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'Official Child Neglect'

August 07, 1986

I am writing in appreciation of your editorial (July 24), "Official Child Neglect." I am a psychiatrist in private practice who has spent part of every week for 15 years treating foster children and studying, unavoidably, the foster-care system.

I am hooked on the wonder of children, as is almost everyone who is able to work professionally with them. That is one of the reasons the state has always been able to be so "callous" in providing so minimally for their care. I doubt that the state has ever, at any time in history, not been guilty of official child neglect.

The state has always understood that the people will take care of the children if it only provides minimal support. It has studiously looked the other way, rather than see how little its bureaucrats will settle for, how much physical neglect and psychological abuse they will condone.

But the needs of foster children far exceed the capacity of the average foster parent to take care of them. With the constant cutting back of support that you describe, plus the increasing costs of liability insurance, foster parent associations are threatening to stop accepting foster children. It is too much. The minimalist social funding philosophies of the Republican administration have gone too far.

All of this is happening at a time when the number of abandoned, neglected and abused children is growing astronomically. Professionals in the field have identified a new phenomenon, which they call the "throwaway" child--children who have been kicked out to the streets by their parents. I see hordes of homeless children beginning to fill our streets along with the mentally ill, who have also been kicked out by their caretakers.

Existing services can offer "throwaways" a bed for a few days, but once they have known the streets, they often become unsuited for anything else. Many of them die there.

I am reminded of the street children of the southern half of this hemisphere. But I can't think of a reason for it to happen here, except sheer callousness.

I think that you have described a social catastrophe in the making. I once hoped for a time when the state would care about the special needs of foster children. Now, I hope it will just care. Maybe, then, we could get back up to square one, again.

JOHN A. NILSEN MD

Los Angeles

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