Proceed With Caution on Foster Care Laws

In the editorial "Children Need a Family" (Oct. 30), the Monitor endorses legislation pending in Congress that proponents say will reduce the number of children languishing in foster care, promote adoption, and lead to fewer child abuse deaths.

In fact, if this bill becomes law, it will backfire. The premises on which it is based are false. It will lead to more children in foster care, fewer adoptions and, worst of all, more child-abuse deaths.

Backers of the bill argue that children languish in foster care because a 1980 federal law requires "reasonable efforts" to keep families together. They cite statistics showing an increase in foster care, but only since about the mid-1980s. In fact, there were more foster children in the late 1970s - before the reasonable-efforts law was passed - than today.

Children don't languish in foster care because agencies are trying to send them home. Having often been needlessly removed in the first place, they are placed in foster care and forgotten. Eliminating the minimal protections afforded by the "reasonable efforts" clause will only worsen their plight.

Then there is the notion that social workers return children to abusive homes because they believe in "family preservation," and because the reasonable-efforts law supposedly requires it. But the law requires no such thing, and both its legislative history and the Department of Health and Human Services have made that clear.

As for family preservation, the term originated with a model pioneered in Washington State. Similar programs have kept tens of thousands of families together - with a better track record for safety than foster care.

But such programs are smeared when the "family preservation" label is slapped onto any return of any child to any home under any circumstance.

When children "known to the system" die, the twin scapegoats are "reasonable efforts" and "family preservation." Coping with the real reasons these children sometimes die is a lot harder. A government agency rarely will admit that a child died because of its own incompetence or as a result of budget cuts, when the agency can scapegoat a federal law instead.

Scapegoating the law reinforces stereotypes: It is the brutally abusive or hopelessly addicted parents who make headlines. But far more common are children trapped in foster care because their parents' poverty is confused with "neglect."

Courts in Illinois and New York have found that children repeatedly are taken from parents when they lack decent housing. The former court-appointed receiver in charge of the Washington, D.C., system estimates that between one-third and one-half of Washington's foster children could be home if decent housing were available.

Backers of the congressional proposal say it eliminates reasonable efforts only in egregious cases of abuse. In fact, the legislation would include "catch all" clauses that effectively eliminate the reasonable-efforts requirement in almost every case. And that will have tragic consequences for children. We know that because tragedy has followed wherever states have made similar changes.

Four years ago, after the murder of three-year-old Joseph Wallace, Illinois law was changed, supposedly to put "child protection" ahead of "family preservation." The result: The foster care population soared, children slept in offices and shelters, and the number of known deaths of children in foster care went from zero to five - a record. The system was so overwhelmed that workers had no time to find children in real danger.

As for the promise of adoption, when a system is overwhelmed with needless placements, there is not time to deal with anything else - including terminating parental rights in cases where it truly is justified. Small increases in adoptions can't keep pace with the influx, and in some cases, the number of adoptions actually drops.

The states, it is said, are laboratories of democracy. Before members of Congress vote on the pending legislation, one can only hope that they look at the lab results.

Richard Wexler

Alexandria, Va.

Author of "Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse" (Prometheus Books).

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