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The Crisis Of Foster Care and CPS/DHS Systems Across The Nation!

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The Crisis Of Foster Care

By TIMOTHY ROCHE Monday, Nov. 13, 2000

The autopsy photo shows a little boy who looks relieved to be dead. His eyes are closed. A hospital tube protrudes from his broken nose. He has deep cuts above his right ear and dark linear scars on his forehead. The bruises on his back are a succession of yellows, greens and blues. On the bottom of his tiny feet are unhealed third-degree burns. He had been battered and tortured. He had been tied with panty hose and belts to a banister by the woman who had become his foster grandmother. The state of Georgia had taken him away from his mother, then abandoned him in the woman’s care. Little Terrell Peterson had so many injuries that the medical examiner gave up counting them. The child was six years old. He weighed only 29 lbs. The foster-care system is not working in Atlanta.

Nor is it working in Chicago, where a boy was beaten to death by two foster brothers who were known to be violent. It is not working in Bibb County, Ga., where a girl with cerebral palsy was placed in a home with a swimming pool; she was left unattended and drowned. And children are not protected in Dallas either. There two-year-old Joel Hernandez allegedly was beaten so severely that he had to be placed in a body cast. Yet social workers let him stay with his parents, then never set eyes on him–even after 15 visits to the family home brought no one to the door. All the social workers did was send a certified letter. Joel’s body was later found in a shallow grave. His stepfather and uncle are charged with his murder.

Untimely death is often the only occasion for the public to catch a glimpse of the foster-care system. But there are living hells, and at times you can smell the brimstone a long way off. At others the evils come in disguise. In Gillette, Wyo., Homer and Beth Griswold were pillars of the community who were asked to be foster parents. She was a psychologist, a former member of the child-protection team. Her specialty was identifying sexual abuse. But while Beth baked Halloween cookies upstairs, Homer was downstairs molesting two of the girls in their care. Had anyone spent a couple of hours checking his background, they would have found previous allegations of abuse and harassment. Homer Griswold was sent to prison, and the girls were returned to their birth parents. “They take kids away from someone like me who hasn’t got an education and money, but they give them to Homer?” asks a girl’s father. “Now what am I supposed to do for my baby? You know, when she came home, I didn’t know how to hold her. I didn’t know if, after what she’d been through, she should sit on my lap.”

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Five years ago, there were about a quarter of a million children in the country’s foster-care systems. Today that number has doubled, to between 550,000 and 560,000 children. Often these are held hostage to abuse and neglect, to bureaucratic foul-ups and carelessness, condemned to futures in which dreams cannot come true. President Clinton and Congress boast of new legislation and funding to move children more quickly from foster care to adoption. Indeed, there has been an increase in those numbers. Many foster parents too continue to act selflessly as important way stations for at-risk kids while their biological parents get their lives together. However, neglect and a quagmire of child-swallowing bureaucracies plague the system. And the incidence of neglect, physical and sexual abuse of children in the various foster-care systems is feared to be significantly higher than the incidence in the general population. Nobody bothers to keep an accurate count, but in round numbers, more than 7,500 children are tortured under what is technically government protection. Together with the many more who linger as long as 10 years in protective-custody systems, they are America’s generation of lost children, forsaken and forgotten.

The Department of Health and Human Services deemed its own auditing process so flawed that Secretary Donna Shalala did not protest when Congress suspended its ability to collect funds from states that did not meet federal eligibility requirements. State foster-care systems are in such poor shape that case files are still hard copy-bound. Without modern databases, tracking the fate of children remains a maddening paper chase. “These systems should be a national scandal,” says Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights Inc. “In virtually every state, there is no accountability.” Says Don Keenan, an Atlanta lawyer who has sued Georgia posthumously on behalf of children who died in foster care: “This is a meltdown. This is critical.”

It costs at least $7 billion a year, or about $13,000 a child, to care for America’s foster kids. The problem is not a single black hole but a series–each state affected with its own distinct problems. A yearlong investigation by TIME has found the crisis mounting in at least 20 states as lawyers file class actions asking judges to take control of entire agencies and Governors to appoint task forces to review child-welfare programs. Three states in particular–Georgia, Alabama and California–show the severity of the crisis.

