Introduction

On any given day, over half a million children are in foster care in the United States (Craig & Herbert, 1997), with some estimates running as high as 600,000 (Senate Democratic Task Force on Protecting Michigan's Children). The Congressional Budget Office estimates that by 2001, caseloads of federally assisted foster care children will increase by almost 26% (General Accounting Office, 1997). During the mid-1980s, an average of 200,000 children were removed from their homes each year for reasons of alleged abuse or neglect (Testa & Goerge, 1988). A public service media campaign by Court Appointed Special Advocates (1998) indicates that a minimum of 365,000 children per year are currently being removed from their homes for these reasons. This estimate may itself be a conservative one, as the rate of child removal has apparently doubled in some regions over the period of some recent years.

In Sacramento, California, during 1997, child protective services caseworkers were removing children from their homes at an estimated rate of 400 per month-up from a previous level of 200 per month during the previous year. Authorities were reviewing cases which in some instances stemmed from five-year-old reports, and conducting random sweeps of homes late at night, without search warrants. The majority of the children removed in these midnight raids were not necessarily abused or neglected, rather they were determined to be "at risk" of abuse or neglect at some point in the future. The Sacramento Bee uncritically reported on these events as if to suggest that they make for sound public policy, having sent reporters to cover the raids in the company of police and social workers (Martineau, 1997, 1997b, 1997c; Moy, 1997; Teichert, 1997).

Similar trends are everywhere to be found. From Waco, Texas, comes a report that the number of children in state care has tripled over the last decade, with fewer people coming forward as prospective foster parents despite intensified recruitment efforts (Wetuski, 1998). In Ohio, State Auditor Jim Petro threatens a systematic review of foster care operations, his system swamped with nearly triple the caseload it had a decade ago (Hannah, 1998). In Kansas, after privatization of foster care was undertaken in March of 1997, monthly court statistics reviewed a few months later show nearly double the number of children in need of care flings as compared to the previous year (Roy, 1997). In Wisconsin, the number of children needing regular foster care in Racine County has more than doubled in the first nine months of 1998 compared with the same period during the previous year (Tunkieicz, 1998). The Oklahoma State Senate (1997) reports that the number of children living in foster care has increased by 46% since fiscal year 1990. A 12% reduction in the number of available foster homes has children spending more time in shelters, emergency foster care or group homes. The Naples Daily News (1997) reports that in the wake of a recent rash of child deaths, social services workers in Tampa Bay are rushing to remove children who may be "at risk" of abuse. In Pinellas County, about eight times the normal number of children have been placed in shelters, while child removals in nearby Hillsborough County are up about 20%. "Last year the number of children removed from parents due to severe abuse and neglect doubled from the previous year," says Nancy DeWees, a former social worker with Child Protective Services and now as an assistant district attorney in the Tarrant County, Texas, Crimes Against Children Unit. "And we've continued that trend this year." When pressed for answer as to what is responsible for the increase, she can't venture a guess. "I don't know," she says. "I can't account for it, but it's not just a local trend. It is statewide" (Staples, 1998).

The reasons provided for these increases vary. What remains constant is the ever-upward-spiraling number of children removed from their homes. In some cases the death of a child "known to the system" will be the precipitating event, as was the case in Tampa Bay. This pattern is all too familiar to journalist Richard Wexler (1990), who notes that politicians will first swoop down on such a case "like vultures," seeking out scapegoats. They will pledge to "crack down on child abuse" by urging more people to report the slightest suspicion of maltreatment to authorities. They will then suggest legislation to make it even easier than it already is to remove children from their parents. Follows then a second stage, a "foster care panic" in which caseworkers apprehensive about making mistakes set about the task of removing a greater number of children from their homes. The third stage finds bureaucrats "ducking for cover," finding some way to blame the death on efforts to keep families together. They will say "the law" requires them to keep children in, or return them to, dangerous situations.

Such was precisely the turn of events in New York City after the untimely death of Elisa Izquierdo. Governor George Pataki first took the unusual step of releasing both an agency audit and a heretofore-confidential fatality report, exclaiming the agency's response to its mandate to protect children was "incomplete, inadequate and unacceptable" in a prepared press release (Office of the Governor, 1996). A program audit ordered by the Governor was performed by the State Department of Social Services. The audit selected a sampling of child protective services cases from the five boroughs of the City to determine if they had been properly handled by the agency. The agency overall managed to produce only 86% of the cases requested. The majority of the missing cases came from the Bronx, where only 75% of requested records were produced. These missing case records notwithstanding, the review indicated that there were violations of departmental procedures in 78% of the 400 sampled cases (New York State Department of Social Services, 1996).

"This is a systematic failure that we can no longer tolerate," Governor Pataki said in his release. "Mayor Guiliani and new ACS Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta have moved aggressively to implement the recommendations of the audit and file a comprehensive corrective action plan with the state. They have demonstrated their commitment to improving this system."

