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Chaos Often the Only Parent for Abused or Neglected Children : Families: Drug addiction, poverty and teen-age pregnancy overwhelm state protective services. And failures can be fatal.


The case of the children forgotten by New York officials is repeated elsewhere. Illinois' Cook County, which includes Chicago, had as many as 12,000 children placed on bureaucratic hold for years; no one knows the real number. Washington, D.C., had nearly 300 children on foster care rolls long after their ages would have bumped them out of the system.

* The crisis is reflected in the changing face of its victims. More than a quarter of children in the system are now 3 or under; those under 1 account for twice as many victims as any other age group.

These children spend more and more time trapped in the bureaucracy. The average stay in many cities is three to four years, but a growing percentage of youngsters get out only when they reach 18--despite federal guidelines mandating a solution for children within 18 months.

* This transience wounds all aspects of a child's life, from education to health. Foster parents complain that vital records are misplaced. Medical decisions must be made in court, a process that further slows care.

A General Accounting Office study found 58% of foster care children under 3 had serious health problems, from fetal alcohol syndrome to AIDS.

* The offspring of the child welfare system are tragically overrepresented among society's walking wounded: the homeless and mentally ill, the drug addicts and career criminals, the absent and abusive parents.

A 1991 federal study of foster care graduates found one-fourth had been homeless, 40% were on public assistance and half were unemployed. Connecticut officials estimate 75% of youths in the state's criminal justice system were once in foster care.

"Foster care really screws you up; it makes you depend on the system every day of your life," said Lamont Wilder, who has spent all 20 years of his life as a ward of the New York City system. "By the time you're old enough to make a plan for yourself, you don't know how."

Jean Adnopoz, a psychologist at the Yale Child Study Center, said children who spend years drifting between foster care homes "can't be expected to come out in any way that would appear to be healthy."

"If you have a child with no psychological parents, essentially adrift in the world, you are headed toward all sorts of bad outcomes," she said. "And we as a society are going to pay and pay and pay for it."

States became the parent of last resort for these children in the last four decades, assuming the role from private and church charities. From the beginning, the solution often was to put the child in foster care.

"The system always functioned poorly, but it wasn't as noticeable when it was dealing with fewer kids. It became much more evident when there was stress on the system," said Marcia Lowry, director of the Children's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

But by the mid-1980s, those few children became many.

Fueled by drugs, teen-age pregnancy, AIDS and other crises, the number of children at risk has exploded. The American Humane Assn. says there were 1.7 million reports of neglect and abuse in 1985. The number reached 3 million last year. About 40% of all reports are substantiated.

"There's a giant spigot out there that lots of kids come rolling out of," said David Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America. "It has its source in poverty, drugs, lousy neighborhoods and inadequate affordable housing."

Crack cocaine devastated existing families and created a new urban term: boarder babies, newborns abandoned in hospitals by their addict mothers. Federal researchers estimated 22,000 babies were left in the nation's hospitals during 1991 alone.

Sheer numbers overpowered already wobbly systems. New York City saw the number of children in foster care swell from 18,000 to 46,000 in the last five years; the rolls in Illinois' Cook County spiraled from nearly 24,000 to more than 46,000.

This explosion of numbers carries tremendous costs. Spending on child welfare has tripled in the urban areas of New York, California and Texas, as well as rural states like Vermont and Nebraska. Pennsylvania spends more than $800 million on child welfare alone.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the federal government will spend more than $9.2 billion between fiscal year 1991 and 1996 for foster care.

The Republicans want to change the formula. They've proposed block grants to the states for all child welfare efforts, arguing that it's best to let the states establish programs that best fit their needs.

But critics say foster care would have to compete with other programs. States would no longer be accountable to the federal government if they didn't measure up.

Even now, courts and agencies are showing increasing signs of poverty. Social workers are underpaid; vital computer systems are antiquated or nonexistent. Washington, D.C., beset by budget crises, recently had most of its caseworkers' cars repossessed.

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