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A Critical Look At The Foster Care System:
How Great the Need?


Today, over half a million children are in foster care in the United States. The vast majority of these children have been removed from their homes without legal excuse or justification. Psychologist and author Dr. Seth Farber explains:

Only a small minority of these children have been separated from parents who are dangerous to them. The overwhelming majority have been separated from loving and responsible parents. One does not need to be a child psychologist to realize the devastating effect of removing a child from parents with whom he or she is deeply bonded.[1]

The number of children removed from their homes is staggering, and by many accounts continues to increase. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, for example, confirmed during the 1990s that it removed over 1,000 children per month from their homes.[2]

Do these children really all come from families who are so abusive and neglectful of their children that they need to be removed from their homes?

"The majority of parents who come before our court love their children," explained Denise Kane, Inspector General of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, to a Congressional subcommittee. "Their children look to them with love and seek the attention and nurturing of their parents."[3]

A 1990 study conducted in Illinois by the Chapin Hall Center for Children would bear this out. At least 40% of the children in foster care found the reasons for placement confusing, while one-third of them did not even know why they had a caseworker.[4]

In Los Angeles County, California, 26,947 children entered the foster care system for the first time in 1995.[5]

Did these children truly all arrive from abusive or neglectful households? Just as in Illinois, many could safely have been left in their own homes, according to the testimony of Department head Peter Digre.

Under questioning by a Congressional subcommittee, Digre admitted to legislators that about half of the removals of children from their homes in his system are due to poverty, and not abuse or neglect.

"It gets down to those very specific issues about a place to live, food on the table, medical care, and thing like that," he explained, adding, "about half of the families are not physical abusers, not sexual abusers, not people with propensities to violence but simply people who are struggling to keep ends pulled together and are eminently salvagable."

This was too much for a frustrated Congressman Herger, who replied: "Evidently, it is your department's practice to remove children from families in about 50 percent of the cases because they don't have enough money."[6]

In Sacramento, California, child protective services caseworkers removed an estimated 400 children per month during the late 1990s--up from previous levels of 200 per month. Authorities reviewed cases that in some instances stemmed from five-year-old reports, conducting random sweeps of homes late at night without search warrants.

The majority of the children removed in these midnight raids have not necessarily been abused or neglected, rather they are determined to be "at risk" of abuse or neglect at some point in the future.[7]

How did it come to pass that so many children could be unnecessarily removed from salvagable and loving homes without inspiring public outrage? Professor of social work Leroy Pelton explains:

In the 1960s and 1970s, a child abuse crusade, based upon the discovery of the "battered child syndrome," and the social construction of child abuse as a social problem of "epidemic" proportions, served to drive the explosion in foster care placements, fueled by new child abuse and neglect reporting laws, public awareness campaigns, and increased funding for social services, much of which was used for foster care.[8]

"Increased reporting has led to a dramatic rise in the number of children who are taken away from their parents and placed into foster care," writes Douglas Besharov, the founding director of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect.

In 1963, no state had a law mandating the reporting of suspected child abuse or neglect. By the 1980s, all 50 states had such laws in place, and as a result of these new reporting laws, scores of children have been inappropriately removed from their homes. Besharov explains:

In 1963, about 75,000 children were put in foster care because of abuse or neglect. In 1980, the figure had ballooned to more than 300,000. Of these children about half had been in care for at least two years, and roughly one-third for over six years. Yet, according to data collected for the federal government, it appears that up to half of these children were in no immediate danger and could have been safely left in the care of their parents.

Vague laws "set no limits on intervention and provide no guidelines for decision making," Besharov explains, adding that they are "a prime reason for the system's inability to protect obviously endangered children even as it intervenes in family life on a massive scale." Without exception, efforts to develop more precise laws have been met with resistance and hence have been unsuccessful.[9]

"County child protection agencies differ somewhat in their definitions of what constitutes maltreatment," explains the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor. "The result is a system of widely varying practices and standards, sometimes operating without the full confidence of the public or the professionals who make many reports of maltreatment." The lack of clear definitions also leads to widely differing substantiation and child removal rates among county agencies, as the Auditor explains:

some county agencies require evidence of an injury "such as a bruise" before determining that maltreatment has occurred, while other agencies do not. Some county agencies think it is acceptable for children ages seven or older to be left unsupervised, while others do not. Some counties rarely if ever determine that caregivers have caused "mental injuries," while other counties frequently--and sometimes without psychiatric or psychological diagnoses--justify maltreatment determinations on the basis of mental injury.[10]

Federal financial incentives contribute to the crisis. While federal funds for the maintenance of children in foster care have historically been unlimited, monies that could have been used to provide in-home services have been appropriated at levels far below that authorized by Congress. And, many of those funds appropriated by the states for in-home services have historically been diverted instead to foster care.[11]

Current child welfare policies extract a high fiscal cost, in addition to the toll they extract on innocent families and children. As veteran journalist and author Richard Wexler explains:

Half the children now in foster care could safely be in their own homes if proper services were provided. Now, the federal government spends eight times more on children in foster care than on services to keep children out of foster care.[12]

Indeed, a Los Angeles Grand Jury investigation revealed that it costs up to $10,000 to maintain a child in the County's emergency shelter for just one month of time.[13]

The tragic reality is that while a small fraction of this amount would serve well to eliminate the "issues about a place to live, food on the table, medical care" and other factors leading to placement which Los Angeles' director Peter Digre described, his Department continues to remove children from their homes at an astounding rate.

"There are no family oriented, preventive services to keep children from coming into State care and no reunification services for children who come into State care," explained District of Columbia Bar Association Attorney Diane Weinroth to a Congressional committee.

Not only is this appalling in terms of the emotional costs to the children and families, she said, but "it is ridiculous because the cost of keeping children in State care is enormous."

"The cost of providing services to children in family settings, or with their natural families, is a fraction of the cost, generally speaking, than it takes to keep a child in the care of the State."[14]


Perhaps the best indication of how many children could be averted from inappropriate placement is suggested by a diversion program established in Nashville-Davidson County, Tennessee.

