Systemwide Abuses

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 (Maier, 1997). The American Civil Liberties Union's Children's Rights Project has similarly estimated 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 (Farber, 1993). As of 1996, class action lawsuits had been filed in 31 states, with 36 consent decrees overseeing the operations of child welfare and foster care systems. The most common complaints focused on noncompliance with family preservation requirements, while procedural safeguards, case planning, and placement quality were also frequently cited for noncompliance (Amstutz, 1996).

The advocacy group Children's Rights has been in the forefront of such legal efforts at system reform, having been involved in actions 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 (Children's Rights, Inc., 1997a). But such problems are not limited to the states which have been successfully litigated against. As Children's Rights 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" (Subcommittee on Public Assistance and Unemployment Compensation and the Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families, 1988).

In a legal action brought by Children's Rights against the District of Columbia's child welfare system, LaShawn A. v. Kelly (1993), 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 ruled 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, and that the agency entrusted with their care had "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." 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." Based on the case records of children in foster care as of December, 1989, whose goal was to return home and who had entered into care through voluntary placement, the Court found the agency "had failed to provide services in 77% of their cases." 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. (Gaouette, 1996).

In a Pennsylvania case, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Baby Neal v Casey (1994) ruled: "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 Children's Rights on April 4, 1990, alleged that systemic deficiencies prevent the Pennsylvania department from performing needed services, and that it consistently violated the due process rights of both parents and children:

Specifically, plaintiffs claim that these amendments confer the right not to be deprived of a family relationship; the right not to be harmed while in state custody; the right to placement in the least restrictive, most appropriate placement; the right to medical and psychiatric treatment; the right to care consistent with competent professional judgment; and the right not to be deprived of liberty or property interests without due process of law.

One of the plaintiffs in the Pennsylvania suit was "Tara M." on whose behalf the advocacy group 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 had to undergo three skin grafts and wear a protective stocking during her 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 (Associated Press, 1996).

Typical of more 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" (Gunnison, 1996). Indeed, the health care and educational needs of foster children are all-too-often neglected by the child welfare agencies entrusted with their care. In a recent examination of whether the nation's foster children were being adequately serviced with respect to their health care needs, the General Accounting Office (1995c) found that:

[D]espite foster care agency regulations requiring comprehensive routine health care, an estimated 12% of young foster children receive no routine health care, 34% receive no immunizations, and 32% have some identified health needs that are not met . . .

[A]n estimated 78% of young foster children are at high risk for human immunodeficiency virus as a result of parental drug abuse, yet only about 9% of foster children are tested for HIV . . .

[T]hat the Department of Health and Human Services has not designated any technical assistance to assist states with health-related programs for foster children and does not audit states' compliance with health-related safeguards for foster children.

As for the educational needs of children in state care, the situation is equally as distressing. Miami attorney Karen Gievers, former President of the Florida Bar Association, filed a lawsuit in 1996, alleging that while 73% 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 (UPI News Service, 1996).


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