A Critical Look At The Foster Care System:
How Widespread a Problem?
HOW WIDESPREAD A PROBLEM?
One of the most comprehensive surveys of abuse in foster care was conducted in conjunction with a Baltimore lawsuit. Trudy
Festinger, head of the Department of Research at the New York University School of Social Work, determined that over 28 per
cent of the children in state care had been abused while in the system.
Reviewed cases depicted "a pattern of physical, sexual and emotional abuses" inflicted upon children in the custody of
the Baltimore Department.
Cases reviewed as the trial progressed revealed children who had suffered continuous sexual and physical abuse or neglect
in foster homes known to be inadequate by the Department. Cases included that of sexual abuse of young girls by their foster
fathers, and that of a young girl who contracted gonorrhea of the throat as a result of sexual abuse in an unlicenced foster
In Louisiana, a study conducted in conjunction with a civil suit found that 21 percent of abuse or neglect cases involved
In another Louisiana case, one in which thousands of pages of evidence were reviewed, and extensive testimony and depositions
were taken, it was discovered that hundreds of foster children had been shipped out of the state to Texas.
Stephen Berzon of the Children's Defense Fund explained the shocking findings of the court before a Congressional subcommitte,
saying: "children were physically abused, handcuffed, beaten, chained, and tied up, kept in cages, and overdrugged with psychotropic
medication for institutional convenience."
In Missouri, a 1981 study found that 57 percent of the sample children were placed in foster care settings that put them
"at the very least at a high risk of abuse or neglect."
A later report issued in 1987 found that 25 percent of the children in the Missouri sample group had been victims of "abuse
or inappropriate punishment."
Children's Rights Project attorney Marcia Robinson Lowry described the findings of the Missouri review before the Select
Committee on Children, Youth and Families:
The most troubling result of the Kansas City review was the level of abuse, undetected or unreported, in foster
homes. 25% of the children in the sample were the subject of abuse or inappropriate punishment. 88% of those reports were
not properly investigated.SEXUAL ABUSE
A recent class action lawsuit filed on behalf of foster children in the State of Arizona serves well to indicate the extent
of sexual abuse of children in state care.
The suit alleges that over 500 of an estimated 4,000 foster children, a figure representing at least 12.5 percent of the
state's foster care population, have been sexually abused while in state care.
The action also charged that "the acts and omissions of Defendants were done in bad faith, with malice, intent or deliberate
indifference to and/or reckless disregard for the health, safety and rights of the Plaintiffs."
But the problems associated with foster placements in Arizona are not limited to sexual abuse. During a recent two year
period, one foster child died on average every seven and a half weeks in the state of Arizona. Four of them were reported
as having been "viciously beaten to death" by their foster parents.
The sexual abuse of children in government custody would appear to be a particularly widespread problem.
In Maryland, a 1992 study found that substantiated allegations of sexual abuse in foster care are four times higher than
that found among the general population.
In Kentucky, sex abuse in foster care was "all over the newspapers," according to department head Larry Michalczyk.
The former Commissioner explained that within a few years of time, his state saw a child die while in residential placement,
a lawsuit filed against a DSS staff member on behalf of a foster child, and legislative inquiries into its child protection
Kentucky would prove to be a problematic state, as case reviewers would find that only 55 percent of the children in the
state's care had the legally mandated case plans.
Perhaps the most significant indicator of the true extent of sexual abuse in foster care was a survey of alumni of what
was described as an "exemplary" and "model" program in the Pacific Northwest, argues University professor Richard Wexler.
"In this lavishly-funded program caseloads were kept low and both workers and foster parents got special training. This
was not ordinary foster care, this was Cadillac Foster Care," he explained.
In this "exemplary" program, 24 percent of the girls responding to a survey said they were victims of actual or attempted
sexual abuse in the one home in which they had stayed the longest. Significantly, they were not even asked about the other
foster homes in which they had stayed.
The Children's Rights Project has initiated a number of successful civil suits against foster care and child welfare systems.
One such landmark suit was brought against the Illinois foster care system. Attorney Benjamin Wolf instituted the legal action
after concluding that the states foster care system functioned as "a laboratory experiment to produce the sexual abuse of
Yet by many accounts, the sexual abuse of children in the state's care has increased along with the increase in placements,
successful lawsuits notwithstanding. Even Patrick Murphy, the outspoken Cook County Public Guardian, admits that sexual abuse
of children in the care of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has probably increased.SYSTEMWIDE ABUSES
According to an Associated Press investigation, in nearly half the states, cases take years to come to completion
as agencies repeatedly fail to investigate abuse reports in a timely fashion, find permanent homes for children, or even keep
track of those children under their care and custody.
For various reasons, ranging from failure to provide adequate supervision and oversight of workers, to failure to provide
safe child care facilities, 22 states and the District of Columbia have been ruled inadequate by the courts and now operate
under some form of judicial supervision.
