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Foster care programs that strive to keep the family together

By Robert P. HeyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 22, 1987


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.

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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.

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.