OPINION

Foster care is un-American

In our “child protection system,” children are five times more likely to die from physical abuse and 11 times more likely to be sexually abused than in their own homes, Child Protective Services Watch tells us. The organization also reports that, on average, a foster child will spend at least three years in the system and live in three different homes during their stay in foster care.

It would be a comfort if we could at least say that there are not too many children in the system, but we would be wrong. There are presently over a half a million American children in foster care — nearly enough children to replace the entire population of our nation's capitol. On any given day, more than 91,000 of those children are Californians (for purposes of comparison, that's roughly the population of Santa Barbara).

Californians should be especially embarrassed and outraged. This state has one of the worst systems for providing child welfare services in the entire country. The Sacramento Bee reported in January that just last summer police burst into a house to arrest suspected drug dealers and found seven children inside who depended on the State of California for their care. Last year when the federal government reviewed states' services for children and families, California failed. In fact, the legislative analyst's office reported that California is the only state that failed more than four of the seven standards for children's safety, well-being and placement in a permanent home.

These children often travel from house to house with their few personal belongings in a used paper grocery bag or thrown over their shoulder in a plastic garbage sack. More than 1 in 10 California foster children will pack their things and move to a home filled with strangers, go to sleep amidst unknown surroundings and often go to a new school five or more times for every 12 months that they have been entrusted to foster care.

The Little Hoover Commission, a California State government oversight organization reports that, despite perhaps good intentions, some experts estimate that nearly half of the children in California's foster system should never have been removed from their families and have been even more traumatized as a result. The children would have benefited most if their families had been given some basic support, treatment and parenting training.

To make matters worse, once children enter the system, the system can't even keep track of them. In any given month the state departments entrusted with tracking these children have no idea where hundreds of them are — some may be runaways, some may have been kidnapped by relatives, and some are simply unaccounted for.

Our government is funding this system in our names and with our tax dollars. We say this system is un-American. Our system for handling abandoned, neglected and abused children is broken. Consider that a nationwide Casey Foundation Study found that we are spending nearly $100 billion dollars annually on direct and indirect costs associated with child maltreatment and we end up with a system that often appears worse than leaving children in the homes we considered unfit.

Part of the reason so many children end up in this broken system is due to the way that the federal government pays for child-welfare services at the state and county levels; these local governments earn more federal money by having more children in the system. Technically this is called a “perverse incentive.” State and county governments receive open-ended funding from the federal government for children who are in the Child Welfare System, while they only get limited funds to provide services that might eliminate the need for some children to be in this system in the first place. Linda Wallace Pate, a veteran attorney in foster cases, justly states that “it's scandalous that the California foster care system has been reduced to a 'kids for cash' system.”

It's easy to start pointing fingers, and social workers — who are the direct links to these children — often get the worst rap. In most cases, however, these are compassionate, well-meaning and horrifyingly overworked individuals trying to operate within a broken system.

The real responsibility lies with legislators and voters. With a 2003- 2004 State budget of $1.7 billion ($447 million less than last year's), it is unclear how California will be able to improve its services for our needy children. Nonetheless, even in this period of severe budget cuts and competing priorities, legislators and voters should make these children a top priority. Over the years there have been multiple attempts to fix the system, and currently the Department of Social Services is implementing a Child Welfare Redesign program. All of these efforts, however, do not go far enough because they do not offer a true redesign of the system - instead they offer only symptom management. Organizations, like the Little Hoover Commission, have provided multiple reports offering thorough descriptions of what needs to change, but unfortunately these are not the changes that are implemented. We must demand centralized oversight, communication, and organization of the state agencies that serve our most disadvantaged children. Moreover, we must take action on behalf of these children who do not have a voice in our political system. After all, these children can't vote.


Christine Borders
11 April 2004
 

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/a/2004/05/02/EDGC76DA4O1.DTL


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