"Elisa's death has already brought change to the child protective system in New York City," concluded the release. The vultures had made their descent. All that was missing now was the scapegoat. Adriano Novelo, Elisa's caseworker, was found guilty of failing to competently perform his duties and was fired from the agency. Novelo was the first New York City child welfare employee in over 20 years to be fired because a child in his care died from abuse or neglect (Shapiro & Stone, 1996). Then came the foster care panic.

"I would like the caseworkers to err on the side of protecting the children," announced Nicholas Scoppetta, the former prosecutor named by Mayor Rudolph Guiliani to revamp the troubled agency. Shortly after Elisa's death made the headlines, Scoppetta sounded this call and defensive social work took hold in New York City as it never had before. What is defensive social work? As a Brooklyn judge, speaking on condition of anonymity, explained to the New York Times: "It's classic cover-your-rear-end behavior by people who are either genuinely frightened or cynical. I don't know if they are servicing people better, but all of a sudden, I have tons of cases, cases that they would not have normally filed." Said Jane Spinak, head of the Legal Aid Society's Juvenile Rights Project: "They are bringing many, many more cases into court. The question is whether they are cleaning up their act or whether, to protect themselves, they are shifting the burden of responsibility to the judges." Said Faye Moore, a senior official with the Social Services Employees Union Local 371: "People are working not to make mistakes, and that may not necessarily be in the best interests of the children. How so? Unnecessary removals" (Sexton, 1996).

The results were as tragic as they were predictable. Between 1995 and 1997, the number of children taken from their parents and placed in foster care in New York City increased 52%, from 8,770 to 13,345. Families of color were the hardest hit by these policy shifts, with one out of every 10 children from Central Harlem in foster care today. Citywide, one out of every 22 African-American children is in foster care, compared with one of every 59 Latino children. By contrast, only one of every 385 white children citywide are in foster care (Center for an Urban Future, 1998).

Fewer than 10% of New York City's child welfare cases involve an allegation of physical abuse or severe emotional abuse, according to the Center for an Urban Future. For what reasons, then, are so many children being removed from their homes? According to Trevor Grant, former Director of Social Services of the New York City Child Welfare Administration (since renamed the Administration for Children's Services) close to 85% of the cases agencies labeled as neglect are actually poverty cases, and removing children from their homes is often the safest course of action for a caseworker to take. Grant explains: "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" (Farber, 1993).

In Coney Island, police responding to an harassment complaint remove nine children from a home, saying that there was no evidence of any physical abuse. "Lighting was limited and sleeping conditions were poor. . . . the living conditions were not suitable for the children and posed a threat to their welfare," explained Shelley Greene, a police spokeswoman (Claffey, Garcilazo & Breen, 1997). The New York Times News Service (1997) reports on mothers in handcuffs, shuffled into the police stations in Brooklyn while blinking nervously under the white fluorescent lights. Sourette Alwysh, 34, was arrested for living with her 4-year-old son in a roach-infested apartment without electricity or running water. Sidelina Zuniga, 39, stood accused of leaving her two sons, ages 4 and 10, at home for one and one-half hours while she shopped at a nearby grocery store.

Judge Thomas Farber of Criminal Court in Brooklyn reportedly sees scores of parents who have spent time in jail and lost children to foster care for such things as fighting in front of their children, spanking their younger ones, or leaving their older ones home alone. "A huge number of these cases could be resolved without court, maybe 75% of them," said Farber. "But more and more arrests are being made where the police might have accepted a more appropriate explanation." City officials explained that they must err on the side of caution. "The fact is that even if we make a mistake in an intervention, that's a mistake that doesn't really harm a child," Police Commissioner Howard Safr said in an interview. "But if we make a mistake on the other end and it becomes a serious injury case, then it's too late." Such is the prevailing climate in New York City today.

It is children who pay the highest price for these policy shifts. In December of 1995, Children's Rights, Inc. (1997a) filed a lawsuit against the city, Marisol v. Guiliani, charging that the entire child welfare system violates the law and results in great harm to children. The action essentially charged that some children were left unsupervised in abusive households, while others were taken from parents who could raise them if they received supportive services. "Thousands of children languish in city custody, some in foster homes or group facilities that are little better than the homes from which they have been 'rescued,' because the city has failed to take the necessary steps to ensure that children's placements are adequate, or that children are moved into permanent homes," explains the case summary (Children's Rights, Inc., 1997b). Nor would lack of funding be to blame, as Children's Rights explains:

New York spends more on children in foster care, per capita, than any place else in the country. But if the New York City foster care system were considered a business, with its profit-and-loss statements judged in terms of unnecessary human suffering, in terms of misspent dollars, or even in terms of how far the system departs from its own goals, it would have been forced into bankruptcy long ago. The city has, if anything, a surfeit of skilled professionals, and spends an extraordinary amount of money, which should make it one of the best child welfare systems in the country. Instead, it is one of the worst.

 

 
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