When police found four-year-old Shayna Bryant’s body in March 1994, it was covered with blunt-force injuries, both old and new; some of her wounds may have been cigarette burns. She died, according to the New York City medical examiner, of “child abuse syndrome.” Her parents, Orlando and Sherain Bryant, were indicted on murder charges.

Shayna died even though the city’s Child Welfare Administration (CWA) had long before judged her to be at risk and had put her in a foster home when she tested positive for cocaine at birth. When she was one year old, her father petitioned successfully for custody, and at the time of her death, Shayna was living with— and apparently being brutalized by—both parents. Police said that when the girl misbehaved, her parents would make her choose between a beating and a day without food.

Sadder still, Shayna’s story isn’t an isolated instance. America’s foster care system, originally set up to rescue endangered children, all too often returns them, sometimes over and over again, to abusive or neglectful parents. In New York City alone in the 12 months of 1992, 21 children were killed by a parent or mother’s boyfriend after CWA had intervened.

The failures of the foster care system don’t arise from any lack of resources. Nationwide, federal, state, and local agencies spend more than $10 billion a year caring for an estimated 460,000 children. New York City will spend an estimated $345 million in fiscal 1994 on its foster care caseload of some 50,000 children.

The problem isn’t one of money but of purpose. The basic ideas that drive the foster care system have changed radically. Today, the “rights” of biological parents almost always trump their children’s safety, and the “rights” of other blood relatives come before the child’s interests. That’s why urgently needed reform has to start by confronting the pivotal changes that have taken place in the way child welfare experts, policymakers, and social workers view foster care’s mission.

The foundations of the foster care system were laid by studies in the 1930s and 1940s demonstrating that babies in orphanages failed to thrive. These infants, however well cared for by an efficient staff, seemed to take no interest in life. They languished physically and emotionally; some even died. What was missing, researchers showed, was an ongoing personal relationship with some particular nurturing adult. Child development experts concluded that it was time to end the “warehousing” of orphaned or abandoned children in institutions and instead place them with nurturing foster families.

By the 1960s, child welfare experts were finding 64 that foster care had drawbacks of its own. Many foster care arrangements did not last—the children may have been hard to handle, or the foster parents’ plans changed. Thus children were left in limbo, bounced from one foster home to another. The 1960s solution was the principle of “permanency planning,” its goal to assure a stable home for every child. If a child could not be returned to his biological parents because the risk of abuse was high, their parental rights would be terminated so that the child could be legally adopted.

Ideology, racial politics, and societal prejudices, however, worked to undermine the concept of permanency planning. Most adoptive parents are white, while foster children are disproportionately black. Beginning in the early 1970s, the National Association of Black Social Workers objected vehemently to interracial adoption, labeling it “cultural genocide.” Social workers, meanwhile, saw impoverished minority parents as victims of society; the stricture against “blaming the victim” militated against taking their children away. Further reinforcing resistance to adoption was society’s general bias in favor of biological families—appropriate under normal circumstances but tragically misplaced in the case of parents who fracture the skulls or bones of six-month-old children; who have sexual intercourse with five-year-old daughters; who beat, burn, and starve their children.

Thus, over the course of the 1970s, permanency planning came to mean that a child’s “stable home” should if at all possible be his biological parents’—or parent’s—home. The federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 formalized this outlook: it required state agencies to make “reasonable efforts” to avoid out-of-home placements and to reunite children with their biological parents as soon as possible.

New York City’s policy toward “positive tox” babies—those born with cocaine or other drugs in their bloodstream—is an extreme example of this misguided approach. Until 1990, drug-addicted mothers automatically lost custody of their children at birth, on the assumption that addiction made them unfit parents. But since then, the city has followed a state directive allowing removal of such children only if there is proof of continued drug use and if social workers determine that the mother actually abuses or neglects the child. This policy means waiting for the worst to happen before rescuing the child.

To keep biological families together, child welfare agencies offer a variety of services designed to help them overcome crises. Family Preservation, as the effort is known, operates on the assumption that mothers or fathers who neglect or even torture their children will be redeemed by a class in parenting, some help with the rent, or a new refrigerator. Only after such measures have failed is a child eligible for adoption. Remarkably, officials measure the success of these efforts not by whether the child is safe and healthy but by whether out-of-home placement is avoided.

