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Keeping children at home - and foster care a last resort

By Robert P. HeyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 23, 1987


What Janet Hutchinson and her colleagues are doing here in Pittsburgh is part of one of the most encouraging trends in American foster care. They are changing the aim and structure of the agency that aids this former steel city's troubled children. They are working to keep as many children as possible from having to be taken into foster care, instead of trying to aid them once they are in foster placement.

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The agency provides services that center on the fundamental needs of families. It helps them, promptly and intensively, to deal with their underlying problems. Nationally, most children are considered for foster placement because of parental child abuse or neglect; eliminating the causes of family stress can end abuse.

For the past decade or more, most social work programs around the United States have offered too little help to families when they had the greatest need. Often they get only an hour a month. That's not enough to solve family problems, experts say. It results in caseworkers having a crushing number of seemingly never-ending cases, which impedes their ability to help.

Ms. Hutchinson is three months into her new job as deputy director of the Allegheny County Children and Youth Services, which serves Pittsburgh. From her office overlooking the Allegheny River, she is putting into practice what she's been preaching around the United States for a decade as a consultant.

She says she ``wanted to simplify the agency structure and uncomplicate the treatment structure.'' She means the agency will have far fewer internal compartments. From now on each family has one caseworker to help with all its requirements; no one in need will be shunted from person to person. Formerly Hutchinson was director of the National Resource Center on Family Based Services, at the University of Iowa.

Hutchinson is ``a leader in the nation'' in providing family-oriented services, says Jane Burnley, associate commissioner for the Children's Bureau of the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Most experts agree with Hutchinson's view that the best foster care system is one that keeps as many children as possible out of foster care. Prevention is ``the only real way you can go,'' insists Rep. George Miller (D) of California, Congress's ranking expert on foster care and children's issues. A 1980 federal law on child welfare required that states, as a condition of receiving federal funds, to try to keep children with their natural families and out of foster care.

Around the US there are a number of programs that many experts say are showing that prevention is the most promising way of giving long-term help to children - and, not so incidentally, to their parents.

One is Philadelphia's much-praised SCAN, which stands for the Supportive Child and Adult Network. It provides up to two years of multifaceted help for families in crisis - intensive at first, then diminishing as families become more able to stand on their own feet. SCAN is widely praised for its successes.

Another program, much imitated, is Homebuilders, which originated some 13 years ago in Tacoma, Wash. Its approach has spread nationwide because it has served as a training ground for staff members from other communities. Like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia's SCAN, Homebuilders provides whatever intensive aid is required to a family in such crisis that it is in danger of having its children taken to foster homes. This month Homebuilders began the process of installing a small program in New York City's deteriorated Bronx borough.

Homebuilders's programs work with families for four or five weeks as a rule, says Peter Forsythe, director of children's programs for the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, which has funded several Homebuilders-type programs. He says that well over 90 percent of families helped by Homebuilders are rated successes: Children remain safely with their parents; families stay together and are able to function much better than before.

``This is an important addition'' to the kinds of social services more generally available to troubled families and children, Mr. Forsythe says. ``It is a service of last resort [that] should be used with families where all other things have failed.''