SACRAMENTO — Changes in the state's method of handling abused children have slowed the growth of new foster-care cases and increased the number of children returned to their parents, the Legislature's fiscal expert reports.
Despite delays in implementing all the reforms ordered by a 1982 law, it has had "a measurable impact" on the government's approach to treating abused and neglected youngsters, Legislative Analyst William Hamm said in a report submitted earlier this year to the Legislature.
Since the act took effect, he said:
Children have spent less time, on the average, in foster care.
There has been an increase in the length of time a child spends in a single foster-care home, meaning fewer are drifting from home to home.
Counties more frequently are placing children in foster-care homes within their own jurisdictions, permitting greater contact with each child.
Social workers and judges have developed a greater preference for adoption, rather than long-term foster care, for children who cannot be reunited with their parents.
Hamm's survey of the way counties have responded to the law, which was authored by Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), also showed:
Counties with the greatest numbers of social-worker cases appear to provide services for only the most seriously abused children, and tend to discontinue services prematurely to children left with their parents after an incident of abuse.
Such counties are also slower to respond to reports of child abuse than counties with fewer cases.
Counties with large numbers of minority children in foster care don't try as often to reunite children with their parents as counties with higher percentages of white children.
Hamm said that while it is socially desirable to return foster children to their parents, available data did not show whether such children were again abused or returned to foster care.
The law was aimed at preventing unnecessary placement of abused children in foster care and reuniting as many foster-care children with their parents as possible. It also was designed to reduce the number of children in long-term foster care by finding adoptive homes for those who could not be returned to their own families.
Hamm said the statute responded to sentiments among professionals that too many children were being removed from their homes without enough effort to return them. "Many children," it was felt, "drifted from one foster-care placement to another, with no long-term plan for their future and little likelihood that they would ever enjoy a stable, family-like placement."
The 1982 law set stricter legal standards for removing children from their families, required county welfare departments to keep written plans for each child in their care, required a court review of each case every six months and ordered permanent plans--with a top priority on adoption--for children in foster care more than 18 months.
It also increased public services for abused and neglected children and ordered more contact among foster care youngsters, social workers and parents.
Hamm said counties--which in some cases contend that they have received insufficient money from the state--have "a relatively poor record" for providing some of the family services the bill requires in cases of abuse.
He complained that counties generally have not assigned enough staff to care for abused children before they are placed in foster care.
Foster-care cases increased 27% between 1981-82 and 1983-84, but confirmed reports of child abuse increased an average of 35% per year, showing that a "substantially" smaller percentage of abused children are going to foster homes, Hamm said.
The percentage of white children in foster care dropped from 52% in 1982 to 45% last year, perhaps reflecting statistics showing that white families are more likely to be reunited and that minority children are less likely to be adopted, Hamm said.
The age of children in foster care also has dropped since enactment of the law. Those 13 to 20 years old accounted for 49% of the cases in 1981 and 39% last year. The percentage of children from infancy to age 3 increased from 13% in 1981 to 17% in 1984.