The Dirty Little Secret: Abuse in Foster Care
Date: Thu, 1 May 1997 15:29:57 -0700 From: Rick Thoma <rthoma@RICA.NET>
A Baltimore study by Trudy Festinger, head of the Department of Research at the New York University School of Social Work, found that 28 per cent of the children in foster care had been abused while in the system.
In Louisiana, a study found that 21 percent of the abuse or neglect cases involved foster homes.
In Missouri, a 1981 study found that 57 percent of the sample children were placed in foster care settings that put them "at the very least at a high risk of abuse or neglect."
A later report issued in 1987 found that 25 percent of the children in the Missouri sample group had been victims of "abuse or inappropriate punishment."
Children's Rights Project attorney Marcia Robinson Lowry described the findings of the Missouri review before the Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families:
The most troubling result of the Kansas City review was the level of abuse, undetected or unreported, in foster homes. 25% of the children in the sample were the subject of abuse or inappropriate punishment. 88% of those reports were not properly investigated.
During a recent two year period, one foster child died on average every seven and a half weeks in the state of Arizona. Four of them were reported as having been "viciously beaten to death" by their foster parents.
The situation is perhaps best summarized by a report commissioned by the Reagan Administration in the late 1980s, which concluded:
Foster care is intended to protect children from neglect and abuse at the hands of parents and other family members, yet all too often it becomes an equally cruel form of neglect and abuse by the state.
In California, a Santa Clara County Grand Jury reached a similar conclusion, having determined that children often face greater risks in its foster care program than they do in their own homes:
Sometimes, foster care placements are made that are just as abusive, if not more so, than the home from which the child was removed. The Grand Jury learned of placements where sexual and physical abuse took place. There was even a case where the infant died.
In Washington State, a blue-ribbon Governor's task force concluded:
The effect of our present foster care system is disastrous. Children are moved from one foster home to another, their school attendance is disrupted and health care needs often go unmet. They are sometimes exposed to abuse by other children in care. . .
Elsewhere, a recent report by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services determined that the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services "has no assurance that the quality of care being given to foster children placed by child-placing agencies was adequate."
The federal reviewers found "many cases" of children "in potentially harmful situations." At least one fire or health deficiency was found at 40 of the 48 homes reviewed. In 28 of the 48 homes, no record could be found to prove that required criminal background checks had been made. The report described some foster homes as filled with trash.
A 1994 Department of Health and Human Services audit of six states found foster homes that were crowded and unsafe.
The report illustrates that cases of foster parents inflicting harm on their wards are all too common:
A Sacramento, Calif., man was charged last December with raping and murdering one of his three foster children, a 16-year-old girl. He was arrested after holding the other two children at gunpoint during a standoff with police.
The Cook County public guardian's office recently sued a Chicago private social agency for placing an 11-year-old girl in the home of a convicted rapist who allegedly raped the child.
In a separate case, Chicago police say 2-year-old Corese Goldman was killed in February by a foster mother who held him under a faucet to toilet-train him. The woman, a distant relative, was not required to go through training, background checks and a home inspection before taking the child.
The state of Massachusetts has also knowingly approved scores of convicted criminals to be foster parents, including child abusers, drug dealers, habitual drunk drivers, kidnappers, armed robbers, and other violent offenders, according a recent Boston Globe series.
The Department of Social Services knowingly allowed these criminals to become foster parents by granting "waivers" that would ordinarily cause the foster parents to be rejected. The Boston Globe report followed a series of reports on the violent deaths of young children in foster care.
This may explain why after a five-month investigation based on hundreds of interviews with Department workers, court personnel and families, a Massachusetts legislative committee found that children in state care were often worse off than they were in the original homes from which they were removed.
In California, as of 1989 Los Angeles County alone had paid $18 million in settlements to children who had been abused while in its custody. One such case involved a nine-year-old boy who weighed only 28 lbs., and who could hardly speak after the suicides of his parents. County social workers failed to visit him in his foster home for four months.
During that time, he was beaten, sodomized, burned on his genitals and nearly drowned by his foster parents. He became a spastic paraplegic. By 1990 the state was threatening to take over Los Angeles County's child-welfare-services system.