In a study sponsored by the Urban Institute during the early 1970s, it was found that children were often inappropriately entering state care. Child welfare services consisted of a hodgepodge of different agencies lacking in coordination.

Professor of social work Duncan Lindsey describes what happened once these children entered the system:

Once in, the bureaucratic door closed behind them, and they found it hard to get out. Bureaucratic inertia suddenly asserted itself. Procedures had to be followed. Forms filled out. Hearings held. Interviews. More forms. No one wanted to take responsibility for releasing children back to a possibly dangerous home environment. The burden of proof shifted from the agency, which, in its view, had acted correctly in removing the children, to the parents who must now prove definitively why their children should be allowed to return home. The system designed to serve children and families had lost sight of its mission.[15]

As a result of this study, and through a joint initiative between federal, state and local government, the Comprehensive Emergency Services program was established, the first objective of which was to "reduce the number of dependency petitions filed and the number of children entering into they system by screening out those cases where a petition was not justified."

Through a combination of screening, coordination and provision of services, remarkable results were obtained.

As a result of the CES program, the number of dependency petitions dropped sharply--from 602 before the program started to 226 two years later. "This was achieved largely by screening the number of petitions sworn out and averting or preventing the inappropriate placement of children in care," notes Lindsey.

What is even more remarkable is that the number of cases coming to the attention of the system increased from 770 to 2,156 during the course of the program--an increase of 180 percent. Thus, while the number of potential entrants increased threefold during the course of the program, the number of actual admissions into care dropped by two-thirds.

The number of children removed from their homes and placed into care declined from 353 to 174, a decline of about 50 percent. The number of children placed in residential facilities was reduced from 262 to 35, a decrease of more than 85 percent. Perhaps most significantly, the number of children under six who were admitted dropped from 180 to zero.

But diverting placement would prove to be futile if the child showed up again due to continuing abuse or neglect. This did not appear to happen. The number of children for whom petitions were initially filed and who turned up again by the end of the following year due to abuse or neglect declined from 196 to 23.

The remarkable success of this program notwithstanding, it has yet to be replicated on any meaningful scale.


The inability on the part of many child protective services caseworkers to differentiate between poverty and neglect is a major contributing factor to the continued inappropriate removals of children from their homes, argue many system critics.[16]

Close to 85 per cent of the cases agencies label as neglect are actually poverty cases, says Trevor Grant, former Director of Social Services of the New York City Child Welfare Administration, and removing children from their homes is often the safest course of action for a caseworker to take:

For the most trivial reasons families are destroyed. If the furniture is broken down or the house is messy, CWA workers will remove the child. When in doubt, the safest practice for the workers is to remove the children and then to file neglect charges that never have to be proved in court.[17]

Two Massachusetts studies serve to demonstrate the inextricable link between poverty and child removal.

Contrary to the results one might expect, in a study of abused and neglected children entering a hospital emergency room it was found that the severity of a physical injury served to decrease the likelihood of a child being placed outside of the home.

Specifically, the researchers found that the highest predictor of removal was not the extent of a given physical injury, but rather whether or not the family was Medicaid-eligible.[18]

In a follow-up study of 805 children, researchers found that the degree of physical injury to a child only became statistically significant in the reporting of child abuse when the family's income was excluded from the analysis.[19]

The consequences of vague statutes, increased reporting, and poor decision making among child protective services caseworkers are everywhere to be found.

In Los Angeles, lawyers at the office of Public Counsel reviewed every abuse and neglect petition filed in the county during one week in 1987. They found 30% of the petitions to be so groundless that they should never have been filed at all.[20]

Two years later in Seattle, Washington, the Governor's Commission on Children came to the same conclusion, finding that 30% of the petitions filed were for children who did not need to be in foster care.[21]

In Illinois, researchers for the Child Welfare Institute in Atlanta examined cases in three Illinois cities in 1994, conducting interviews with parents, foster parents, and caseworkers. Again, the researchers reached exactly the same conclusion. Reports the Chicago Tribune:

The Child Welfare Institute determined that in one-third of the cases, there was absolutely no reason for the children not to be home with their parents. The children were in foster care for the protection of their caseworker, not for their own safety.[22]

Defensive social work of the variety identified by the Child Welfare Institute would appear to permeate the field. In 1997, for example, removals of children from their homes in the Tampa Bay area of Florida reportedly doubled after a child known to the CPS system died.[23]

Similarly, according to Faye Moore, a senior official with the New York Social Services Employees Union Local 371, many of the removals of children from their homes that followed the tragic death of Elisa Izquierdo were unnecessary:

People are working not to make mistakes, and that may not necessarily be in the best interests of the children. How so? Unnecessary removals.[24]

If the vague statutes, increases in reporting, defensive social work and poor decision making in the field aren't enough to ensure that a large number of children will be unnecessarily removed from their homes, one other factor is certain to do it.

The Children's Defense Fund undertook a comprehensive review of the child welfare system. Project coordinator Jane Knitzer explained the studies findings to a Congressional committee, identifying as a major finding that "there is an antifamily bias that pervades the policies and practices of the child welfare system. The system works against families, not for them."

The children in care are subject to continuing neglect at the hands of public officials, she explained, adding that the federal role exacerbates both the antifamily bias and the public neglect of children.

This antifamily bias is "reflected at all points in the placement process," she explained, adding that as a result: "Children are inappropriately removed from their families."[25]

Worse, as child protective services caseworkers lack an empirically validated knowledge base to guide them in their decision making, they often fall back on hunches, or gut instinct. A user manual for child protective services supervisors issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services encourages the case manager to "analyze intuition without stifling creativity and spontaneity," explaining:

As caseworkers gain confidence, they begin to act on hunches, common sense, and intuition. Supervisors should assist caseworkers to validate these instincts by helping them analyze what led to the intuition.[26]


Responding to mounting criticism on one side about the high number of wrongful removals, and criticism on the other about the large number of children who manage each year to die under the watchful eye of child protective servises, the industry devised another gimmick to aid the social worker in making appropriate decisions.[27]

Enter the risk-assessment matrix--a checklist of "risk factors" typically used to aid the caseworker in predicting the likelihood of abuse or neglect at some point in the future.

