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Foster Parents Discouraged by Deluge of Bad Publicity

Reports of abuse and neglect prompt even good families to drop out, compounding a shortage of places for troubled children.

June 22, 2003|David Crary | Associated Press Writer

LITTLE EGG HARBOR, N.J. — Diane Matta was driving through the rain toward a hospital, seeking emergency treatment for her infant foster daughter, when she heard a grim radio news report about abuses in New Jersey's foster care system. She burst into tears. "I got so upset when I heard that," she said. "All of us foster parents are taking a bad rap because of the few that don't work out."

Matta is determined to continue foster-parenting. Her family has taken in 12 children for varying periods over the past four years, most of them infants with serious health problems.

But the relentless reports of abuse and neglect -- in New Jersey and other states -- are taking an emotional toll. Some dedicated couples drop out of foster parenting; others are deterred from trying it, compounding a chronic shortage of foster parents across the country.

"The number of children needing care is rising; the number of foster parents is declining," said Ruth Massinga, president of Seattle-based Casey Family Programs, a private child welfare agency. Nationwide, she said, tens of thousands more foster parents are needed.

"When the headlines are bad, it's discouraging to them," Massinga said. "It becomes all the more difficult for them to speak about the work they do, which they should be proud of."

Foster care in America is a complex institution -- overseen by state governments with the help of private agencies and federal funds, providing short- and long-term refuge for children removed from their homes for safety reasons. According to federal figures, there are about 542,000 children in foster care, some in group homes, some with relatives, and about half with families they are not related to.

Roughly one-fourth of foster children are eligible for adoption, and many foster parents eventually adopt children they initially took in temporarily. But in most cases, authorities try to reunite foster children with their parents or other relatives.

"Foster care in every state has struggled because it's not necessarily the happy ending that adoption is," said Donna Younkin, assistant director of New Jersey's embattled Division of Youth and Family Services. "You hear the bad stories; you don't hear the good stories."

Recent months have been difficult for her agency. In January, the decomposed body of a 7-year-old boy was discovered in a Newark basement after child welfare investigators had closed his file without fully investigating prior allegations of abuse.

In May, in the development Diane Matta heard about on the radio, the advocacy group Children's Rights Inc. said Youth and Family Services routinely put children at risk by placing them with abusive foster parents and botching investigations.

New Jersey is not the only state with problems. Among other recent cases:

* More than a year after Florida's child welfare agency acknowledged that caseworkers had lost track of still-missing foster child Rilya Wilson, its new chief reported persistent problems with child abuse investigations and foster care.

* A Chicago-based official has sued Illinois in a bid to curtail the shuffling of children in foster care. Cook County public guardian Patrick Murphy sued on behalf of 291 children, claiming that they went through at least 2,147 separate moves between foster homes and institutions.

* In Levittown, Pa., a court heard testimony that a married couple bound two young foster children with duct tape to keep them from making a mess in their cribs.

"Most of the time, foster children are treated well, and foster parents do a good job," said Wade Horn, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services assistant secretary for children and families. "But there are the horror stories, and they can be very demoralizing. Most of the time, the child welfare system is driven by the motivation of 'Don't get in the paper.' "

Matta, a former nursery school teacher, has had ups and downs in her dealings with state child welfare workers. "You have wonderful caseworkers who will bend over backward for you, and others, you can make phone calls for two weeks, and they won't even answer," she said.

Matta lives in a small waterfront home in Little Egg Harbor, about 20 miles north of Atlantic City, with her husband, a mechanic with the state transit agency, and their daughter, Madison, 8, whom they adopted as an infant in Guatemala. All three pitch in with foster-care chores -- their current guests are a 4-month-old boy and 2-month-old girl, both born to drug-abusing mothers.

Matta will recommend foster-parenting to anyone who is interested, but she cautions that sacrifices are inevitable. She no longer sings in her church choir, and vacations have been scaled back to accommodate the needs of young, medically fragile children.

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