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.

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."

High price tag

Yet emphasizing "best interest" and deemphasizing family preservation carries what Stermer calls "a very significant price tag." The number of children in out-of-home care in Illinois has doubled in seven years. Children are being removed from their homes at younger ages and remain in foster care longer.

The state's changed approach has caused costs for out-of-home care to jump from $200 million seven years ago to $800 million this year.

Whatever the cost, foster care remains an imperfect system, advocates admit. "We continue to conceptualize foster care in its 19th-century form, as a service with almost religious motivation, and yet we're trying to do it in a 21st-century economy," Mr. Mills says. "We pay low, and we don't always treat foster parents very well in terms of being part of a care team. They're sort of the low-status member. We don't always provide them with social services and support, and we expect them to be happy with this."

Steve Barrow, legislative director of the Children's Advocacy Institute in Sacramento, Calif., observes simlar problems. Although he sees "a lot of wonderful foster care settings," he calls the system "horribly underfunded." Training, inspection, and recruitment remain inadequate, he says.

Yet even better recruiting may not swell the ranks of foster parents appreciably, Mr. Richart says. Noting that Kentucky had the same number of foster parents in 1995 as it did in 1985, he says, "That seems to argue that there's a certain finite number of people who will surrender their privacy and their home life for other people's children."

Foster care often carries other limitations. Mary Lee Allen, director of child welfare at the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, explains that when reunification is the goal, agencies may try to deal with the parent's problem and with the child's problem. "But the issue of the interaction between the parent and child frequently gets left out," she says. "When a child is ready to go home, parenting issues have been neglected for many months."

To protect children across the country, Gelles advocates changes in federal law. States, he says, must be required to make the best interest of the child a top priority in order to qualify for federal funds. And they must allow child-protection officials to terminate parental rights sooner, thus freeing children for adoption. "If a parent still has a drug problem after 12 months, you don't have to keep kids in limbo," he says.

Some states are already changing laws to reflect these needs. In Connecticut this week, legislators are hearing testimony on a major bill that would give child welfare workers more latitude in cases of extreme abuse.

"States are at a juncture right now," says Linda D'Amario Rossi, commissioner of the Connecticut Department for Children and Youth. "I think policies are heading in a better direction." She calls such legislative changes "a giant step forward for kids."

More social workers

Other "giant steps," advocates say, must include hiring more and better-trained social workers.

"To ensure the protection of kids, you have to have people out in the field investigating abuse and neglect," Richart says. "It can't be done by computer or by telephone. You have to have ground troops out there in people's homes. But common political sentiment in Kentucky and the rest of the country has been toward reducing the number of social workers."

Advocates also call for more counseling services and child care to support troubled families.

Then there is the "giant step" of bigger budgets. "One thing that is almost never considered a political option is properly funding child-welfare services so we can at least ensure a proper investigation is made for every allegation of child maltreatment," says Curtis McMillen, a professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis.

Dr. McMillen also calls for more realistic expectations. "People expect the system to make the proper decision in each and every case, when it's impossible to do so," he says. "It's impossible to protect every child in their home, and at the same time it's impossible to avoid unfairly removing some children from their parents."

Whatever decision child-welfare workers make, many continue to regard family preservation as a worthy goal. "Family must always be examined as the most important option for children," Stermer says. "But if it's dangerous, then we should discard it as a possibility. The absolute best interest of the child must guide our decisionmaking."

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