Foster care programs that strive to keep the family together

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

America's foster care system is working superbly for Michael, his little sister, Julie, and their parents, and it's finally beginning to aid 15-year-old Johnny. But foster care, and the child welfare system, has not substantially helped 17-year-old Mary, who has bounced from foster home to foster home. And the system has totally failed Eddie, a 10-year-old victim of sexual abuse.

Around the United States, foster care programs are producing similarly dappled results. (Facts about foster care in the US, Page 6.) Recognition of deficiencies has led many states and municipalities to reorganize their approaches in ways that promise much-improved results. Most authorities agree that, overall, the national picture is improving, but much remains to be done.

Today the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families holds a major hearing on foster care in the United States. Witnesses will describe advances, and serious deficiencies, including the outright abuse of children in foster placements. Committee chairman George Miller (D) of California, Congress's leader on children's problems, is expected to question vigorously White House officials on what he considers the Reagan administration's lack of leadership in foster care.

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The thrust of today's child welfare programs, which include foster care, is to provide security and stability for children who live in such troubled homes that, for their own safety, they are at risk of being removed. If possible, this is done by aiding the families while keeping the children with them; or, if foster placement is temporarily appropriate, by reuniting children with parents when the situation improves. If children are not safe with their parents, the aim is to move them as quickly as possible through foster care placement and into the permanency of adoption.

Michael, Julie, and their parents live in a public-housing project in North Philadelphia. The family was barely functioning two years ago; it appeared the children would have to be removed to foster care. But intensive aid to the family by Philadelphia's heralded SCAN project - the Supportive Child Adult Network - has taught the parents vital lessons: how to deal effectively with today's society, and how to care for their children. They have learned well and have retained custody of Michael and Julie.

Across the US an increasing number of foster care programs work to prevent children from having to go to foster households, by aiding the entire biological family, teaching the natural parents to cope with daily problems and frustrations.

This, experts say, is the most effective way to provide permanent help to the children. And it is one of the most important new directions in child welfare.

Teen-age Johnny was one short step away from being sent to a restrictive juvenile institution (it used to be called reform school) early this year. Instead, he was aided by an impressive new Maryland program that gives a substantial amount of training to would-be foster parents, in understanding and in dealing with the behavior of troubled children.

For Johnny the program is working effectively. Perhaps for the first time he knows he is wanted and needed; overall he is responding well to the care his foster parents are providing.

This Maryland approach is at the cutting edge of a national trend: the idea that helping troubled youths requires foster parents so highly trained that they are paraprofessionals, and thus are paid modest salaries in addition to the costs of child rearing. Ruth Massinga, Maryland's secretary of human resources, says this trend is the most important development in foster care today.

Mary, now 17, has been in and out of foster care four times. Past placements have not given her what good foster programs strive for these days: stability and permanence. Mary might be in one of hundreds of American communities, but she happens to be in Pittsburgh. Partly to avert future Marys, that city is dramatically reorganizing its foster care program to give social workers the time and the responsibility to provide early assistance to the whole biological family, parents and children, with the aim of keeping families together.

Meanwhile, the city is working with its Marys, preparing them for the day they turn 18 and become legally responsible for themselves. The special school classes that many of these teens attend can help. In them some children discover for the first time that they can think and learn.

Across America many children like Mary still continue to drift through foster care. As the nation's programs swing toward emphasizing early help for families, they must still try to aid the tens of thousands of Marys who have spent much of their childhood in foster care.

Eddie's case may be the saddest. It is surely the most shocking. After weeks of effort a camp counselor finally won the confidence of this angry little boy, who seemed always to be hitting or kicking. Between sobs he explained his anger: Several nights a week his father sexually abused him.

His description was so explicit that there was little doubt he was telling the truth. But the local social-service office, doubtless overworked and with some inexperienced staff members, refused even to investigate the case. ``Basically they told me to get more evidence,'' the frustrated counselor said. ``What can they possibly expect? Those things usually aren't done in front of witnesses.'' Nothing has yet been done to help Eddie.

Eddie is typical of the increasing number of American children, usually age 8 or older, who are foster care candidates because of gross treatment at home. His case happened to occur in New York, where some of the nation's worst foster care conditions exist. Caseworker morale is often low and staff turnover high - problems other communities also face, to a lesser degree. Children await placement because the number of foster homes is inadequate, in part, due to poor planning.