"Risk assessment can be defined as the systematic collection of information to determine the degree to which a child is likely to be abused or neglected at some future point in time," researchers explain.[28]

Dozens of variants have been identified as being in use throughout the states. Some have as few as a handful of risk factors, while some others have several dozens of factors grouped together in various ways. These assessment tools are typically experimental and unvalidated in design, with some researchers having identified only half of the factors typically employed in their design as having been subjected to any empirical testing whatsoever.[29]

Like others among the many "solutions" devised to improve the severe deficiencies that plague the child welfare system, the risk assessment device would only appear to have made things worse.

"Many agencies have acted prematurely, implementing risk assessment instruments that have not been adequately designed or researched," writes Stanford University Law Professor Michael Wald with Maria Woolverton in the industry journal Child Welfare.

"It is not possible to to make highly accurate predictions of risk with existing instruments." Nevertheless, they have gained an almost uncritical acceptance in the field of child welfare, as Wald and Woolverton explain:

Unfortunately, some child protective services (CPS) agencies appear to be using risk-assessment instruments in an unjustifiable manner, given the limited knowledge base regarding the validity of these instruments. Moreover, we are concerned that many agencies are adopting risk-assessment instruments in lieu of addressing fundamental problems in existing child protection systems, such as the excessive number of inexperienced or incompetent workers and the lack of adequate resources. In fact, use of inadequately designed or researched risk-assessment instruments may result in poorer decisions, because workers will rely on mechanical rules and procedures instead of trying to develop greater clinical experience.[30]

But if there is one thing these assessment tools would appear to have in common, it is that they virtually define poverty conditions as indicating "neglect" on the part of parents. Among the countless factors typically included are such things as "dirty or unkempt home," "children's clothing torn or dirty," "lack of pride in neighborhood," "poor and unsafe living conditions," "family can only afford inadequate housing," "leaky faucets," and "exposed wiring."[31]

Hence, it should come as no surprise that whenever a close review of the foster care population is undertaken, it is revealed that a significant portion of children in care should never have entered the system to begin with, and that the majority of children in the foster care system come from poor families.

Sociologist John Hagedorn, a reform-minded administrator who spent two and a half years trying to reform the Milwaukee social services bureaucracy explains the results of one recent analysis:

After foster care cases were categorized by social workers and reviewed by a panel of experts, we found that most children did not need to be in foster care at all. The social workers and our expert panel agreed that a third of all children in foster care could immediately reunited with their families, if family preservation services were available . . .

The panel found another third of all children in foster care were in placement with relatives and in need of few services, and that only one-sixth of these cases could legitimately be categorized as having no chance of reunification.[32]

Consistent with these findings is a 1992 report issued by the Little Hoover Commission in California, which determined that only 19.9% of removals of children were due to allegations of physical or sexual abuse. The report concluded:

The Commission finds that the State's foster care system runs contrary to the preservation of families by unnecessarily removing an increasing number of children from their homes each year. Moreover, the children in the foster care system are staying in the system longer. As a result, the State's costs continue to skyrocket and children continue to be harmed by the removal from their families.[33]

The Philadelphia Daily News reports that a recent study sponsored by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation concluded that for every 1,000 children placed in the state's care, only 30 were victims of actual abuse.[34]

The 3 percent figure mirrors reporting trends, as only 3 percent of the the millions of reports frequently represented as "reports of child abuse and neglect" actually involve allegations of severe physical abuse.[35]

How can so many hundreds of thousands of children be needlessly torn from their homes? Aren't reasonable efforts to prevent removal required? Don't child protective workers first have to visit the home and conduct an investigation?

Not according to Dennis Lepak, a Deputy Probation Officer from California, who told a Congressional subcommittee:

Most tragically, children are placed with little or no services to prevent their removal from families. Children are often removed from homes that no representative of the removing agency has even visited.

"Decisions to remove children are based on information from old reports, office interviews, and phone calls. Caseload sizes dictate this approach," adds Lepak. "We cannot deliver the child the required services, or the family, so we deliver the child alone to the group homes."[36]

Marcia Robinson Lowry, speaking at the time as an attorney with the Children's Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, identified failure to provide reasonable efforts to prevent placement as a nationwide problem, having told a Congressional subcommittee: "reasonable efforts are not made in hundreds and hundreds of thousands of cases across the country."[37]

The modest requirement to provide some reasonable effort to prevent placement in foster care was the result of hearings held over a period of several years, over the course of which it was found that children were often being unnecessarily removed from their homes.[38]

"In fact, there were many instances then, as now, of children being removed unnecessarily from families. It is important to recognize that children almost always are traumatized by removal from their own family," explained the Child Welfare League of America during more recent hearings.[39]


"A 1986 federal study evaluating child welfare caseworkers found that up to two-thirds of substantiated cases of child maltreatment involved no actual wrongdoing on the part of parents," writes author Dana Mack.

Many removals of children into foster care are "capricious actions of 'preventive intervention' -- undertaken on a caseworker's presumption that though a child's home situation poses no immediate dangers or deprivations, it might sometime in the future," argues Mack.

In examining studies conducted by the American Humane Association during the mid-1980s, Mack found that half of the families child welfare agencies compelled to undergo therapeutic services for child maltreatment had never mistreated their children at all.[40]

And these therapeutic services are foisted on families on a massive scale. Douglas Besharov notes that even after the extensive screening of reports that takes place, as of the mid-1980s, roughly 400,000 families across the country were being "supervised" by child protective agencies, compelled to accept such "treatment services" under threat of court action.[41]

Beyond these numbers are very real children. How do these figures translate into human terms?

One foster mother from Utah has had 40 children in her care. She recounts: "Sometimes it's real rewarding to see them get back to where they should be. I only had one child that was really physically abused."

