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Coming up: two intelligent - and sobering - documentaries. ABC probes foster care; Wiseman films ICBMs

By Arthur Unger / August 30, 1988



New York

Crimes Against Children: Failure of Foster Care ABC, tonight, 10-11. Anchor: Rebecca Chase. Executive producer: Av Westin. Senior producer: Ray Nunn. Missile PBS, tomorrow, 9-11 p.m. (check local listings for day and time). Producer/director/editor: Frederick Wiseman. Cameraman: John Davey.

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In the midst of network TV's summer doldrums, two extraordinary documentaries - one on the people who control America's nuclear arsenal, the other on the United States' tangled foster-care system - make pushing the ``on'' button worthwhile.

Tonight's ``Crimes Against Children'' on ABC is actually a follow-up on an award-winning 1979 program, ``Nobody's Children.'' That ABC News ``Closeup'' investigated the foster-care system in the US and discovered scandalous abuses and widespread lack of supervision. Now ``Crimes Against Children'' revisits the system to see how things have improved.

But unfortunately, anchor Rebecca Chase reports that they have not improved. In fact, this documentary tells a horror story. It is an excruciating recital of the experiences of innocent children - unloved, abused, molested, murdered.

It is loaded with startling figures:

Some 450,000 American children will spend some time in foster care this year.

Last year, three children a day in the US died as the result of abuse.

Nearly 3 million children have been added to the poverty rolls over the past decade.

Since 1980, reports of child abuse and neglect have increased nearly 90 percent, to 2.5 million per year.

Rates of abuse for children in foster-care homes is 10 times as great as for children in the general population.

But what will concern viewers most is the case histories - the unrelenting glimpses of abused children crying out for help. And nearly as jolting are the comments of foster-care workers, explaining that unrealistic caseloads and cumbersome regulations make it impossible for them to do a competent job.

Why is the population of children in foster homes increasing so rapidly? The documentary offers these answers: an increase in child abuse, unwed pregnancies, poverty, homelessness, AIDS, and drug addiction. The danger to the children, the filmmakers found, does not always lie in unsupervised foster homes; often it is greatest when children are returned to previously neglectful parents. As Ms. Chase points out: ``In most states, the law says that every reasonable effort must be made to rehabilitate the parent and reunite the family. But the problem is that the laws which safeguard parents' rights often fail to protect children.''

While the program attempts to pinpoint some solutions, it is far better at exposing the problems - as is the case with society in general. The filmmakers do manage, however, to spotlight a few new programs that are cost-effective and offer real hope. In general, they are programs designed to strengthen families, thus preventing children from being sent to foster homes in the first place.

Yale University runs a program with a counseling team that offers economic and psychological advice to families in trouble. The cost is just about half of what regular foster care would run. In New Jersey and a few other states, there are workshop programs to train and provide emotional support to new foster parents.