GEORGIA The Boy on the Table

Terrell Peterson was young and black, like 50% of the foster-care population. He was a victim of the crack epidemic that spawned not only a generation of addicts but also a generation of lost children, most of whom have found their way into the foster-care system. His mother was addicted to crack. He had two siblings with different fathers. The state opened eight files on his family in five years, and 21 different caseworkers from five offices were involved in the cases. Social workers, faithful to a policy trend of placing kids with family members, sent Terrell to the home of a woman who was the paternal grandmother of one of his siblings. Technically she was not a blood relative, but she was close enough.

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Then they apparently closed his case file and forgot about him. “Terrell Peterson should not have happened,” says Georgia Governor Roy Barnes. Earlier this year, he ordered a sweeping criminal investigation into the suspicious deaths of Terrell and 12 other foster children around the state. The boy’s foster grandmother, Pharina Peterson, has been charged with murder, along with his foster aunt Terri Lynn Peterson and her boyfriend, Calvin Pittman. The Georgia bureau of investigation has spent much of this year trying to determine whether the negligence of social workers made them accomplices in the children’s deaths. Bureau agents seized more than 30,000 documents last January when raiding state welfare offices to investigate the deaths. They believe some files may have been conveniently lost or perhaps pilfered by people with secrets to hide.

The stories of the children and their deaths fill seven cardboard boxes. Among the dead is Octavious Sims, whose family’s suspected negligence had been reported over and over to social workers before he was starved, immersed in boiling water and beaten to death three days before his first birthday. Another is Raymond Ellis, 16, paralyzed in a car accident as a toddler and in need of constant care. For years doctors had begged caseworkers to remove him from his mother’s care. No one did. Raymond died of a preventable infection and pneumonia.

The files, obtained by TIME, show a pattern of inadequate monitoring, poor record keeping and bad decisions. In the case of Terrell, the records show that social workers skipped home visits, missed a crucial court hearing and lied in reports that supervisors signed but did not read.

As appalling as is Terrell’s death, the fact is that Georgia took steps years ago to keep such a tragedy from happening. After the death of a little girl named Kathy Joe in 1997, Georgia lawmakers vowed reform. Panic over foster care produced regulations designed to save children’s lives. Until Terrell’s death, however, no one had checked to make sure the changes were enforced. “I am not here to defend this system,” says Barnes, who this year pushed for a children’s ombudsman and laws to increase caseworker accountability. “We have not made this a high enough priority.”

ALABAMA The Perils of Politics

The state system still suffers from a decade of intervention by former Governor Fob James, a wily if obtuse politician of the old school, adept at surviving by switching parties and baiting voters. In 1988, riding a tide of states’ rights fervor, he appointed a friend, Martha Nachman, as welfare commissioner, with a mandate to ignore federal court-imposed guidelines on foster care. The mammoth state agency quickly deteriorated.

Until then, Alabama had been in the forefront of foster-care reform. It had been set on that path after an incident in which local social workers used an unpaid utility bill to prove a man was unfit to raise his eight-year-old son, removed the child and placed him not in a foster home but in a psychiatric hospital, where the boy was isolated and heavily dosed with psychoactive drugs. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit on the father’s behalf. As a result, the federal court not only remanded the boy to his father but ordered far-ranging changes in the system.

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At that point, caseworkers did not even know which services might be available for children. They had no way of comparing notes or logging resources. They had no flexibility in meeting individual needs. They had no guidelines for contact between children in foster care and their birth parents. In most cases, the rules simply forbade it.

Following the federal ruling, social workers set out to retrain, refocus and reshape the welfare system county by county, inspiring a hands-on, more heartfelt attitude among hardened social workers and abuse investigators. Greater emphasis was placed on restrengthening and rebuilding families by setting up programs in their own neighborhoods and communities in order to lessen the disruption of children’s lives. The average stay in foster care dropped from 14 months to three. Alabama, though a rural state in the American South, won early praise for its progressive ideas and was considered a potential model for national reform.

Then politics intervened. James and Nachman sued to contravene the rulings, which the Governor deemed obstructive federal intervention. A hiring freeze left social workers’ positions vacant. Nachman refused to disburse “flex funds” that the court allowed counties to spend at their discretion, and social workers had to open charge accounts at Wal-Mart to buy diapers and clothes for children. Nachman later resigned amid controversy over allegations she had lied on her resume and had withheld information from a grand jury investigating whether the foster-care problems in Mobile were the result of criminal negligence.

