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Sandy Banks

Foster Care: Noble Cause, Troubled System

April 20, 2001|Sandy Banks

There is a drawer in my desk filled to overflowing with e-mails, letters and court records, chronicling the sorrowful state of California's system to protect abused kids. They arrive--questions, complaints, pleas--from across a spectrum of interests whenever I write about foster care:

From distraught parents, fighting to retrieve children they say were unfairly taken. From disillusioned foster families, overwhelmed by constant demands to do more with less. From disgruntled social workers, wrestling with guilt over children they've failed. From discouraged former foster kids, turned out onto the streets, with no skills and no money, at age 18.

They paint an ugly picture of a system that was created to serve the noblest of needs--rescuing children from neglect and abuse--but too often compounds their tragedy.

And their voices took center stage in Sacramento this week, when a powerful corps of Assembly leaders made reform of the state's foster care system its legislative priority.

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There are more than 100,000 children in foster care in California--one-fifth of the nation's total--and 100 more enter the system each day.

Its network of shelters and foster homes is supposed to offer comfort and protection for children who cannot live safely with their parents at home. But it has operated so inadequately, with so little oversight, for so long that some children who enter the system fare little better than they might have at home.

Half the children in foster care never finish high school. One-third spend their early adult years on welfare. One in four land in jail. Another quarter wind up homeless. And 60% of girls who leave foster care are pregnant within four years.

"Foster children are not second-class citizens. They become part of the system through no fault of their own," said Assemblywoman Carol Liu (D-Pasadena), who authored one of the 13 bills in the legislative package introduced by lawmakers Tuesday. "We need to treat them with respect and prepare them for a productive adult life, just as we would our own children."

Children who have come through the system often complain that they were left to fend for themselves, treated more like juvenile offenders than victims of abuse and neglect. Shelters are violent and overcrowded, supervision of foster homes is lax, children are seen as little more than case numbers or sources of cash.

"Decisions . . . appear to be motivated primarily by cost considerations and secondarily by shifting policies and politics," concluded a grand jury review of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services last summer. "The best interests of the child are rarely paramount."

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The proposed legislative package would address some of the system's more glaring ills, such as heavy caseloads that keep social workers juggling crises, a perpetual shortage of foster homes and the abrupt termination of care that forces unprepared teenagers out on their own. It includes bills that would reduce caseloads, increase incentives for foster families and make foster kids eligible for college or job training.

It would make it easier for struggling parents to keep their children out of foster care, clear hurdles for prospective adoptive parents and ease the burden on foster families who often sacrifice financially for children in their care.

But its most profound provisions may also be its simplest ones: The Foster Care Improvement and Accountability Act of 2001 declares that agencies be evaluated by how well they actually meet the needs of families and kids, rather than how much paperwork they file. And the Foster Child Bill of Rights extends to foster kids such simple privileges as the right to make phone calls, to receive mail, to stay in touch with brothers and sisters, to have a storage space for their belongings, to not be locked in a room while in foster care.

Basic stuff . . . but somehow lost in a system that has grown so much so fast--because of financial pressures on families and increasing parental drug abuse--that it is buckling at the knees. Caseloads have grown by 50% in the last 10 years.

And what about the public reaction to this $300-million legislative priority? How does the plight of foster kids compete with, say, the energy crisis, for our attention?

The two are really not such different issues, says Suzanne Reed, chief of staff for Liu. "I think the energy crisis is heightening awareness for us in a way, because it shows that we need to plan for the long range--to invest in things like energy conservation--to avoid problems before it's too late," she said.

"In the same way, we've got to invest in these kids now, because how well we prepare them as children has a direct impact on how productive they are as citizens when they are adults. If we don't do a good job now, we're creating a bigger problem. We let things keep going, and, just like the energy crisis, we'll wind up suffering down the line."

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Sandy Banks' column runs on Fridays and Tuesdays. She's at sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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