But the reader should not be reassured that such problems are isolated only to those states which have been successfully
litigated against. As Children's Rights Project attorney Marcia Robinson Lowry explained to a Congressional subcommittee:
"We have turned down requests from a number of other states to institute additional lawsuits, solely because of a lack of
A 1986 survey conducted by the National Foster Care Education Project found that foster children were 10 times more likely
to be abused than children among the general population. A follow-up study in 1990 by the same group produced similar results.
The American Civil Liberties Union's Children's Rights Project similarly estimates that a child in the care of the state
is ten times more likely to be abused than one in the care of his parents.
In a legal action brought by the Children's Rights Project against the District of Columbia child welfare system, the United
States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia found that:
because of the appalling manner in which the system is managed, children remain subject to continuing abuse and
neglect at the hands of heartless parents and guardians, even after the DHS has received reports of their predicaments. The
court also found that youngsters who have been taken into the custody of the District's foster-care system languish in inappropriate
placements, with scarce hope of returning to their families or being adopted.
The Court also found that the agency entrusted with the care of children "has consistently evaded numerous responsibilities
placed on it by local and federal statutes." Among the deficiencies cited was "failure to provide services to families to
prevent the placement of children in foster care."
Frustrated by the lack of progress after years of litigation, child advocates succeeded in placing the District of Columbia
child welfare system into full receivership in 1995, making it the first such system in the nation to come under the direct
control of the Court.
In a Pennsylvania case, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit wrote in a 1994 decision: "It is a matter of common
knowledge (and it is not disputed here) that in recent years the system run by DHS and overseen by DPW has repeatedly failed
to fulfill its mandates, and unfortunately has often jeopardized the welfare of the children in its care."
The original complaint, filed by the Children's Rights Project on April 4, 1990, alleged that systemic deficiencies prevent
the Pennsylvania department from performing needed services, and that it consistently violates the due process rights of both
parents and children:
Specifically, plaintiffs claim that these amendments confer the right not to be deprived of a family relationship;
the right not to be harmed while in state custody; the right to placement in the least restrictive, most appropriate placement;
the right to medical and psychiatric treatment; the right to care consistent with competent professional judgment; and the
right not to be deprived of liberty or property interests without due process of law.
One of the plaintiffs in the Pennsylvania suit was "Tara M." on whose behalf the ACLU charged the city of Philadelphia
with neglect. Human Services Commissioner Joan Reeves guaranteed the young girl an adoptive home with specially trained parents.
In August of 1996, Tara M. would make the headlines once again, as her new foster parents were sentenced for "one of the
most appalling cases of child abuse" Common Pleas Court Judge Carolyn E. Temin said she had ever heard.
Nine-year-old Tara has had three skin grafts and wears a protective stocking in recovery from burns over more than half
her body. Police said the foster parents punished the girl by stripping her, forcing her into the bathtub and dousing her
with buckets of scalding water. This was the very best of care the city could provide for Tara, a girl who had already endured
years of physical and sexual abuse in the several foster homes into which she had been placed over the years.
The Children's Rights Project has also been involved in suits against child welfare systems in the states of Connecticut,
Kansas, Louisiana and New Mexico, and the cities of Kansas City, Missouri; Louisville, Milwaukee, and New York City.
Says Children's Rights Project attorney Marcia Robinson Lowry: "There are a lot of injuries, a lot of abuse. The most significant
thing is the psychological death of so many of these kids. Kids are being destroyed every day, destroyed by a government-funded
system set out to help them."
In California, as of 1989 Los Angeles County alone had paid $18 million in settlements to children who had been abused
while in its custody.
One such case involved a nine-year-old boy who weighed only 28 lbs., and who could hardly speak after the suicides of his
parents. County social workers failed to visit him in his foster home for four months.
During that time, he was beaten, sodomized, burned on his genitals and nearly drowned by his foster parents. He became
a spastic paraplegic. By 1990 the state was threatening to take over Los Angeles County's child welfare system.
The California-based Little Hoover Commission, in examining the functioning of the foster care system determined: "That
children can come to harm--and even die--while supposedly under the protection of foster care is not in dispute." Some cases
cited by the Commission included:
MINIMIZING THE ABUSES
- A foster mother arrested in Los Angeles on charges of beating to death her 23-month-old foster son, allegedly
over toilet training problems.
- A Los Angeles woman arrested for the attempted murder of a 19-month-old foster child who she said fell from a jungle gym.
Doctors believed the severe head injuries, which may result in blindness, could only have come from abuse.