“It seems very naive to expect to correct a lifetime of disappointment, neglect, and dysfunction through a brief burst of social work attention and investment of resources,” says Dr. Mark Simms of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Richard J. Gelles, director of the University of Rhode Island’s Family Violence Research Program, points out that 30 to 50 percent of children killed by parents or caretakers perish after child welfare agencies have intervened and either left the children in their homes or returned them after a brief removal.

One of many such victims was a baby girl I’ll call Darlene, born to a 15-year-old mother identified in official records as Jane Doe. At seven months, Darlene was brought to an emergency room with a double fracture of her left arm. A caseworker accepted Jane’s explanation—that the child had accidentally fallen—and persuaded Jane, clearly a drug addict, to enter a rehabilitation program.

At her first session in the program, Jane admitted that she had caused Darlene’s injury by angrily pushing over the child’s stroller. The social worker saw the admission not as cause for alarm over the baby’s safety but as “an encouraging first step toward rehabilitation” of the mother. Less than two weeks later, before Jane’s second counseling session, Darlene arrived at the hospital again, this time suffering from a head injury. Her body was covered with old and new bruises, and Jane admitted that she had toppled Darlene’s crib in a fit of rage at her persistent crying. The baby was pronounced dead on arrival.

Jane had three more children within the next five years. She physically abused all three, losing and regaining custody of each. When the children were finally removed for good, it was not because all three bore the marks of beatings, as was the case, but because Jane had been missing her drug rehabilitation sessions.

By returning children to abusive or neglectful parents—often more than once and with a succession of foster homes in between—the system not only subjects them to further danger but also deprives them of the permanent bonds that are crucial to psychological development. Consider the case of Errol, who entered a foster home at age two, after his third trip to the emergency room. CWA removed the boy from his mother’s care when doctors found fresh welts and the scars of earlier blows inflicted, the mother said, by her live-in boyfriend. After a year in foster care, Errol had overcome his nightmares and his extreme shyness and was making up for lost time in developing both motor and social skills. At that point, he was returned to his mother’s care: she had completed the prescribed number of counseling sessions.

Even when “preventive” efforts fail and parents lose custody of their children, social workers, guided by the same race-conscious ideology, still try to keep biological families together through the policy of kinship foster care. Both the 1980 federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act and the 1979 New York State Child Welfare Reform Act require caseworkers to consider relatives first among placement options for children needing foster care.

The number of such placements exploded with the crack epidemic of the mid-1980s. Before then, the illegal drug most commonly abused had been heroin, and its users were primarily male. The spread of crack among women sent the number of abused and neglected children soaring. Between 1985 and 1992, the number of children in foster care nationally jumped from an estimated 300,000 to some 460,000, with crack-exposed babies accounting for most of the increase. New York City’s CWA saw its caseload triple. And by 1990, more than 22,000 New York City children were living in relatives’ foster homes—almost as many as the 27,000 in traditional foster families.

The average biological mother of children in foster care is not the teenager, unable to cope with the responsibilities of parenthood, whom one might expect to find. More often, though she probably had her first child while a teenager, she is in her late twenties or thirties. The babies kept coming, along with the problems; the father or fathers left.

As pressures mounted, she turned to drugs, and her behavior toward her children deteriorated. She might leave them unsupervised, neglect to feed or clean them, even beat or burn them. Family Preservation didn’t work for her, so CWA turned to her relatives as the next option.

In a typical scenario, a harried caseworker arrives to find an unkempt and perhaps injured child in a roach-infested apartment, with the drugged mother and her current boyfriend about to be led away by police. If it is late in the evening, a placement cannot be arranged until the next day, so the child might have to spend the night in a makeshift cot in an agency office. Looking for an alternative, the caseworker will ask the mother if she knows of anyone with whom the child can be left. The response is often the name and address of her own mother, the child’s grandmother.

By 1985, with the placement of children with relatives becoming commonplace in New York, the state established regulations for formally approving relatives’ homes as part of the foster care system. But a 1986 lawsuit, Eugene F. v. Gross, established that, in emergencies, children must be placed with relatives immediately, without the usual investigation to assess whether those relatives could provide a suitable home. In 1989, the New York State Legislature made this no-questions-asked “emergency” policy the norm where relatives are concerned. Moreover, it required that child welfare agencies actively search for relatives to care for children who need foster care rather than place them with strangers.