The California based Little Hoover Commission found: "That children can come to harm--and even die--while supposedly under the protection of foster care is not in dispute." Some cases cited by the Commission included:
A foster mother arrested in Los Angeles on charges of beating to death her 23-month-old foster son, allegedly over toilet training problems.
Another Los Angeles woman arrested for the attempted murder of a 19-month-old foster child who she said fell from a jungle gym. Doctors believed the severe head injuries, which may result in blindness, could only have come from abuse.
A Sacramento woman who was injured in a car accident who voluntarily placed her daughter in a foster care facility. During a tantrum by the child, an employee of the facility wrapped her in a blanket and squatted on her. She was later discovered dead.
One of the most tragic aspects of many of these cases is that the children suffer needlessly, for in their zeal to protect them against the perceived shortcomings of their natural parents, child protective workers placed them into dangerous homes that inflicted upon them precisely the injury they had hoped to prevent.
In the District of Columbia, social workers removed four of Debra Hampton's children from her home placing them in foster care. According to the testimony of a social worker, the children were removed because Mrs. Hampton had left them alone and was not properly supervising them, and her home was "generally uninhabitable."
Three months later, the foster mother left two-year-old Mykeeda Hampton at home for over ten hours. While she was out running errands, Mykeeda was beaten to death by the foster mothers' twelve-year-old son.
An autopsy later established that the two-year-old died of "blunt force injuries to the head, abdomen, and back, with internal hemorrhaging."
In August of 1995, San Francisco officials took custody of Selena Hill a few days after her birth because of concerns that her parents, Stacey and Claudia Hill, didn't seem capable of caring for their newborn.
In September, seven-week-old Selena Hill was rushed to Children's Hospital in Oakland with a fractured skull and other injuries that almost killed her. In their efforts to protect her from her actual parents, child welfare workers placed Selena into a foster home with a history of domestic violence. In the nine months before the infant was injured, Berkeley police had visited the residence three times after receiving reports about violent disturbances in the foster home.
The state of Georgia placed Clayton and Kelly Miracle in foster care with Betty and Joe Wilkins in June of 1993. Two months later paramedics would arrive at the foster home in response to a 911 call, finding Clayton barely breathing, with two large knots on his head, one in the front and one in back.
Clayton died as a result of blunt force trauma to his head. The doctor who performed the autopsy testified that Clayton's fatal injuries could not have been caused by an accidental fall and that injuries and bruising found all over Clayton's body were consistent with battered child syndrome. Doctors also examined Kelly and found the same pattern of bruising.
According to an Associated Press investigation, in nearly half the states, cases take years to come to completion as agencies repeatedly fail to investigate abuse reports in a timely fashion, find permanent homes for children, or even keep track of those children under their care and custody.
For various reasons, ranging from failure to provide adequate supervision and oversight of workers, to failure to provide safe child care facilities, 22 states and the District of Columbia have been ruled inadequate by the courts and now operate under some form of judicial supervision.
The American Civil Liberties Union's Children's Rights Project estimates that a child in the care of the state is ten times more likely to be abused than one in the care of his parents.
What of efforts at reform?
The Children's Rights Project has initiated a number of successful civil suits against foster care and child welfare systems. One such landmark suit was brought against the Illinois foster care system.
Attorney Benjamin Wolf instituted the legal action, concluding that the states foster care system functioned as "a laboratory experiment to produce the sexual abuse of children."
A similar suit was brought against the District of Columbia child welfare system. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia summarized the case:
The district court found that, because of the appalling manner in which the system is managed, children remain subject to continuing abuse and neglect at the hands of heartless parents and guardians, even after the DHS has received reports of their predicaments. The court also found that youngsters who have been taken into the custody of the District's foster-care system languish in inappropriate placements, with scarce hope of returning to their families or being adopted.
The Court also found that the agency entrusted with the care of children "has consistently evaded numerous responsibilities placed on it by local and federal statutes." Among the deficiencies cited was "failure to provide services to families to prevent the placement of children in foster care."
Frustrated by the lack of progress after years of litigation, child advocates succeeded in placing the District of Columbia child welfare system into full receivership in 1995, making it the first such system in the nation to come under the direct control of the Court.
