Tide Shifts on How to Protect Abused Children
As reported cases of abuse rise, more states reconsider their focus on keeping children in troubled families
Every day, child-welfare workers face an agonizing decision: whether to keep physically abused and neglected children with their parents or place them in a foster home.Skip to next paragraph
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That dilemma has taken on new urgency. In the wake of recent highly publicized cases in several states where children died from beatings at the hands of parents or other adults in the home, some advocates and legislators are calling for change.
"The current system is only weighted toward giving mother and dad a chance to get their life together," says Richard Gelles, director of the Family Violence Research Program at the University of Rhode Island. "It puts the family first. I want a system that puts the child first."
But experts disagree on what a "child-first" system is. Throughout the 1960s and '70s, states routinely placed physically abused and neglected children in foster care. In 1980, however, a federal law required states to make "reasonable efforts" to keep abused children with their birth families or to reunite families after a period of foster care.
Now, rising reports of child abuse and instances of the failure of state workers to protect at-risk children are spurring renewed interest in balancing family preservation with foster care.
David Richart, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates in Louisville, says he and other advocates are trying to achieve a balance - to "get the pendulum to rest in the middle." Mr. Richart headed a state task force which, after finding an overreliance on foster care in 1986, reported last September that the state had swung too far toward family preservation and had failed to protect children adequately.
The number of American children reported abused has tripled since 1976 to 3 million in 1994, according to the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse. Not all reports of abuse are substantiated.
In the search for more balance, concerns are being raised about how to avoid overwhelming an already burdened foster-care system, how to fund improved programs, as well as how to prevent overzealous removal of children from their homes in cases of unwarranted charges.
For many years Dr. Gelles, a nationally recognized expert on family violence, thought children should be permanently removed from their homes only as a last resort, even if that meant they might spend years shuttling between their birth parents and foster care.
Today, after studying hundreds of child-fatality records, he has concluded that some violent parents are "not rehabilitable at all." For others, "the time it would take to resolve all their problems, including drugs, would be too long," Gelles says. In such cases adoption should be a more acceptable alternative, he argues. He points out that current policies consign many children to a revolving door of foster homes while social workers try, often unsuccessfully, to help parents.
Many advocates acknowledge that removing more children from abusive homes will strain an already overburdened foster-care system, which now accommodates an estimated half-million children. Without an infusion of money and support to help both foster parents and troubled birth parents, they say, some children will fail to get the protection they need.
Indeed, inadequacies within the foster-care system were a factor in prompting a national shift to family reunification. "Children would drift from foster home to foster home until they turned 18 and the state cut them loose," says Thomas Lyon, an assistant professor of law at the University of Southern California.
In addition, he says, "there was a political view that parents have a right to their child and the state should not intervene except in the most extreme cases."
Some child advocates emphasize that foster care, however necessary, is no panacea. "At some point you have to realize that the substitute living arrangements may not be significantly different than the existing family," says James Mills, executive director of the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County in St. Petersburg, Fla. Finding and retaining good foster parents remains difficult, he says.
As a result, several states, such as Kentucky, are trying to strike a balance between family reunification and foster care. In Illinois, the Family Preservation Act of 1989 shifted some resources away from foster care. Almost immediately, says Jerry Stermer, president of Voices for Illinois Children in Chicago, critics of family preservation "blasted the policy as a failure." Four years later, in 1993, the state's General Assembly passed a "best interest of the child" bill, calling for case-by-case decisionmaking.
"There is a clear swing in Illinois toward saying that children who have been abused and neglected need to be protected away from their parents," Mr. Stermer says. "We put a very, very small percentage of our resources toward working with families where the children stay with the parents."