But Eddie's case could have taken place in many communities. Too often they fail to respond effectively to the anguish of individual children who are seriously abused.

Badly needed across America is better screening of child-abuse reports. Some 60 percent are not substantiated, says Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the first director of the National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect. The sheer volume, too often little screened, overwhelms an inadequate number of investigators, too often inexperienced.

As a result, vague or frivolous accusations are often painstakingly probed, anguishing the innocent. Yet cases of horrendous abuse receive cursory attention, and children like Eddie, who should have been placed in foster care immediately for his protection, are left to fend for themselves at home.

Yet much good news exists in the national effort to prevent children from having to go into foster care, and to aid those who must make that move.

An increasing number of troubled children, and their equally tormented parents, are being helped by public and private agencies and their dedicated staffs. New ideas are being employed, promising preventive measures tested, and the best of yesteryear's social work approaches - casework - resurrected.

``I think we're on the right track,'' says Jane Burnley. ``I think we've got the right answers, but the problem is to spread the solution.'' She is the associate commissioner of the Children's Bureau of the US Department of Health and Human Services. Many experts share her view.

Since Congress passed a key law in 1980 the aim of foster care agencies across the US has been to preserve families when possible, keeping children with their parents as long as they are not likely to be physically harmed. Increasingly this is being done by providing early social work help to the entire family: The problems of children, experts say, generally stem from the problems of their families.

Commissioner Burnley says there is evidence that such early intervention works. This, she adds, is better than waiting for a relatively mild problem to mushroom and then removing the child.

But in another widely held view, she adds, ``We still have a long way to go'' before making early intervention ``the prevalent practice.''

Unfortunately, from coast to coast immense problems remain in the child welfare and foster care programs of many communities: deficiencies in funding, organization, and training. Caseworkers are being burned out by long hours, frustration, and low pay.

Unlike Burnley, Representative Miller has a negative view of the current foster care situation. He says it improved temporarily after Congress passed a major reform of foster care in 1980, a law he wrote. But in the last few years, he says, the system has been backsliding to where it was before the law: ``I think it's probably in a shambles now.'' He blames inadequate federal funding and leadership.

New problems are being added to these traditional ones. Older, more deeply troubled children are entering the system, and an enormous increase in reports of abuse threatens to overwhelm the system. In some cities, New York especially, infants are being thrust into foster care because they were born addicted to drugs or with the disease AIDS - both transmitted before birth by their mothers.

Yet for a number of these problems, experts say, solutions are evident. Most promising, Burnley, Miller, and others say: giving families, and children, lots of help as soon as difficulties become clear.

Some facts on foster care in America Who are the foster children? Although they come from homes of all incomes, most have parents who are among the very poor ``who can't cope and adequately care for their children,'' says Douglas Beshsarov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Often their parents have little idea of how to be good parents. More than half the children in foster care come to the attention of the child welfare system because parents abused or neglected them. How many foster children are there in America? It is uncertain. The most recent national figures are for 1984, and are voluntary. They show 276,000 children in foster homes, down from about 500,000 in 1977 but up slightly from 269,000 in 1983. Most experts say the figure is slightly higher now. Forty percent of foster children are between 16 and 19 years old, says Linda Greenan, a senior policy analyst of the Child Welfare League. Where do foster children live? Ninety-one percent lived in foster homes in 1984, says Jane Burnley, associate commissioner of the US Children's Bureau. The rest, mostly teen-agers, lived in group homes of six or eight children, slightly larger treatment centers, or substantially bigger institutions that are being phased out. In 1977, 14 percent lived in institutions. How much is spent each year dealing with child abuse, including foster care prevention and placement? ``In excess of 3 billion dollars,'' Dr. Burnley says. Rep. George Miller (D) of California estimates that the federal government spends about $300 million on its foster care programs. He and other child advocates want more spent to prevent foster care at early stages of family troubles, when it is easiest to provide help. Mr. Besharov says the public and politicians are willing to provide large sums when problems are labeled ``child abuse,'' but not when they are more correctly ascribed to social or health needs, lack of parenting skills, or the debilitating effects of long-term poverty. Children's rights vs. parental rights. It is widely agreed that rights sometimes conflict. Despite recent improvements in the foster care system, says Besharov, ``what we haven't fixed is the underlying values conflict between a parent's rights and a child's rights.''

First of a series. Next: Forestalling the need for foster care, the key to a successful child welfare program.

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