By then David Dohilite, 15, had been sucked into the system. An incorrigible kid, David had rebelled against his working-class parents in Magnolia Springs, Ala., near Mobile, in a yet unreformed county. Under state law, parents could turn over custody of defiant children to the department of human resources, but the agency lacked “therapeutic foster homes” for kids more troubled than abused. If kids threatened suicide or suffered the slightest mental disorder, they would be bounced to the Department of Mental Health. If they had broken the law, they would go to the agency that handles juvenile delinquents. The screening process involved a brief interview by an intake worker.

With no other place for David, a judge sent him to the Eufala Adolescent Center, 150 miles away, where kids who escaped were hunted by dogs. David was kept secluded in Building 112, locked in a 9-ft. by 6-ft. cell with metal crates as a wall and a door painted black. Even though he talked of suicide, banged his head against the walls and screamed profanities, staff members treated him as a behavior problem. In March 1992 a center worker found David trying to hang himself and placed him under observation. Two days later, he tried again, using a shoestring. He suffered severe brain damage. “Till the day we die, we’ll have to take care of him,” says his father Michael, a school custodian. “There’s a lot of anger for what they allow to happen to these kids–how these kids cry out for help and nobody answers.”

Fob James was defeated in the 1998 gubernatorial elections. But his legacy is a state of delay. Only a third of Alabama’s 67 counties have yet fully converted to the new systems mandated by the court order.

CALIFORNIA Private Solutions?

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In the past decade, as the foster-care population has soared, California and other states have contracted out more and more services for their poorest children. In theory, kids should be safer because private agencies have the flexibility and funding to deal better with children. In Los Angeles County, for example, state-licensed foster homes had 1 caseworker for every 70 kids. Private agencies routinely have 1 social worker dealing with only 12 to 15 kids. But the private agencies have presented a new set of problems.

Gilbreania Wallace, a two-year-old African-American girl, was a ward of the Grace Home for Waiting Children, a private foster-care agency in Los Angeles founded in 1992 by former and on-leave bureaucrats of California’s department of children and family services, as well as members of its Black Employees Association. They set up the Grace Home, hoping a knowledgeable black staff might attract larger numbers of African-American foster parents and work more efficiently with them.

Gilbreania was placed in the home of Doris Jean Bennett, who was called Miss Doris. Her record was spotty. Miss Doris, a homemaker, had seen two children in her care suffer broken bones under questionable circumstances; an infant boy had come to the hospital comatose allegedly after being shaken. (She convinced investigators that the shaking occurred before she got the child.) On June 1999 she took the fatally injured Gilbreania to a hospital, claiming she had slipped and fallen in the bathtub. But doctors examining her discovered injuries so severe that the child’s brain had been pushed into her spine as a result of blunt trauma. She died a week later, and Miss Doris was charged with murder.

The case helped focus light on another potential evil of private contractors: corruption. Early on, concern was raised over employees on leave from the department of children and family services starting their own agency. Critics noticed the department had quickly assigned children to the agency, a result of blatant favoritism. Thus Grace Home was off and running, supported by county revenues. An audit alleged, however, that the agency’s director had misspent hundreds of thousands of dollars on trips to Washington and Atlanta, as well as a six-week stay in Africa. The director even charged the government for his subscription to Travel & Leisure magazine. The 1995 audit found numerous safety violations in the agency’s homes: untrained child watchers, unchecked criminal backgrounds, unsecured knives, broken glass, inoperable smoke detectors and toxic substances within reach of children.

The director’s replacement was no improvement. Although she promised a zeal for children, she also allegedly had a zeal to spend money. Even as children in the agency’s care couldn’t get dental exams and foster parents couldn’t get first-aid training, Grace Home was spending $250,000 in foster-care funds to defend a sexual-harassment suit and gave an additional $130,000 to a board member. The books listed $6,725 in Toys “R” Us gift certificates with no receipt. The new director gave herself nearly $10,000 for a retroactive pay raise, car payments and bonuses. The findings were released by auditors in July 1999, a month after Gilbreania was beaten to death. Grace Home finally went out of business.

