A recent class action lawsuit filed on behalf of foster children in the state
of Arizona, Sergio B. v Arizona, serves 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-about 12.5% of the state's foster care population-have
been sexually abused while in state care. The action charges 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."
The sexual abuse of children in government custody appears 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 those found among
the general population (Benedict & Zuravin, 1992). A followup study
of a sample group of foster children found that nearly 50% of the substantiated
maltreatment reports involved sexual abuse. Foster fathers or other foster
family members were found to be the perpetrators in over two-thirds of the
substantiated cases, while other foster children in the home were determined
to be the perpetrator in only 20% of the incidents (Benedict, et al., 1996).
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 (Committee
on Ways and Means, 1991). Kentucky would prove to be a problematic state.
Lowry points out that case reviews conducted in conjunction with a Children's
Rights action found that only 55% of the children in the state's care had
legally mandated case plans (Subcommittee on Public Assistance and Unemployment
Compensation and the Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families, 1988).
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, observed Richard
Wexler during recent Senate hearings. "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% 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 (Subcommittee
on Children and Families, U.S. Senate, 1995).
Children's Rights has initiated a number of successful civil suits against
foster care and child welfare systems. One such suit was brought against
the Illinois foster care system by attorney Benjamin Wolf, who instituted
the legal action after concluding that the state's foster care system functioned
as "a laboratory experiment to produce the sexual abuse of children"
(Subcommittee on Children and Families, U.S. Senate, 1995). 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 (Golden, 1997).