Child Welfare System Must Grow Up
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
California has announced sweeping reform. But the reform required is
for "authorities" to act like adults and take responsibility.
In a September 25 press release, CDSS Director Rita Saenz bluntly
assessed why the agency has failed. "The 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
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
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
Child Welfare System Must Grow Up
Tuesday, October 14, 2003
By Wendy McElroy
Monday, September 29, 2003 - Too many children have been
unnecessarily placed in foster care because of a
"perverse financial incentive" that encourages local
governments to earn money by bringing youngsters
into the system, a new state report says.
The study by the California Department of Social
Services also says too much emphasis has been
placed on investigating whether parents abused or
neglected their children while not enough has been
done to help families overcome their problems.
"Over a period of years, the original vision for
supporting and healing families through the child
welfare system has deteriorated into an
adversarial and coercive approach," DSS Director
Rita Saenz said.
David Sanders, who took over in March as head of the troubled
Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family
Services, said experts have estimated that as many as half of
the county’s foster children could have been left in their
parents’ care if the appropriate services had been provided.
A study by a child welfare think tank released
earlier this year found that the government spends
an average of $65,000 to $85,000 a year to house
and educate a foster child in a group home.
The total costs are staggering, authors of the
report wrote, noting that the direct costs of child
abuse and neglect nationwide are estimated at $25
billion a year while indirect costs such as juvenile
delinquency, adult criminality and lost productivity
Los Angeles Daily News
Study: Kids rushed into foster system
By Troy Anderson
to society total $95 billion.
In response, the Child Welfare Services Stakeholders Group, a
body of 60 child-welfare experts formed by Gov. Gray Davis in
2000, has proposed an "ambitious and far-reaching overhaul"
of the state’s child-welfare system.
Andrew Bridge, managing director of child-welfare reform
programs at The Broad Foundation in Los Angeles, said one of
the most basic problems with the system is restrictions that
provide money only when a child enters foster care.
"The county will only continue to receive funding
for the period it keeps the child in its care. You
can’t run a system that is based on a buck-a-head
for as long as you can keep the child," Bridge said.
The state report said California has 13 percent of the nation’s
total child population and 20 percent of its foster children.
More than 700,000 children come into contact with
the child-welfare system annually statewide. About
77 percent of those in foster care were removed
from their homes for neglect.
In Los Angeles County, more than 160,000 children came into
contact with the system last year. Nearly 80 percent were
involved because of neglect.
More than 91,000 children are in foster homes statewide. In the
county, the $1.4 billion DCFS budget pays to provide services
to 75,000 children in the system or living in adoptive homes.
Of those, nearly 30,000 actually live in foster homes.
The stakeholders’ report recommends the Department of
Social Services seek approval from the federal government for
more flexible use of its $3.7 billion annual child-welfare budget
so more money can be spent on services to help keep families
together. Congress is expected to take up legislation next year
dealing with reforms in how the system is funded.
The stakeholders also recommended that the state improve its
method of contracting with public and private foster care
Of the county’s 30,000 children in foster homes, an average of
6 percent to 7 percent are abused and neglected, a rate among
the highest in the nation.
"The safety issue is such a big one," Sanders said. "Los Angeles
County is way out of line with the rest of the country. You just
have kids who are being abused after we have supposedly put
them in a safer environment."
Janis Spire, executive director of the Alliance for Children’s
Rights in Los Angeles, said the report outlines the "only
realistic path toward achieving stable, secure homes for our
"The toughest job is still ahead in terms of providing a step-bystep
plan for achieving these goals," Spire said.
Troy Anderson, (213) 974-8985