If only one of the foster children she cared for had been abused, what of the other thirty-nine that had passed through her home? ". . . I have a problem when parents repeatedly fail treatment plans and kids bounce back and forth. Luckily, we've had only two or three of those."[42]

In other words, most or all of the other thirty-nine children who were not abused had been removed from their homes in order to coerce their parents into complying with the "treatment plans" imposed by the Department of Social Services.

In a case which the 1991-92 Santa Clara Grand Jury reviewed, the principal of a school reported suspected "emotional abuse" to the local Department of Family and Children's Services, based on a comment a student had made. The parent was given one hour's notice of the detention hearing, and as a result failed to attend. His daughter was taken from his care. This occurred in 1991 and the Jury found, as of May 1993, that the student still remained out of her home.

In its review of this case the Grand Jury did not find any reasonable evidence of abuse on the part of the parent. What was found was a parent who appeared to care greatly for his daughter and her welfare but would not admit to something he did not do. His refusal to admit to abuse was viewed as a lack of cooperation on his part; therefore, his child was not returned.[43]

The children know they belong with their families, and not in the hands of strangers.

According a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, lengthy interviews conducted with children and parents from 200 randomly sampled cases revealed no surprises. Parents who were separated from their children felt they had been unfairly separated. As for their children, the article continues:

At least 80% of the children, asked to name three wishes, mentioned that they wanted to be with their mother or father. Many tended to believe that the separation was their fault.

Not only are child protective workers quick to tear children away from their families, but they are slow to return them as well.

The same article cites a 1992 University of Southern Maine study of the state of Kansas, which found that in 86.8 per cent of cases where a child was put in foster care, the state failed to make the required reasonable effort to reunite him with his parents.[44]

A similar situation is to be found in the District of Columbia. In a landmark suit initiated by the Children's Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Court determined that the agency had:

consistently failed to provide services or otherwise use "reasonable efforts" to prevent placement. The result has been an increased risk of arbitrary or inappropriate placements as well as an increased cost to the District.

Just as the agency often failed to provide any services to prevent the removal of children from their homes, the Court found the agency "consistently failed to provide services once children are removed from their homes and placed in foster care."

Based on case records of the children in foster care as of December 1989 whose goal was return home and who had entered into care through voluntary placement, the Court found the agency "had failed to provide services in 77 percent of their cases."[45]

In Illinois, Cook County Juvenile Court Judge Robert A. Smierciak chided child welfare officials for failing to rectify a lingering problem of child-care workers--failing to show up for scheduled court appearances without explanation.

According to statistics compiled by the Cook County public guardian's office, during three weeks in May of 1994, 106 child welfare workers failed to appear for cases assigned to courtrooms that handle abuse and neglect cases. As a result, several children remained separated from their families, remaining instead in dangerous foster care placements.[46]

Douglas Besharov was invited to testify before the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families in 1987, in his capacity of director of the National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect.

During his testimony, Besharov called for better screening procedures and improved intake methods. He also cited the need for training and educational programs that would set clear definitions of abuse and neglect. He continued, defining the standards that ought be applied in cases of state intervention:

[S]tates should be required to demonstrate that they are making efforts to prevent children from being removed from their homes without an appropriate investigation--unless they appear to be in imminent danger.[47]

This is not to suggest that there is no need for foster care. Sadly, some children do require a safe haven from chronic abuse or neglect. The greatest tragedy is that those children in true need of placement often are not identified--even in the event that they come to the attention of the system--while those for whom placement is inappropriate are removed from their homes by the hundreds of thousands. As professor of social work Leroy Pelton explains:

It is my belief that not only are there many children in foster care who should not have been placed there, but that there are other children who are being wrongfully left in their natural homes. In short, children are being removed from their homes in the wrong cases and being left at home in the wrong cases. Furthermore, it is my belief that if only those children were placed in foster care who actually need it, we would have very few children in foster care.[48]


The press plays its role in the molding of public perception. That perception is one largely based on sensationalized accounts of relatively infrequent occurrences of brutality at the hands of parents. Benjamin Wolf, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who filed a landmark suit against the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, responds to such sensationalized coverage as provided by the Chicago Tribune, writing:

Incredibly, there is another side which often is at least as bad and is rarely reported by the media. Those are the tragic situations in which children are needlessly removed from their homes or not reunited with their families when more appropriate, less expensive services would keep the family together.

"The cases that grab headlines and the attention of columnists are of course the ones in which the unrehabilitated parent regains custody only to inflict injury again," writes Wolf.

"But by not telling about the often silent suffering of perhaps thousands of children who could be reunited with their families with just a little bit of help, we all reinforce an atmosphere in which case workers will be forced needlessly to shatter families contrary to the best interests of the children."[49]

Foster care was never intended as a holding ground for children while caseworkers conduct an investigation, or as a coercive tool to enforce compliance with social worker demands. It was intended to offer an alternative home-like environment for those relatively few unfortunate children who are truly subject to an abusive home environment.

The sad reality is that it is all-too-often misused by child protective services caseworkers who are less than capable of conducting an adequate assessment, or who fear liability for their failure to remove a child who is subsequently injured. As professor of social work Duncan Lindsey points out: "Caseworkers in doubt about a child's situation make the safe decision to remove a child."[50]

As a result, the number of children removed from their homes has reached staggering proportions. It is precisely because the system is so flooded with children who don't belong there that tragedies in state care continue to mount.

A Critical Look At The Foster Care System:
How Safe the Service?