But kinship foster care is often not in the best interests of a child. How can it be, if it automatically, unquestioningly places him in the same family that produced his abusive or neglectful parent? “Unless [relatives] are carefully selected, trained, and supervised, kinship care arrangements may expose children to potential risks similar to those from which they have been removed,” says Dr. Simms of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Though brochures from foster care agencies often picture smiling, middle-aged grandmothers with their arms around happy children, the reality is quite different, according to those who work within the system. “Some of these grandmothers are worn out, uneducated, and haven’t a clue as to what the emotional needs of these at-risk children are,” says a New York child welfare official. “For every grandmother doing a good job, there’s probably another who shouldn’t have these kids in her home, who fails to give them the stimulation they need to develop their minds. But the official policy is to place them with any relatives, as long as they’re walking around and capable of changing a diaper.” That policy may be said to be the Alice-in-Wonderland version of family values.

People tend to treat their children the way their parents treated them. An estimated one-third of parents whose children are in foster care were foster children themselves, evidence of an intergenerational cycle of dysfunctional families. Breaking that cycle requires rescuing children before they have been irreparably harmed, rather than leaving them in an abusive family until the worst has happened.

Not only is kinship foster care often bad for children; it is also an enormous boondoggle. Under the Eugene F. settlement, government payments for kinship foster parents are the same as for traditional foster parents—much higher than the welfare checks parents receive under Aid to Families with Dependent Children (see box on page 66). Families, therefore, have a strong incentive to keep kids in kinship foster care, even if the children don’t need it. A private agency contracting with CWA to place children in kinship foster care issued a report that well illustrates the system’s perverse incentives. “I don’t have to plan for my kids,” it quotes a parents saying. “They are with my family, and they are getting paid.”

Particularly in New York City, inefficient, incompetent bureaucracies make misguided foster care policies even worse. CWA’s social workers, in particular, are undertrained, underpaid, and overworked. Caseworkers come and go, sometimes even before they have gotten to know all of the children in their case files. Some caseworkers are responsible for as many as 30 children; the number recommended by the Child Welfare League of America is 17 to 20.

The background of the typical CWA caseworker? Consider: the starting salary is $25,000; the only requirements for employment are a bachelor’s degree—in one case, a B.S. in agriculture from a third-world university—and a simple multiple-choice test. The test is graded on a curve, and a city regulation, designed to prevent discrimination, requires that CWA fill any position by hiring one of the to three scorers among available applicants. Sometimes this means the agency must hire the least unsuitable of three unqualified applicants instead of continuing the search. And city regulations make it next to impossible to discipline, remove, transfer, or suspend a worker.

The days when social work was one of the few professions open to educated women are long gone. Today, social work has become an entry-level job for many immigrants, some of whom have not mastered English, some of whom come from cultures that accept corporal punishment as routine and reportedly can be insensitive to signs of child abuse. After just three weeks of classroom instruction and three months of field training, new caseworkers must deal on their own with some of the city’s most difficult families.

Necessarily, caseworkers are often out of their depth. I spoke to a CWA official on the day a New York Newsday headline about the Shayna Bryant case read: How THE BUREAUCRACY FAILED HER. “Why didn’t they see it?” the official said, wearily repeating my question. “We expect these undertrained and overburdened caseworkers to make decisions doctors, lawyers, or psychologists are trained to make,” she answered. “They can’t recognize certain kinds of injuries.” Few case-workers stay in the job for very long. “They know they can go over to Probation and make $5,000 a year more right away, and they won’t have to go out into scary neighborhoods at night,” the official says.

The cumbersome bureaucracy that administers the foster care system is further paralyzed by federal and state regulations that require, one CWA staff member puts it, “a paper trail that is ludicrous.” The number of people dealing with these requirements is vast, and the bureaucrats outnumber the front-line caseworkers. Family Court Judge Judith Sheindlin’s voice drips with scorn as she describes what she sees every day in her courtroom: “The city pays for a CWA caseworker, three tiers of supervisors, and a lawyer in every child welfare proceeding. Additionally, when a private agency is involved in the case, it sends a caseworker, a supervisor, and a case manager—plus private counsel. Surely a few of the nine people present in court on a single petition could be spared.”

