beaten to death" by their foster parents.
Among the deaths in Arizona was that of China Marie Davis, of Phoenix. An autopsy revealed that over her 11 months in the care of her foster mother, Dorothy Jean Livingston, China Marie suffered a compression fracture of the spine, breaks in both forearms and wrists, two broken collarbones, fractures of both thighs, and a broken left arm, right rib and left hand.
China Marie finally found her relief in death, after Livingston repeatedly kicked her down a staircase because she refused to clap her hands to gospel music.
Among the deaths was that of Tajuana Davidson, also of Phoenix. While in foster care the three-year-old suffered a broken shoulder blade, a black eye, and bruises on her stomach, back, legs and arms. But it was the "seven crushing blows to the head" that finally killed her.
Just how many abuse and neglect related incidents actually occur in foster care is difficult to determine, given the child protection agencies apparent unwillingness to investigate them. It becomes nearly impossible with confidentiality laws shielding child protection agencies from public scrutiny. What is clear is that there is no shortage of them.
"The state's foster care system has been racked by tragedy in recent years," note Boston Globe reporters. "In the past three years, several foster children have been murdered or have died from neglect, while others have been horrifically abused."
In 1995, at least eight children died while in foster care in Massachusetts, and federal officials were threatening a private lawsuit against the agency if changes weren't made.
But the most telling statistic of all may be that of the seven deaths directly attributable to maltreatment in Massachusetts in 1995, three of them--nearly half--were in foster care.
In this respect Massachusetts is a more or less a typical state. Notes outspoken veteran juvenile court judge Judy Sheindlin:
Every year in every a state a commission meets to attempt to identify the scores of children killed and maimed while in foster care. And each year a report is published with suggestions for legislative and systemic change. Although the number of victims is increasing, there has been no nationwide overhaul of the systems that permit these in-house tragedies to occur.
THE CLOAK OF SECRECY Sheindlin attributes much of the problem to confidentiality laws. "The only people being protected here are caseworkers and other officials, who regularly hide behind a wall of secrecy," she writes.
She notes that dozens of New York City cases where children have been maimed or murdered never reach public attention, and it is not just because they are poor minority children. Rather it is "because of confidentiality rules, which protect inept bureaucrats and a faltering social services system."
"In the name of protecting children, we have kept it a secret how we as a society deal with our most vulnerable children," explained American Civil Liberties Union attorney Eric S. Maxwell to the Massachusetts Senate Committee on Post-Audit and Oversight.
"There is a great gap between protecting a child's identity and keeping the process and acts of our government secret."
Maxwell urged the Committee to push for legislation to open court proceedings involving the removal of children from their parents, and child guardianship cases.
"I think any time you take a system and cloak it in secrecy there are going to be substantial abuses," said Maxwell, adding that he believes the Department of Social Services is often too quick to take custody of children away from their parents.
"Foster care systems are cloaked in secrecy that often is used to conceal illegal and unconscionable practices," explained children's advocate and attorney Marcia Robinson Lowry during Congressional hearings.
"Every state in the country cloaks its foster care system in secrecy, prohibiting the disclosure of any information about children's experiences in foster care. Though these statutes often were enacted to protect children, they routinely are used by state officials to conceal illegal and unconscionable practices."
These confidentiality laws have served the system well, if the figures from the state of Georgia are any indication.
Nancy Schaefer, twice a gubernatorial candidate for governor, has repeatedly called for a fundamental restructuring of the state's foster care system, including the dismantling of the Georgia Department of Family and Children Services.
Schaefer charges that an astounding 433 children have died while in state care over the last several years.
"Words cannot describe the travesty of justice suffered by these children who, rather than receiving the protection of the state, gave their lives in a most horrible and painful death because of a failed and unaccountable system of administration," says Schaefer.
"We have to ask ourselves whether we're doing children a service by taking them out of their homes and placing them in a system that's just as unable to meet their needs," says District Judge Bill Jones of Charlotte, North Carolina.
"Are we doing them more harm than good?"
Says District Judge Deborah Burgin of Rutherfordton, North Carolina: "If you take on the responsibility to take care of someone - and are paid to take care of someone - the least we can ask is that they come out of it alive."