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“A brutal indifference has spread itself through the system,” says Andrew Bridge, a former foster child in Los Angeles who went to Harvard Law School and now heads the Alliance for Children’s Rights. He chaired a countywide panel that reviewed the state’s foster-care record. Last January it concluded that the system in Los Angeles County operates with minimal data on its wards and a safety-monitoring process that is random at best. Some departments are not aware of what others are doing, so a child’s safety often relies on guesswork. “Fundamentally,” says Bridge, 34, “we’ve come a very small distance from the days when I was in foster care.” In short, he adds, Los Angeles County lacks the ability to know the full nature of the quality of care foster children actually receive, “the full extent of harm children may face in foster care and how to protect children from harm in the future.”

The foster-care crisis is a many-headed behemoth, and no single weapon has been able to defeat it. “There are so many actors involved in the decision of what happens to the children,” says Secretary Shalala. “Different people have responsibility for taking them away from their family. Another group of people is responsible for placing them.” Last year the General Accounting Office issued a report on juvenile courts, finding that judges and caseworkers do not work well together. Many judges mistrust the judgment of caseworkers and order additional assessments “to compensate for what the judges perceive as professional inadequacies.”

The chief evil, though, may be decentralization. While the Federal Government doles out most of the funding, the welfare of children has traditionally been a state matter. In fact, many states see it as such a local issue that they pass down the decision making to individual counties. The result has been unwieldy systems that are grossly mismanaged. Fearing that they may create bloated bureaucracies, the states usually earmark the money for the direct care of kids, meaning monthly payments to foster parents and salaries for social workers. In so doing, they neglect the infrastructure. There are not enough computers, secretaries and clerks to do the cheap paper work that consumes social workers’ time. There are not enough administrators to review the cases or think outside the box about creative solutions. “We’ve grown accustomed to allowing the critical function of caring for children to take place in an abysmal business setting,” says Anita Bock, recently hired to head the welfare agency in Los Angeles. “I’m a fiscal conservative. I’m not interested in throwing money at the system. I’m saying give me some flexibility.”

But there is no flexibility because the system is stretched to its limit. Some agencies have become so desperate to place children that any bed will do. Kids are being sent to foster homes with no forethought, and the states cannot guarantee their safety. Furthermore, the number of kids needing foster care is exceeding the number of families available to care for them. Even the most devoted of foster parents are dropping out of the programs, frustrated at times by a lack of support–as well as legal roadblocks to adopting the children if they so choose.

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Meanwhile, the annual turnover of social workers hovers as high as 70% in some states. “You can’t even run a Burger King with a 70% turnover,” says Howard Talenfeld, a Florida lawyer. Social workers have always been undertrained, exhausted and second-guessed–so much so that some have turned to a negative kind of creativity. In Milwaukee, for example, social workers don’t answer the phone when their caseloads are full. In other places, they simply stop visiting homes where some children are known to be abused because death doesn’t seem imminent. They take advantage of recently implemented policies that allow them to “waiver” a family. This means they fill out a report that says the kids look fine–and their supervisors usually take their word for it. Multiply this state by state and county by county, and the children barely stand a chance.

Ten years ago, the House Select Committee on Children blamed “weak federal oversight” for the “extraordinary failings” of the foster-care system. It has taken the better part of a decade to finalize the monitoring rules that will guide the states in implementing all the new laws that have followed. Shalala, talking about the long wait, says, “We were not after the quick political hit here. This is not a spin operation. This is a very sophisticated, thoughtful set of regulations that are realistic for the states.” Her department, nevertheless, missed congressional deadlines to revamp the child welfare-monitoring system by two years. The ostensible reason: it wanted to produce thoughtful social policy that would lead to the “most sweeping reform of foster care in 20 years.”

Despite everything, people have managed to emerge from the foster-care system to become pillars of society. In January a 23-month-old girl in Washington was beaten to death after a judge remanded her, despite inadequate paper work, to her mother’s care. The case so affected Washington’s reformist mayor, Anthony Williams, that he broke from his prepared text in his State of the District speech in March to reflect on his own life in foster care in California, where he lived untended, given up to a life of supposed mental retardation until he was adopted at the age of three. “Experts told my mother I would never make it.” He did, but he has the scars to prove it: a crooked smile and an asymmetric head that he believes came from not being turned in his bed or held in an adult’s arms. It is the sad legacy of foster care that more children than ever continue to be terribly, terribly scarred.

–With reporting by Melissa August/Washington, Julie Grace/Chicago, Maureen Harrington/Gillette, Hilary Hylton/Austin, Sylvester Monroe/Daytona Beach and James Willwerth/Los Angeles

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Written by dawneworswick

November 12, 2011 at 10:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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