- A Sacramento woman who was injured in a car accident who voluntarily placed her daughter in a foster care facility. During
a tantrum by the child, an employee of the facility wrapped her in a blanket and squatted on her. She was later discovered
Child welfare departments are rarely forthcoming with information about the actual extent of harm that comes to children
in their care. It is largely through audits and casereadings associated with legal actions that the actual extent of abuses
in the foster care system come to light.
The reasons for this may not be as complex as they are often made to appear.
Child welfare officials who have managed to entrench themselves in lifetime civil service positions in the more desirable
nooks and crannies of the child welfare system have a vested interest to protect, and those who run public bureaucracies have
devised their own "rationalized myths" to protect their interests, argues sociologist John Hagedorn.
The myths of "doing good" benefit those who are advantaged by existing institutional arrangements. Even as politicians
are constantly criticizing "bureaucracy" and "bureaucrats," they approve millions of dollars worth of public funds to keep
the bureaucracies running. As Hagedorn succinctly explains:
It's simply too risky for bureaucrats to admit that their agency may not be "doing good." The erosion of that
myth may lead someone to investigate them or even propose cutting their budgets.
But if there is one thing that is riskier for bureaucrats than admitting that their system may not be doing good, it is
that it is doing far more harm than good.
Thus we find situations such as that in which the California Department's legal division discovered a "secret room" in
the Los Angeles Department containing 15 filing cabinets holding approximately 3,000 case files on foster care facilities
that had problems which were not reported to the state.
In one case, ten foster children slept on the floor of a garage, while ten more were crammed into an upstairs bedroom.
Three had been abused, one with a fractured skull and two broken limbs. Yet the home was not closed until months after the
conditions were discovered.
Thus we find caseworkers in a Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services office running files relating to
a botched investigation through a paper-shredder.
Thus we find a New York City caseworker indicating as "unfounded" the repeated rapes of a young girl in institutional care,
notwithstanding the testimony of credible witnesses.
Thus we find an agency administrator in Oklahoma quietly dismissing two agency employees accused of the sexual abuse of
foster children without so much as a blot on their records.
Thus we find what was described as a "whitewash of wrongdoing" in an edited audit of a child welfare office in Utah, and
death threats made against the rare brave legislator who dared to push for the public release of the unexpurgated document.
Thus we find a report of system-wide abuses at the Columbus-Maryville "shelter" in Illinois suppressed by Cook County Public
Guardian Patrick Murphy.THE QUIET ABUSES
With the high rate of multiple placements that most foster children endure, the possibility that they may experience overt
physical or sexual abuse becomes an increasing certainty with each move. Yet even those children who are not subjected to
overt physical or sexual abuse in state care often endure conditions tantamount to abuse.
Due to the overuse of foster care, the high number of children in custody often results in children being placed on a bed-available
The number of conventional foster homes in the public sector has dropped from 125,000 in 1988 to 100,000 today--and the
"exodus continues," says Gordon Evans, information director for the National Foster Parent Association in Houston.
Evans notes that the average number of children per home is 3.7--up from about 1.4 in 1983--and he estimates that "tens
of thousands" care for six, seven, and eight youngsters at a time.
Because of the shortage of conventional foster homes, and due in no small measure to the unwillingness of child welfare
agencies to provide meaningful services to families, children continue to be shuttled off to institutional or residential
placements on a bed-available basis.
Julie and her twin brother Juan were two such children. They were placed with their grandmother who tried to obtain needed
services for them. The agency neglected to provide services, instead shuttling them in and out of five placements in which
they often failed to receive proper medical care for their health problems.
The agency then sent Julie and Juan, at the age of two, to an institution for adolescent boys. When their grandmother visited
them she discovered that Julie had been physically abused. The twins were then placed with a foster mother who again abused
them, while failing to provide proper medical care.
Juan, after suffering a great deal of pain, died at age 3 before he could be returned to his grandmother. Julie's condition
worsened after her brother's death, and she died at age four. The advocacy group Children's Rights sued the city of New York
for damages, and a jury awarded $87,500 to Julie's estate. Her surviving sister plans to use the money to attend college.
Julie and Juan's story is in many respects typical. Because of the shortage of conventional foster homes due to the high
number of children being unnecessarily placed in care, children often have labels assigned arbitrarily for purposes
Children may end up in a place like the Hegeman Diagnostic Center in Brooklyn, where a twelve-year-old girl who had been
raped in a foster home was brought--only to be sexually abused by other girls at the center.
"We believe that assaults, sexual and otherwise, occur daily at the center," said Karen Freedman of Lawyers for Children.
Or they may wind up in a private residential treatment center like Indian Oaks in Manteno, Illinois, on the grounds of
what used to be the state mental institution.
"Indian Oaks occupies one building, but the rest is desolate, empty, broken buildings," says Peter Schmiedel, supervising
attorney of the Special Litigations Team in the Office of the Public Guardian. "It's something out of a bad, eerie movie."