A system whose failures jeopardize the lives of hundreds of children and the futures of thousands more cries out for reform. Children who are shifted from biological parents to foster parents and back, who see caseworkers come and go, readily fall prey to gang membership, violence, and criminal careers. Although no official statistics are available, experts familiar with the prison system say that an overwhelming number of prisoners have been through the foster care mill as children. Lacking the attachments in early life that form the basis for character and conscience, too many grow up with an abundance of rage, little empathy for others, and little sense of the consequences of their actions.

New York State has been experimenting with one approach aimed at reducing the length of time children stay in foster care. Instead of paying private agencies for the duration of a child’s stay in a foster home, however long it may be, the state caps the amount it will pay for each child. The theory is that agencies will have an incentive to reduce the time a child spends in foster care and will more quickly return him to his biological parents or arrange for adoption. But this program makes no fundamental difference to the most pressing problem—children who remain too long with abusive or neglectful parents—since the focus is still on keeping the biological family together.

What would meaningful reform entail? Above all, child protection must replace family reunification as the guiding principle of child welfare policy. When children are found hungry, dirty, beaten, or sexually abused, they should be removed quickly. Those who would allow the equivalent of three strikes before terminating biological parents’ rights ignore the fact that every strike leaves permanent scars on a child’s mind and body. One serious incident of abuse ought to be enough to warrant termination of parental rights.

Kinship foster care should be strictly limited to those relatives who can demonstrate the capacity to provide a good home and who have a strong interest in the child rather than in a source of supplemental income. Adoption is the solution of choice for young children, because it provides them with a stable home and enables them to bond permanently with their new parents. The ties that bind are woven out of the myriad little transactions between infant and caregiver—the daily routine of feeding and cleaning, comforting and cuddling, talking and observing. Thus, adoption should be easier and should begin early enough in life so that a child can form these permanent attachments. Adoption is also a boon to taxpayers. Even though adoptive parents receive the same subsidy as foster parents, adoption cuts the cost almost in half because it entails far less administrative overhead.

Lawmakers should eliminate any rules that make race or ethnicity a criterion for adoption. The notion that interracial adoption is “cultural genocide” has deprived countless black children of the opportunity to be part of a permanent, caring family. Moreover, scientific studies have failed to demonstrate any significant difference in social or psychological outcomes for black children raised by black or white parents.

Senators Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio and Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois have introduced legislation that would bar federally funded agencies from delaying or denying adoption solely on the basis of race. “Keeping a black child in a foster home because some black social worker doesn’t believe it’s right to cross the race barrier is horrendous,” Metzenbaum says. “It means that the child [may go] from one home to another, without . . . a chance of ever having real parents.” The bill was incorporated in the Senate version of the Minority Health Act, which, at this writing, awaits reconciliation with the House version.

For many older children, who are harder to adopt, institutions like boarding schools or group homes—vastly different today from Dickens’s horrors—are the best option. “Instead of orphanages, call them long-term residential and educational placements,” suggests Judge Bill Maddux of the Cook County, Illinois, Juvenile Court. “They allow you to take advantage of having a number of kids in one place to provide them with a real education. A kid realizes he’s not the only one: there are others in the same boat. You remove him from the harmful community that caused his problems in the first place and let him grow up in an environment that can push a kid, give him confidence, move him forward, give him some spirit.” Judge Maddux is well-qualified to comment, having grown up in Nebraska’s Boys Town.

These reforms would go a long way to reduce the costs of the foster care system. “What is needed is not more money but optimum utilization of what we have,” says Judge Sheindlin of New York’s Family Court. “Instead of trying to deal with fifty thousand cases and doing it badly, why not eliminate the kind of ersatz foster care that goes on forever [kinship foster care] and concentrate on real foster care, limiting it to one year in a stable home and putting the savings into hiring better-trained caseworkers and paying them more?”

The financial costs, of course, pale to insignificance when compared with the system’s heart-wrenching human cost. Sister Josephine Murphy, a social worker who administers Saint Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home in Hyattsville, Maryland, tells of a seven-year-old boy with his back torn up by a beating with an electric cord. It took months to heal what he called his “mommy sores.” A court order sent the boy back to his mother.

“Why do we leave children with mothers who can’t or won’t protect them?” Sister Josephine asks. “These children are orphans of the living, victims of the child slavery maintained by our legal system and our welfare departments.” They desperately need a system that will put their interests first, that will find them a real family rather than condemn them to be further brutalized by their biological parents or turned into a subsidy for their relatives.


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