Speaking Out

In Alaska, foster parents testified 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. The 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 (Demer, 1997). To make matters worse, just as state officials were beginning ambitious efforts to deal with the severe failures in the state's child protection system, a two-year-old in the care of Anchorage foster parents died (Campbell, 1997).

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

Similar narratives are everywhere to be found, as parents, foster parents and others who would advocate on behalf of the children in their care report the fear of retaliation from child welfare agencies seeking to silence them. The price to be paid for speaking out against the system can be particularly high for 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. Ninety 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" (Matchan, 1992). 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 (1995).

Turning once again to the matter of the treatment of foster parents by child protection agencies, ACLU attorney Benjamin Wolf asserts:

Foster parents are mistreated. They are told they'll be reimbursed for expenses. They aren't. They ask for respite, a break, a vacation. They don't get help. Those not trained to deal with troubled children need support, skills training. It doesn't happen. Emergency foster care families are treated as a bed for the night. They are given virtually no information about the child's health needs, etc. They are lost without info, back-up services (Golden, 1997).

As a result of all this, many of the most dedicated of foster parents-those who would dare to vigorously advocate on behalf of the children in their care-are pushed out of the system, hence the abuse of children in state care continues to mount as the overall quality of the foster care pool diminishes - even as the number of children in state care continues ever to increase.

The number of conventional foster homes in the public sector has dropped from 125,000 in 1988 to 100,000 as of 1991 - and the "exodus continues," says Gordon Evans, information director for the National Foster Parent Association in Houston. Evans explains 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 (Cohen, 1991).

The results are tragic, as even a cursory review of recent press accounts reveals. 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 (Associated Press, 1997c); a Pennsylvania foster mother is charged with fatally beating a six-year-old girl in her care (O'Dowd & Frisby, 1998); New Jersey officials announce they are awaiting autopsy results on an infant who suffered rib fractures and a broken leg in foster care (Van Doren & May, 1998); Oklahoma prosecutors file murder charges against a foster father who allegedly beat to death his five-year-old ward (Smith, 1998); a Wisconsin man is charged with injuring a foster child in his care so severely that doctors have to use bone grafts to repair his damaged skull (Ostrander, 1998); a two-year-old Brooklyn boy is beaten to death by his foster mother, who viciously battered the child with her fists - then took him to an all-night card game. He had been beaten with such force that his heart split, one of his lungs was punctured, his liver ripped and his ribs cracked (Cauvin, McQuillan & Hutchinson, 1998).


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