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Official Child Neglect

July 24, 1986

The recent beating death of a Whittier foster child will likely raise doubts about the area's foster-care system. Tragic as such deaths are, they are rare and difficult to prevent. What is not rare is the state's continuing callous neglect of the needs of California's foster children.

There are 36,000 foster children in California, and 12,000 live in Los Angeles County. Life for foster children, by definition, has been cruel. Many such children have been so abused or neglected that they have been taken from their parents for their own protection. Many are emotionally disturbed; some are born addicted to the same drugs as their mothers. Some are battered, some are malnourished.

State support for foster care in Los Angeles, in real terms, has declined 23% since 1982. This year Gov. George Deukmejian chopped the Legislature's request for a cost-of-living increase of 5.1% to 1%--not enough to keep up with inflation. The erosion of support has taken its toll.

The Los Angeles County Department of Children Services is short hundreds of foster parents. Of the county's 12,000 foster children, 8,600 are in private homes. It has become increasingly difficult for the department to recruit qualified foster parents and to keep those who have signed on.And no wonder. The county's reimbursement rates do not approach the full cost of supporting a child. Raising a 2-year-old, the federal government's Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates, costs $375 a month. California offers $290, or just over $9 a day. This year foster parents will, on average, get an extra 10 cents a day--not enough to buy a diaper. To take on a foster child, parents must dig deep into their own pockets. Some, the heroic ones, go into debt.

Children for whom homes cannot be found are housed in temporary group homes. These institutions--underfunded, understaffed and overcrowded--are not stable home environments. Placing foster children in private homes is not only the most desirable way of raising children who have been taken from their parents, it is also the cheapest. Housing a foster child in the the county's MacLaren Center, for example, can cost more than 10 times what foster parents are paid.

It is with irony, then, that the governor cut the Legislature's spending request to save money. Foster care is not the only social program to suffer under the governor's knife. In all, he vetoed nearly $80 million in health and welfare spending--including Medi-Cal, family planning and in-home support for the elderly--ostensibly to maintain a billion-dollar reserve for "economic emergencies."

Foster care can send abused or neglected children on the path to a better life. Indeed, it can save lives. And foster care is a front-line defense against crime, as the link between abused children becoming convicts is well established. SB 2218, sponsored by Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim), would order the Department of Social Services to determine the soundness of the state's reimbursement schedule for foster parents. That is a first step, albeit a limited one, in the right direction. Foster children have spent a good deal of their lives suffering. They should not have to continue to do so at the hands of the state.

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