A recent TIME Magazine article references a troubling report commissioned by the Reagan Administration during the late 1980s, which concluded:

Foster care is intended to protect children from neglect and abuse at the hands of parents and other family members, yet all too often it becomes an equally cruel form of neglect and abuse by the state.[1]

In the State of California, two San Diego County Grand juries would echo these concerns, finding that: "Professionals working in the field of child abuse voiced strong concerns that the children removed from abusive homes were being abused again by a system designed to protect them."[2]

A Santa Clara County Grand Jury reached similar conclusions, having determined that children often face greater risks in its existing foster care program than they do in their own homes:

Sometimes, foster care placements are made that are just as abusive, if not more so, than the home from which the child was removed. The Grand Jury learned of placements where sexual and physical abuse took place. There was even a case where the infant died.[3]

In Washington State, a blue-ribbon Governor's task force concluded:

The effect of our present foster care system is disastrous. Children are moved from one foster home to another, their school attendance is disrupted and health care needs often go unmet. They are sometimes exposed to abuse by other children in care. . .[4]

Elsewhere, a report by the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services determined that the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services "has no assurance that the quality of care being given to foster children placed by child-placing agencies was adequate." Federal reviewers found "many cases" of children "in potentially harmful situations." At least one fire or health deficiency was found at 40 of the 48 homes reviewed. In 28 of the 48 homes, no record could be found to prove that required criminal background checks had been made. The report described some foster homes as filled with trash.[5]

Terry's story is in many respects typical of the plight of America's 500,000 foster children. He entered foster care at the age of one after he was found with his five siblings suffering from frostbite in an unheated home, his mother in a drug-induced sleep. When he was five, he and two of his siblings were adopted by a foster family.

Image of TerryTo hear the adoption proponents of today tell it, this should have provided the happy ending to Terry and his sibling's travails. Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of a long journey through the labyrinth of the child welfare system.

Terry and his siblings had to be removed from their new home due to extreme abuse and neglect after the subsequent death of abuse of his five-year-old adoptive brother.

Thereafter followed a sequence of sixteen placements, during which Terry began to exhibit increasingly serious behavioral problems.

By the time he turned 11, Terry was placed in a residential facility where he began making suicidal comments, saying that he wanted to go to heaven to be with his deceased adoptive brother. He left the facility during severe thunderstorms without any shoes on. When he was found, he had to be hospitalized for over a month. He has since been diagnosed as suffering from the psychological effects of the extreme abuse and neglect he had suffered while in various placements, complicated by a lack of permanence over his ten years in government custody.

The child welfare system responsible for Terry has since been held in contempt for failing to comply with a court-ordered consent decree, and has created an internal receivership to help move toward compliance, thanks to the efforts of the private advocacy group Children's Rights, Inc. For Terry, there came a happy ending. He has recently been adopted by a warm and stable family. But it took years of difficult and costly litigation to bring about this result.[6]

Similar narratives are everywhere to be found. In Lynchburg, Virginia, a 23-year-old blind and mentally retarded woman was denied food, restrained with socks, and was regularly beaten by her foster mother. She received the maximum punishment under the 1992 law; one year in jail. What is even more amazing is that the foster mother did not even realize that she had done anything wrong.[7]

According to an Associated Press report, a 1994 Department of Health and Human Services audit of six states found foster homes that were crowded and unsafe.[8]

The report continues, illustrating that cases of foster parents inflicting harm on their wards are all too common:

A Sacramento, Calif., man was charged last December with raping and murdering one of his three foster children, a 16-year-old girl. He was arrested after holding the other two children at gunpoint during a standoff with police.
The Cook County public guardian's office recently sued a Chicago private social agency for placing an 11-year-old girl in the home of a convicted rapist who allegedly raped the child.
In a separate case, Chicago police say 2-year-old Corese Goldman was killed in February by a foster mother who held him under a faucet to toilet-train him. The woman, a distant relative, was not required to go through training, background checks and a home inspection before taking the child.

In Massachusetts, the Department of Social Services has knowingly approved scores of convicted criminals to be foster parents, including child abusers, drug dealers, habitual drunk drivers, kidnappers, armed robbers, and other violent offenders, according a recent Boston Globe series.

The Department of Social Services allowed these criminals to become foster parents by granting "waivers" that would ordinarily have caused the foster parents to be rejected.[9]

This may explain--at least in part--why after a five-month investigation based on hundreds of interviews with Department workers, court personnel and families, a Massachusetts legislative committee found that children in state care were often worse off than they were in the original homes from which they were removed.[10]

Similar reports are everywhere to be found. From New Jersey, comes a 270 page report issued by a panel of 26 experts appointed by the Governor--one which makes hundreds of recommendations for revamping the state's failed child protection system.

Among the panel's findings was that children alleged to have been abused or neglected are abused once again--by the very system intended to help them.

The report followed on the heels of another scathing report issued by the Association for Children, in which 75 percent of the 772 respondents--among them police officers, foster parents, caseworkers and other individuals involved with the system--rated the agency's performance as inadequate, ultimately forcing the agency's director, Patricia Balasco-Barr, to resign.[11]


In Alaska, foster parents testify that the worst of the abuses endured by foster children is not the abuse and neglect allegedly suffered before the state takes them from their natural parents. Rather, the real abuse comes from the actions of the state itself.[12]

To make matters worse, just as state officials are forming ambitious efforts to deal with the severe failures in the state's child protection system, a 2-year-old in the care of Anchorage foster parents dies.[13]

Foster parents were speaking out in Utah, as well. When James Sebaske and his wife, Corinn, got their foster care license, they were prepared for troubled teens--but not for the bureaucrats in the child protective services system.

After five frustrating years of dealing with the department, the couple planned to allow their license to lapse. "The system is so corrupt, I fear for my children or any reasonable person's children," said Sebaske.[14]

But speaking out against the system can have its price, state representative Marie Parente (D-Milford), chairwoman of the Massachusetts House Foster Care Committee told Boston Globe reporters in February of 1992. Foster parents are afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals--the ultimate threat being that DSS will take away their foster children.

Her fears were ultimately proven to be well-founded. After Lynn Sanborn--a long-term foster mother with a flawless record--rendered testimony critical of the department's removal of a foster child from her home before the House Foster Care Committee, she suddenly found herself the subject of two child abuse reports.

"After 14 years of being a foster parent and three months ago I was an exemplary home, I get two complaints in a week," Sanborn said. "Doesn't that sound odd to you?"

So, too, did another foster mother who testified during the hearings, find herself the subject of an anonymous report, sparking charges from both women that the agency was retaliating against them for speaking out against the department.

