Why child agencies lose kids

Since case of missing Rilya Wilson, Florida can't locate 3 percent of its foster children.

Rilya Wilson's story, everyone acknowledges, is appalling. It is the subject of astonishment from the street corners of Cuban barrios to Fort Lauderdale's wholefoods markets: How could Florida simply lose one of its foster children?

The answer has come slowly, through sobering revelations – that Rilya's caseworker made no home visits for more than a year, that she filed false reports of visits that never occurred, that the reports were never checked. It is, in many ways, a worst-case scenario of negligence and deceit. But it is not unheard of.

Before Rilya, there was Terrell Peterson in Georgia and Elisa Izquierdo in New York – two youngsters with similar stories and fatal endings. And now comes the news that one month after Gov. Jeb Bush asked Florida's Department of Children and Families to contact every foster child, 1,237 – or 3 percent – remain unaccounted for. Taken together, the tales point to a fundamental problem in foster care nationwide: accountability.

For two decades, tighter federal standards have pushed counties and states to ensure that child-welfare caseworkers and bureaucrats provide adequate care. Yet progress has been slow, leading experts to say that cases like Rilya's could certainly happen elsewhere. Indeed, many paint a picture of a system in crisis, as caseloads increase and more children slip through the cracks.

Accountability is only one aspect, but the experiences of several cities suggest that it can be a significant part of the solution. Moved to major reforms by tragedy or lawsuit, the examples perhaps offer a glimpse at the road ahead for Florida and, more broadly, the United States.

"This is an issue in most systems, and a big issue in the worst systems," says Marcia Robinson-Lowry of Children's Rights in New York. "The way they can function so poorly is a lack of accountability."

Unfulfilled promises of reform

Florida, ironically, recently had been among the most active in trying to reform its child-welfare system. Governor Bush campaigned that he would fix foster care four years ago, and has since doubled the budget for foster care and child welfare.

Yet Rilya's case suggests that – at least in some respects – little has changed. The circumstances surrounding her disappearance, for example, are still something of a mystery. Rilya's grandmother – who was caring for the child – claims that someone from the Department of Children and Families picked her up for tests more than a year ago, but the department has no record of such a visit.

Add to that a report in the Miami Herald that Rilya's caseworker had a second job as a substitute teacher, instructing classes on the same days she was supposed to be visiting foster children and their families, and Florida's foster-care system has come under severe criticism.

While experts say this case is extreme, it indicates the minimal oversight cases often receive.

"Quality assurance is the weakest part of the system," says Carole Shauffer, executive director of the Youth Law Center in San Francisco. "It could happen here in California, too."

File under 'missing'

Part of the problem is simply a matter of accounting. In terms of collecting information about a family, storing it, and then tracking changes over time, many states and localities are still in the Stone Age. Computerization could allow any supervisor anywhere to pull up a file and review it, but it's still in its infant stages in many places. Paper files are still common and can be easily misplaced.

One expert tells of a caseworker he knew who accidentally left five case files in his car, which was stolen – essentially erasing those children from public record. Then, last week, a reporter in Florida bought a box of old reports from the Department of Children and Families that was accidentally put up for auction.

"A certain amount of computerization has reduced the problem, but not eliminated it," says Richard Gelles of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Part-time caseworkers

To others, however, the problems go much deeper. Some managers have become more lenient toward staff workers who can't keep up with their scheduled visits and there are few consequences for missed appointments. After all, the number of children in states' care nationwide has more than doubled to nearly 600,000 during the past seven years, and workers are being pushed to their limits.

"Sometimes supervisors, in an attempt to be supportive, will overlook things," says Linda Spears of the Child Welfare League of America in Washington.

The federal government has tried to make states and counties more accountable by linking federal money to improvements in data collection and case reviews. But the changes have been incremental. The most sweeping reforms have come in places like New York and Kansas City, Mo., where governments have been moved by public outrage or the hand of the law.

Even there, though, the pace has not been brisk. A common thread has been patience and persistence. Jackson County, which includes Kansas City and its environs, has been striving to improve since 1978, when activists first filed a lawsuit against the county. After years of motions and decrees, a new and pioneering child-welfare system is taking shape.

The changes are simple, but in the largely unregulated world of foster care, they are substantial: Background checks of foster parents, expanded and more in-depth case reviews, a quality-assurance team that not only checks to see if workers did their jobs, but also evaluates how well they did them.

Some of the same reforms are at work in New York, which in many ways offers the closest parallel to what is happening in Florida. After the death of foster child Elisa Izquierdo seven years ago, the city essentially rebuilt its child-welfare system from scratch by paying more attention to foster children and putting more emphasis on holding workers and supervisors responsible.

"It was a series of very basic changes [such as data collection and training] that put them in a position to make dramatic changes," says John Mattingly of the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore. "It's a good example. If you can do it in New York, you'll be able to do it in a system that's not as big and unwieldy."

Georgia has begun to take some similar steps after Terrell Peterson was killed while under foster care two years ago, and a blue ribbon panel has suggested similar action for Florida. Whether the state acts on those recommendations is unclear, but it will have a hard time ignoring them.

"When there is a terrible story about a child, it brings the problem home in a way numbers do not," says Ms. Lowry. "The fact that this is focusing attention on the system may be helpful in protecting other children."

• Jennifer LeClaire contributed to this report from Miami.

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