In a Pennsylvania case, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit wrote in a 1994 decision: "It is a matter of common knowledge (and it is not disputed here) that in recent years the system run by DHS and overseen by DPW has repeatedly failed to fulfill its mandates, and unfortunately has often jeopardized the welfare of the children in its care."
The original complaint, filed by the Children's Rights Project on April 4, 1990, alleged that systemic deficiencies prevent the Pennsylvania department from performing needed services, and that it consistently violates the due process rights of both parents and children:
Specifically, plaintiffs claim that these amendments confer the right not to be deprived of a family relationship; the right not to be harmed while in state custody; the right to placement in the least restrictive, most appropriate placement; the right to medical and psychiatric treatment; the right to care consistent with competent professional judgment; and the right not to be deprived of liberty or property interests without due process of law.
One of the plaintiffs in the Pennsylvania suit was "Tara M." on whose behalf the ACLU charged the city of Philadelphia with neglect. Human Services Commissioner Joan Reeves guaranteed the young girl an adoptive home with specially trained parents.
In August of 1996, Tara M. would make the headlines once again, as her new foster parents were sentenced for "one of the most appalling cases of child abuse" Common Pleas Court Judge Carolyn E. Temin said she had ever heard.
Nine-year-old Tara has had three skin grafts and wears a protective stocking in recovery from burns over more than half her body. Police said the foster parents punished the girl by stripping her, forcing her into the bathtub and dousing her with buckets of scalding water. This was the very best of care the city could provide for Tara, a girl who had already endured years of physical and sexual abuse in the several foster homes into which she had been placed over the years.
The Children's Rights Project has also been involved in suits against child welfare systems in the states of Connecticut, Kansas, Louisiana and New Mexico, and the cities of Kansas City, Missouri; Louisville, Milwaukee, and New York City.
Says Chilren's Rights Project attorney Marcia Robinson Lowry: "There are a lot of injuries, a lot of abuse. The most significant thing is the psychological death of so many of these kids. Kids are being destroyed every day, destroyed by a government-funded system set out to help them."
In Utah, the National Center for Youth Law filed a class-action suit in 1993 on behalf of about 1,400 children in foster care and 10,000 alleged to have been abused and neglected.
The suit charged that the state failed to provide adequately trained caseworkers, medical treatment and education to children in its care, that it used unlicensed foster homes and homes that did not meet federal standards. It also alleged that children bounce around in the system and languish in foster care. A subsequent legislative audit largely confirmed the allegations.
By 1994, the Utah legislature approved what the Governor called a "SWAT Team approach" to handling the system wide deficiencies in its foster care and child protective services programs.
By 1995 it had established "Judicial M*A*S*H units," courtrooms with temporary judges to handle the backlog of hundreds of children waiting for rulings on their cases.
In 1995, suit was filed in Florida against its Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. The suit sought to shut down the Department, forcing HRS to stop taking children into foster care until it could better aid the 9,300 children already under its supervision.
Says Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association's Center on Children and the Law:
You could carbon-copy the lawsuit filed in Florida in every state. . . We have a child welfare system that's near collapse.
The most tragic aspect of all this is that most of the children subjected to the abuses of foster care don't need to be there. And, it is largely because the system is flooded with so many children that don't belong in care that these abuses continue to mount.
The situation is perhaps best summarized by the California based Santa Clara County Grand Jury report. The Jury found that many parents and professionals believe that the foster care system operates as if it is accountable to no one.
The Grand Jury did not see clear and convincing evidence that the foster care system operates with the best interest of the child in mind. It did find that the interest of the child often took a back seat to the interest of others.
"We have to ask ourselves whether we're doing children a service by taking them out of their homes and placing them in a system that's just as unable to meet their needs," says District Judge Bill Jones of Charlotte, North Carolina.
"Are we doing them more harm than good?"
Says District Judge Deborah Burgin of Rutherfordton, North Carolina: "If you take on the responsibility to take care of someone - and are paid to take care of someone - the least we can ask is that they come out of it alive."
Copyright, 1996, 1997, Rick Thoma Material adapted from a larger copyrighted work. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce and distribute this material by electronic or other means for non-commercial use. In so doing, please retain the copyright notice.