Ten Years Later: Foster Care, Again

IN late June, Congress marked the 10th anniversary of its enactment of sweeping legislation to reform the nation's child welfare system and provide foster children with greater legal safeguards. The law resulted in many significant improvements. But forces unleashed in the '80s demand a renewed commitment to these children. The ``Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980'' was designed to reduce foster care placements by providing services to families at risk. The law also established procedural protections, including a case review system and due process guarantees, to protect children from languishing in foster care.

Ten years later, approximately 500,000 children live in the foster care, juvenile justice, and mental health systems. An increasing number are repeat placements. The number of children in out-of-home care could rise top 840,000 by 1995, if present trends continue.

Children, families, foster parents, and caseworkers have become victims under the current, overburdened system. A 12-year-old former foster child testified before Congress that he'd had so many different placements that he couldn't remember them all. A mother told us she placed her son in foster care to get him the services he badly needed.

In Florida, a caseworker was recently convicted of child abuse for returning a two-year-old to parents who drowned the toddler because she had not been toilet trained. Caseworkers have repeatedly testified that they are understaffed and overworked. In trying to determine whether to return a child to its parents, caseworkers are now damned if they do and damned if they don't.

When the 1980 law was enacted, crack cocaine was unknown. Eight years later, over 100,000 children were born exposed to cocaine. That number could rise to 4 million by the end of this decade. The victims of crack and other drugs are prime candidates for the foster care system. In New York City, crack was a factor in nearly 9,000 child neglect cases last year - over three times as many as in 1986. In California, over 60 percent of drug exposed babies have been placed in foster care, and nationwide many more have become ``boarder babies'' - abandoned in hospitals by parents too sick, or too strung out, to care for them.

AIDS, virtually unknown in 1980, today infects hundreds of children who are abandoned and in need of care. Another leading cause of children entering the child welfare system in the '80s was child abuse. Reports of abuse have more than doubled since a decade ago, with over 2.2 million reports last year.

And a decade ago, the scourge of homelessness was only a minor concern. Today, families with children are one of the fastest growing groups among the homeless, and those children are prime candidates for foster care. In fact, some social-service agencies have compelled homeless parents to give up their children in order to qualify for shelter.

These factors were compounded by massive cuts in federal ``safety net'' child welfare and housing programs. With the ink barely dry on the 1980 foster care law, the new Reagan administration sought to repeal it and let state and local governments handle the mounting crises on their own. When Congress wouldn't let that happen, the Department of Health and Human services tried de facto repeal: funding for preventative services was opposed, state plans went unreviewed, and few audits were conducted despite growing evidence of fiscal mismanagement and soaring costs.

Fortunately, some counties and states have initiated family preservation programs to reduce dependence on foster placements, often with financial support from foundations and the private sector. Many have demonstrated success. Only 2 percent of the families served under Maryland's Intensive Family Services program, for example, required out-of-home placement.

But many states and localities can't afford their own programs to compensate for federal indifference. Legislation we recently introduced will direct greater resources toward family preservation and will assist states in developing proven, cost effective services to keep families together - such as pre-placement, reunification, post-adoption and after-care assistance, and strengthened due process protections for foster children and their parents.

It is a sad commentary on the state of domestic policies that the best action Congress can take to commemorate the 10th anniversary of our foster care law is to pass a new bill to fulfill the promise of the original reform. Sad, yes; but it would be irresponsible to allow hundreds of thousands of children to languish without a place to call home.

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