Says Schmiedel: "If ever you want to see something terrible, go to the DCFS intake shelter at Columbus-Maryville. Go downstairs
where they keep the teenagers. The place used to be a morgue. It's a room without windows, crowded, wall-to-wall beds."
These beds were created in response to DCFS saying they need more beds, adds Schmiedel. "It's market-driven forces, children
Part of Schmiedel's job is to go through unusual incident reports. "We must get two or three hundred a week," he says,
some of which include serious reports of physical and sexual abuse in treatment centers and foster homes. "It's frightening--we
don't know which cases are the most serious."
"You see what some parents do to their kids, but then you see what happens to kids who are removed from their homes and
put into foster homes... I mean, the stories are grotesque."
Or consider the plight of those foster wards locked in detention in the San Francisco Youth Guidance Center Facility--maintained
in small locked cells alongside alleged juvenile offenders who are themselves awaiting adjudication of their cases. A grand
jury found the conditions endured by these children to be far worse than that endured by adult criminals in the County prison.THE SILENT NEGLECT
Even for those fortunate enough not to find themselves warehoused in glorified prisons, mental hospitals or congregate
care facilities, overcrowding, medical and educational neglect are still the norm for many of the nation's foster children.
A 1993 action filed in Utah is in many ways typical. The National Center for Youth Law filed the class-action on behalf
of about 1,400 children in foster care and another 10,000 alleged to have been abused and neglected.
The action charged that the state failed to provide adequately trained caseworkers, medical treatment and education to
children in its care, that it used unlicensed foster homes and homes that did not meet federal standards. It also alleged
that children bounce around in the system and languish in foster care. A subsequent legislative audit largely confirmed the
By 1994, the Utah legislature approved what the Governor called a "SWAT Team approach" to handling the system wide deficiencies
in its foster care and child protective services programs.
By 1995 it had established "Judicial M*A*S*H units," courtrooms with temporary judges to handle the backlog of hundreds
of children waiting for rulings on their cases.
Also typical of recent actions is a Youth Law Center suit in California which accused Eloise Anderson, director of the
Department of Social Services, of refusing to carry out state and federal laws which require audits of county child welfare
Among the deficiencies cited in the lawsuit: "children in California's child welfare system have been subjected to inadequate
supervision, substandard conditions and inadequate health care and education."
On a national level, the General Accounting Office recently examined the issue of whether the nation's foster children
were being adequately serviced with respect to their health care needs. The GAO found that:
- despite foster care agency regulations requiring comprehensive routine health care, an estimated 12 percent
of young foster children receive no routine health care, 34 percent receive no immunizations, and 32 percent have some identified
health needs that are not met
- an estimated 78 percent of young foster children are at high risk for human immunodeficiency virus as a result of parental
drug abuse, yet only about 9 percent of foster children are tested for HIV
- young foster children placed with relatives receive fewer health-related services than children placed with nonrelative
foster parents, possibly since relative caregivers receive less monitoring and assistance from caseworkers
- that the Department of Health and Human Services has not designated any technical assistance to assist states with health-related
programs for foster children and does not audit states' compliance with health-related safeguards for foster children.
As for the educational needs of children in state care, the situation is equally as distressing.
Miami attorney Karen Gievers, former President of the Florida Bar Association, filed a lawsuit in 1996, alleging that while
73 percent of Florida children among the general population graduate from high school or get an equivalent diploma, less than
half of the state's foster children do.
In 1995, a suit was filed in Florida against its Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. The suit sought to shut
down the Department, forcing HRS to stop taking children into foster care until it could better aid the 9,300 children already
under its supervision. According to Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association's Center on Children and the
You could carbon-copy the lawsuit filed in Florida in every state. . . We have a child welfare system that's near
Even for those children who are not necessarily subjected to overt physical or sexual while in state care, life in state
care often fails to provide them with permanence or stability.
The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation reports that most foster care placements bear no resemblence to the ideal short term
stay on the way to family reunification. Rather, "the devastating norm for foster children is multiple moves, extended stays,
and no stable family ties."
Or, as Bruce Boyer, supervising attorney for the Children and Family Justice Center of Northwestern Law School notes, "there
are a set of harms that follow a kid in foster care even if they are treated as well as the foster care system is capable
of treating children. For those kinds of harms there is no mechanism for holding decision makers accountable; the only one
who suffers is the child."
The most tragic aspect of all this is that most of the children subjected to the abuses of foster care don't need to be
there. And, it is largely because the system is flooded with so many children that don't belong in care that these
abuses continue to mount.
The situation is perhaps best summarized by a California based Santa Clara County Grand Jury report. "The Grand Jury did
not see clear and convincing evidence that the foster care system operates with the best interest of the child in mind. It
did find that the interest of the child often took a back seat to the interest of others.