The anonymous charges were filed against them within days of their testimony. "I feel hurt and I feel sad," said Sanborn. "If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody."[15]

The price to be paid for speaking out against the system can be equally high for biological parents. Elizabeth Sayers--by her own admission in need of support services--said in an on-air radio interview that she was not being offered the help she required from the Massachusetts department to keep her children.

Just 90 minutes after she complained on the air to a radio talk show host about the lack of services, her children were taken away and placed in foster homes in an "emergency removal."[16]

Similar narratives are everywhere to be found, as parents, foster parents and many others who advocate on behalf of children often report the fear of retaliation from child welfare agencies seeking to silence them.

In Alaska, foster parents sat with trembling hands as they told legislators of the treatment they and their young wards endured at the hands of child protective services. Fear of retaliation was reportedly a common theme throughout the meeting.[17]

Prior to a 1994 hearing held in Illinois, several parents were told by Department of Children and Family Services caseworkers "if you ever want to see your children again, don't go to the hearing," according to Champaign County Board member Robert Naiman.[18]

Thus, the most dedicated of foster parents--those who would dare advocate on behalf of the children in their care--are pushed out of the system. As a result, the abuse of children in state care continues to mount even as the number of children in state care continues to increase.

In Milwaukee, complaints of children being abused or neglected by their foster families increased dramatically over a 10-month period in 1997, compared with the same period a year earlier.[19]

In Peoria, Illinois, the state's child welfare agency "rescues" Donte May from a neglectful and possibly abusive mother, only to place him in a foster home where he dies suspiciously from bleeding in the brain.[20]


One of the most tragic aspects of many of these cases is that the children suffer needlessly, for in their zeal to protect them against the perceived shortcomings of their natural parents, child protective workers placed them into dangerous homes that inflicted upon them precisely the injury they had hoped to prevent.

In the District of Columbia, social workers removed four of Debra Hampton's children from her home placing them in foster care. According to the testimony of a social worker, the children were removed because Mrs. Hampton had left them alone and was not properly supervising them, and her home was "generally uninhabitable."

Three months later, the foster mother left two-year-old Mykeeda Hampton at home for over ten hours. While she was out running errands, Mykeeda was beaten to death by the foster mothers' twelve-year-old son. An autopsy later established that the two-year-old died of "blunt force injuries to the head, abdomen, and back, with internal hemorrhaging." As of September 1995, several years after the incident, the case was still under litigation.[21]

In August of 1995, San Francisco officials took custody of Selena Hill a few days after her birth because of concerns that her parents, Stacey and Claudia Hill, had physically abused each other and didn't seem capable of caring for their newborn.

In September, seven-week-old Selena Hill was rushed to Children's Hospital in Oakland with a fractured skull and other injuries that almost killed her. In their efforts to protect her from her actual parents, child welfare workers placed Selena into a foster home with a history of domestic violence. In the nine months before the infant was injured, Berkeley police had visited the residence three times after receiving reports about violent disturbances in the foster home.[22]

The state of Georgia placed Clayton and Kelly Miracle in foster care with Betty and Joe Wilkins in June of 1993. Two months later paramedics would arrive at the foster home in response to a 911 call, finding Clayton barely breathing, with two large knots on his head, one in the front and one in back. Clayton died as a result of blunt force trauma to his head. The doctor who performed the autopsy testified that Clayton's fatal injuries could not have been caused by an accidental fall and that injuries and bruising found all over Clayton's body were consistent with battered child syndrome. Doctors also examined Kelly and found the same pattern of bruising.[23]

Newsday reports the tragic story of one father whose desperate pleas to the family court fell on deaf ears. David Roman fights back tears as he recounts the shooting death of his son who had been placed into foster care in the Jamaica section of New York City:

My son was going to turn 15 this coming Friday. I begged the family court judges to get my children back. I looked at the neighborhood . . . and I could tell it was no good. That place was a drug-infested neighborhood.[24]


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.[25]

Among the deaths in Arizona was that of China Marie Davis, of Phoenix. An autopsy revealed that over her 11 months in the care of her foster mother, Dorothy Jean Livingston, China Marie suffered a compression fracture of the spine, breaks in both forearms and wrists, two broken collarbones, fractures of both thighs, and a broken left arm, right rib and left hand.

China Marie finally found her relief in death, after Livingston repeatedly kicked her down a staircase because she refused to clap her hands to gospel music.[26]

Among the deaths was that of Tajuana Davidson, also of Phoenix. While in foster care the three-year-old suffered a broken shoulder blade, a black eye, and bruises on her stomach, back, legs and arms. But it was the "seven crushing blows to the head" that finally killed her.[27]

Just how many abuse and neglect related incidents actually occur in foster care is difficult to determine, given the child protection agencies apparent unwillingness to investigate them. It becomes nearly impossible with confidentiality laws shielding child protection agencies from public scrutiny. What is clear is that there is no shortage of them.

"The state's foster care system has been racked by tragedy in recent years," note Boston Globe reporters. "In the past three years, several foster children have been murdered or have died from neglect, while others have been horrifically abused."[28]

In 1995, at least eight children died while in foster care in Massachusetts, and federal officials were threatening a private lawsuit against the agency if changes weren't made.[29]

But the most telling statistic of all may be that of the seven deaths directly attributable to maltreatment in Massachusetts in 1995, three of them--nearly half--were in foster care.[30]

In this respect Massachusetts is a more or less a typical state. Notes outspoken veteran juvenile court judge Judy Sheindlin:

Every year in every a state a commission meets to attempt to identify the scores of children killed and maimed while in foster care. And each year a report is published with suggestions for legislative and systemic change. Although the number of victims is increasing, there has been no nationwide overhaul of the systems that permit these in-house tragedies to occur.[31]


Sheindlin attributes much of the problem to confidentiality laws. "The only people being protected here are caseworkers and other officials, who regularly hide behind a wall of secrecy," she writes.

She notes that dozens of New York City cases where children have been maimed or murdered never reach public attention, and it is not just because they are poor minority children. Rather it is "because of confidentiality rules, which protect inept bureaucrats and a faltering social services system."[32]

"In the name of protecting children, we have kept it a secret how we as a society deal with our most vulnerable children," explained American Civil Liberties Union attorney Eric S. Maxwell to the Massachusetts Senate Committee on Post-Audit and Oversight.

