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Child welfare system must grow up
By Wendy McElroy
The California child welfare system is such a disaster that even the state's Department of Social Services admits families are aggressively torn apart and children unnecessarily placed in foster care.
California has announced sweeping reform. But the reform required is for "authorities" to act like adults and take responsibility.
In a Sept. 25 press release, CDSS Director Rita Saenz bluntly assessed why the agency has failed. "[T]he original vision for supporting and healing families through the child welfare system has deteriorated into an adversarial and coercive approach."
The result: In L.A. County alone, more than 160,000 children "came into contact" with Child Welfare in 2002; 30,000 are in foster homes -- only one form of foster care.
David Sanders, head of the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services, reports that as many as half of those foster children could have stayed at home with "appropriate services" rather than removal. Thus, an L.A. Daily News headline declared that children are being "rushed into foster care," where many remain.
Andrew Bridge of L.A.-based Broad Foundation explained why: money. "The county will only continue to receive funding for the period it keeps the child in its care." In various states, including California, there is a "perverse financial incentive" to place and retain children in foster care rather than leave them in the home.
Thus, the first way authorities can take responsibility is to remove the financial incentive to destroy families.
In a 2002 conference on Privatization and Government Reform, Laura Dykes explained how Kansas was reversing that dangerous trend -- through privatization. "By giving contractors a lump sum, rather than paying them on a per-day, per-child basis, the perverse incentives are removed." As a result "adoptions have increased 78 percent since privatization, and the dissolution rate [adoptions that fail] is only 2.4 percent, compared to 12 percent nationally." (p.30)
There is a second way for authorities to become adults. Those who receive a paycheck from the family court system have another "perverse financial incentive": to create and extend cases rather than resolve them. Instead, the family courts should prefer the comparatively private and inexpensive alternative of binding arbitration whenever applicable.
The crisis of child welfare is not confined to isolated states. If it were, the Senate would not be considering a provision in the Welfare Reform Act reauthorization bill to make states accountable for undistributed child support funds. In 2002, almost $660 million in child support payments never reached their intended recipients nor were they returned to payees. The funds "floated" as parents were "forced to pester the state for every nickel and dime." Geraldine Jensen, president of the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support declared, “If a bank behaved this way it would go out of business.”
This is my point. State officials and policies should be held to the same standard of accountability -- including criminality -- as that applied to private businesses and individuals. They should be liable for their gross misconduct, including the filing of false reports.
This may require the repeal of legislation such as the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) that offered federal matching funds to states with compliant child abuse programs. It offered huge financial incentives to uncover abuse while providing no checks to protect the wrongfully accused.
CAPTA established the policy of encouraging false accusations while eliminating accountability. It encouraged the leveling of anonymous charges through such mechanisms as hotlines. It extended legal immunity both to child welfare workers and to false accusers whose gross misconduct might deeply injure children.
The solution: Refuse to credit anonymous accusations; hold false accusers responsible for perjury; make "child welfare" workers liable for misconduct on the same level as private individuals.
What is the alternative?
In the wake of financial incentives without accountability, the number of children in nationwide foster care has doubled from 270,000 in the mid-1980s to 542,000 in 2001. (That figure does not include children who "graduated" upon turning 18.) Once removed to official "safety," these children are far more likely to suffer abuse -- including sexual molestation -- than the general population. According to the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, in 1998 six children per 100,000 population were killed in foster care compared to one per 100,000 in the general population.
For many children, foster care becomes permanent. In 1999, almost one in seven children in foster care nationwide had been there for three to four years; almost one in five had been there for five years or more.
The human cost of rushing children into foster care does not stop when they reach 18 years old. According to CDDS data, among youths who "emancipate" from foster care, 50 percent do not complete high school; 45 percent are unemployed; 33 percent are arrested; 30 percent are on welfare; 25 percent are homeless.
Foster care, as it exists, is often difficult to distinguish from child abuse. Children deserve better, especially children from troubled homes. They deserve to have adults in charge -- adults who take responsibility.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and
a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She
is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new
book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan
R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.
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