"There is a great gap between protecting a child's identity and keeping the process and acts of our government secret."

Maxwell urged the Committee to push for legislation to open court proceedings involving the removal of children from their parents, and child guardianship cases.

"I think any time you take a system and cloak it in secrecy there are going to be substantial abuses," said Maxwell, adding that he believes the Department of Social Services is often too quick to take custody of children away from their parents.[33]

"Foster care systems are cloaked in secrecy that often is used to conceal illegal and unconscionable practices," explained children's advocate and attorney Marcia Robinson Lowry during Congressional hearings.

"Every state in the country cloaks its foster care system in secrecy, prohibiting the disclosure of any information about children's experiences in foster care. Though these statutes often were enacted to protect children, they routinely are used by state officials to conceal illegal and unconscionable practices."[34]

These confidentiality laws have served the system well, if the figures from the state of Georgia are any indication.

Nancy Schaefer, twice a gubernatorial candidate for governor, has repeatedly called for a fundamental restructuring of the state's foster care system, including the dismantling of the Georgia Department of Family and Children Services.

Schaefer charges that an astounding 433 children have died while in state care over the last several years.[35]

"Words cannot describe the travesty of justice suffered by these children who, rather than receiving the protection of the state, gave their lives in a most horrible and painful death because of a failed and unaccountable system of administration," says Schaefer.[36]

"We have to ask ourselves whether we're doing children a service by taking them out of their homes and placing them in a system that's just as unable to meet their needs," says District Judge Bill Jones of Charlotte, North Carolina.

"Are we doing them more harm than good?"

Says District Judge Deborah Burgin of Rutherfordton, North Carolina: "If you take on the responsibility to take care of someone - and are paid to take care of someone - the least we can ask is that they come out of it alive."[37]

A Critical Look At The Foster Care System:
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 home.[1]

In Louisiana, a study conducted in conjunction with a civil suit found that 21 percent of abuse or neglect cases involved foster homes.[2]

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."[3]

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."[4]

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.[5]


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."[6]

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.[7]

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.[8]

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 system.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11]

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 children."[12]

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.[13]


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.[14]

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.[15]

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 resources."[16]

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.[17]

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.[18]

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."[19]

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.[20]

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.[21]

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.[22]

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.[23]

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."[24]

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.[25]

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:

  • 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 dead.[26]


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.[27]

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.[28]

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.[29]

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.[30]

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.[31]

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.[32]

Thus we find a report of system-wide abuses at the Columbus-Maryville "shelter" in Illinois suppressed by Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy.[33]


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 basis.[34]

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.[35]

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.[36]

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 of placement.

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.[37]

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 as industry."

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."[38]

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.[39]


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 allegations.[40]

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.[41]

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.[42]

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 programs.

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."[43]

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.[44]

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.[45]

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 Law:

You could carbon-copy the lawsuit filed in Florida in every state. . . We have a child welfare system that's near collapse.[46]

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."[47]

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."[48]

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.[49

A Critical Look At The Foster Care System
Foster Care Financing


The Federal government provides tremendous financial incentives to maintain foster care programs. One Federal program that helps states cover the cost of foster care grew from about $300 million in 1981 to nearly $2.7 billion in 1991.[1]

According to the General Accounting Office, in 1993 nearly $1.3 billion Federal dollars went to foster care maintenance, while an additional $1.1 billion in reimbursements went to states for foster care related administrative activities.[2]

According to the GAO report, while states provide the majority of funds for foster care and child welfare services, by 1995 the Federal share of expenditures for these services reached $4.1 billion.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the Federal government will spend over $9.2 billion between fiscal year 1991 and 1996 for foster care programs.[3]

In 1995, states received more than $2.8 billion in federal assistance for approximately half of the estimated 494,000 children in foster care.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that by 2001, federal costs will rise to $4.8 billion with caseloads of federally assisted foster care children increasing by almost 26 percent.[4]

According to an analysis done for TIME Magazine by the Child Welfare League of America, the annual welfare cost of one child living with his or her mother is $2,644, while the average cost for the child's care in residential group care is $36,500.[5]

The best estimates currently available of the total of all annual expenditures on foster care services nationwide is in the range of ten to twelve billion dollars.[6]

These are national averages. For a closer look at how these funds are being disbursed, we turn to the States.


That many states and municipalities have arranged their affairs in order to maximize the influx of Federal dollars is without question.

The Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, for example, recommended in a 1993 report that the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services should: "enlist a contractor to take on an agency wide Federal funds maximization effort on a no-risk, contingency basis." Result?

A fixed-price contract was awarded by DPRS in 1993, and the contractor has worked with the agency to implement Federal revenue maximization efforts in many programs. As a result, DPRS has made a significant move to maximize Federal funds and estimated $84 million would be achieved by the end of the current biennium.[7]

In a recent edition of the annual Texas Performance Review, the Comptroller of Public Accounts devotes a chapter to foster care, entitled "Maximize Federal Funding for Child Welfare Programs." Among his conclusions:

Classifying children in the conservatorship of the state who are placed in the homes of relatives as "children in foster care" would make them eligible for Medicaid, while the state would be able to receive matching Federal funds for associated administrative expenses.
Cost shifting arrangements such as these are often considered as legal. But are they? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General issued an Audit Report in February of 1996, the result of a three year study of the Texas Foster Care System. Among its conclusions:
This final report points out that over a 3-year period at least $2.7 million (Federal share $1.7 million) was improperly retained by 9 child placing agencies in Texas for unallowable services under the Title IV-E Foster Care program. The retained funds were used for such services as costs of operations, case management, therapy, counseling, respite care, psychiatrists, training, transportation, day care assistance, and administrative costs.[8]

The use of such funding to offset "administrative costs" and other expenses associated with foster care and child welfare is not uncommon, according to a recent study issued by the Office of the HHS Inspector General, Review of Rising Costs in the Emergency Assistance Program.

According to the report, the State of New York diverted more than half of its claim for Emergency Assistance funds, over $230 million, to offset administrative costs for child protective workers in Fiscal Year 1994.[9]

New York State projects the total of its foster care costs shifted to the Emergency Assistance Program to be $107 million during Fiscal Years 1995-96, according to the report.

Similar creative financing efforts can be found throughout the states, and the Emergency Assistance funds provide just one of the means by which many states seek to offset administrative expenses associated with their foster care and child protective systems, while maximizing Federal revenue.

In Arizona, in Fiscal Year 1994, of the state's total claim of $6,770,648 in Emergency Assistance funds, only $1 million were shifted to the state foster care program. The Fiscal Year 1995 and 1996 projections were for $10 million per year, a tenfold increase, according to the Inspector General.

California has taken an even more creative approach to maximizing Federal revenue. The state first set the income standard for eligibility for Emergency Assistance at 200 percent of the median income level for a family-of-four, an income of $92,800.

When that failed to produce the desired Federal revenue, the state amended its definition of a family unit to a family-of-one effective late September of 1994. Notes the Inspector General: "As such, the income of only the child facing the emergency is currently measured against the $92,800."

Colorado has taken a similar approach, setting the family income requirements for Emergency Assistance at $75,000 a year.

Why such high income limits for a program intended to provide short term emergency relief to those in need? According to the report:

As a result of lengthening EA eligibility periods, defining emergencies broadly, and setting high income limits for determining eligibility, States amended their respective EA Programs to shift State funded long-term services to the EA Program, thereby maximizing Federal revenue.
The State of Connecticut projected the shifting of $41 million in foster care costs to the Emergency Assistance Program during the years 1995 and 1996.

Pennsylvania projected that it will shift $70 million in Emergency Assistance funds toward its foster care programs during the same period. All of these funds are in addition to the Federal Foster Care funds being received by the states.

The projections provided in the report indicate that during Fiscal Years 1995 through 1996 these Emergency Assistance expenditures will exceed $2 billion. Where is all of this money going? "The EA expenditures are escalating at a rapid pace due mainly to three types of costs, juvenile justice, foster care, and child welfare services."

In Maryland, another recent Inspector General's Audit Report details a review of payments made by the Department of Human Resources under the Emergency Assistance to Needy Families With Dependent Children program for the period October 1, 1990 through September 30, 1992. During this period the Department was reimbursed $5,380,658 in Federal Financial Participation.

It was found that: "of 220 EAFC payments, 55 payments, or 25 percent, were either not supported by a case file and/or a client application form, or were otherwise ineligible for FFP under the EAFC program."[10]

The State of Illinois was the subject of another HHS Inspector General's Audit. The report, issued in August of 1996, details a similar pattern of cost shifting to Federal programs:

This final audit report points out that the State agency allocated joint training costs to the Federal Foster Care program only, although the State Foster Care program also benefited. As a result, the Federal program was overcharged approximately $5.8 million during the period January 1, 1992 through December 31, 1994.[11]


Illinois is no stranger to misappropriating funds. About $1 million from a fund intended for recruiting and training foster parents was used by DCFS to pay bills that had nothing to do with the program.

At least 20 percent of the $4.6 million fund, known as the Foster Care Initiative, was used to pay bills for security guards, temporary secretaries, bottled water, accounting fees, trash collection, equipment, furniture, utility bills and office rent, according to state records.

Nearly all of the payments were authorized by Sue Suter, the former director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Suter resigned in August of 1992, because, she said, she didn't have enough money to carry out the court-ordered reforms instituted by an ACLU lawsuit. Those reforms included finding more foster parents.

"This agency has a history of taking funds intended for foster parents and children, and, through one ruse or another, using it to support the bureaucracy," said Benjamin Wolf, the ACLU attorney who instituted the suit.[12]


But what of the therapy, counseling, respite care, psychiatrists, and other services spoken of in the Inspector General's Audit in Texas? The answer may be found in California.

The Santa Clara Grand Jury determined that the local child welfare agency puts too much money into "back-end services," such as therapists, counselors and attorneys, and not enough money into those "front-end" services which would help prevent foster care placement. The reason?

The county does not receive as much in Federal funds for 'front-end' services, which could help solve the problems causing family inadequacies, as it receives for out-of-home placements or Foster Care services. In other words, the Agency benefits, financially, from placing children in foster homes.[13]

How does this work in practice?

A recent South Carolina audit of its Department of Social Services reports that 73% of foster care children were in "regular" foster homes, yet these placements consumed only 15% of the state's annual foster care budget.

The auditors found that 85% of foster care expenditures went to cover the costs of the special need placements in therapeutic and residential treatment centers, which can cost more than $10,000 per month.

It was found that at least 15% of these placements were questionable or inappropriate. It was also determined that children are often placed in such facilities by county agencies because there is a shortage of "regular" foster homes available.[14]

These huge financial incentives also offer opportunities for gain beyond the warehousing of children. In January of 1996, Federal prosecutors filed a civil suit against the New York City Child Welfare Administration and the State, charging that during a four-year period they knowingly defrauded the U.S. government of $37 million in Federal funds for foster care services never provided.[15]

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts also provides the means whereby the State may maximize Federal participation in non-recurring adoption expenses, through retroactive filings. From whom did the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts determine that he could accomplish this creative, albeit apparently legal financial maneuver? The answer is to be found in a footnote to his latest report:

Interviews with Lyle L. Koenig, Minnesota Department of Human Services, and Timothy Dutra, Rhode Island Department of Children and Their Families, September 1994.
All of this serves to illustrate what the States themselves are doing to maximize Federal revenues, and this report is by no means comprehensive.

The opportunities for such creative financing and diversion of funds are even greater at the municipal level, where there is considerably less accountability. There is also mounting public concern over the numerous "public-private partnerships" that have developed between municipalities and private foster care and child welfare service providers. A variety of special interest groups also lobby for additional funds for the services they provide.

We have not yet begun to fight!