Child protection – That was then, this is now

“Ottawa County prosecutors filed a murder charge against a man who allegedly beat to death a 5-year-old foster child,” Tulsa World reports. “Cops nabbed a Staten Island foster mother yesterday when she returned from a weekend away after the shocked officers found a starving 2-year-old and other neglected kids at her home,” explains the New York Post. “A Beloit man was charged with injuring a foster child in his care so severely that doctors had to use bone grafts from other parts of the boy’s body to repair his damaged skull,” notes the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office is investigating the death of a 9-year-old boy who died in foster care,” the AP reports in the Bakersfield Californian. “Across South Florida, children are physically harmed, molested and raped in foster homes and shelters that are supposed to be havens. Taken from their biological families for protection, children are sometimes placed by the state in environments more dangerous than the homes they came from,” writes Sally Kestin in the Sun-Sentinel.

But there is more. Jack Kresnak of the Detroit Free Press reports: “Since being placed in her first foster home at age 6, Christian has been beaten with fists and electrical cords, sexually abused and exposed to satanism. She has been rejected by at least one foster parent as unmanageable and rubbed down with witch hazel by another to hide the bruising.” From New Jersey, the Bergen Record reports: “A Passaic couple said they will sue the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services over the death of their infant daughter while she was in foster care.”

“A 2-year-old Brooklyn boy was beaten to death by his foster mom, who viciously battered the child with her fists — and then took him to an all-night card game. An autopsy performed on Carlos Winbush revealed the tot had been beaten with such force that his heart split, one of his lungs was punctured, his liver ripped and his ribs cracked,” New York City’s Daily News reports.

By this time, the Daily News was pulling no punches with respect to its reporting, as evinced by a March article that notes: “What do you do with a woman who’s got a rap sheet 12 pages long and covering 14 years? In this town, you make her a foster mother. It would be a bad joke, except for the horrific consequences. In this case, a 2-year-old being hospitalized in critical condition after Foster Mommy allegedly slugged her around a bit.”

Of course, there is the sexual abuse. From New Jersey, the AP reports: “A former Bergen County Juvenile Detention Center officer accused of raping a teen-age detainee was charged with having sex with a girl he was counseling through a program for teenage foster children.” The Northwest Arkansas Times reports: “A former counselor with Fayetteville’s Youth Bridge pleaded guilty Thursday in Washington County Circuit Court to charges that he fondled two 15-year-old boys under his care.” The Kentucky Post notes that a new administrator had taken over in the wake of “charges of a cover-up of the sexual abuse of children by workers at Allen House, the county’s emergency foster group home.” From Florida: “A children’s advocacy group is suing state officials in Broward County, alleging that foster children were being sexually and physically abused in state-licensed homes. The Youth Law Center said it found egregious examples of abuse and neglect during a year-long investigation.”

And of course there is the systemic corruption. “Former DFCS employee found guilty of 16 counts of extortion, taking more than $1,400 from foster parent,” blared the headline in the Augusta Chronicle. “The former head of a city-funded foster care agency pleaded guilty Monday to stealing more than $2 million from the agency for investments and to try to start his own businesses,” the Bergen Record explained.

By this time, public confidence in child protective services had begun to significantly erode, and the public wasn’t buying into the fabricated allegations against parents anymore. The Annapolis Capital explained: “An Edgewater couple who steadfastly maintained their innocence in the face of allegations they sexually abused their daughter were vindicated this week when a county prosecutor quietly dropped criminal charges.” Friends had organized potluck suppers and fund-raisers for the couple, as well as a phone tree to pass along news of developments in their case.

The Dayton Daily News reported on the experience of a family whose experience was described as “one of a growing number of cases casting doubt on the shaken baby diagnosis.” Steve Howell said: “We were guilty until proven innocent.” Just where have I heard those words before?

Progress was being made. The Bergen Record reported: “A New Jersey appeals court ruled that a person who has been accused of child abuse by the state should be allowed to appeal the agency’s decision to an administrative law judge. The decision is considered a major victory for people who say they have been falsely accused of abusing a child, providing them with an opportunity to face their accusers and defend their position in court.” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that a family was “typed into a computer as substantiated child abusers and remained there for months, in what officials said could be New Jersey’s worst instance in memory of a fabricated, unfounded abuse case.”

And it wasn’t only the patently false allegations that came to be challenged, it was the absolutely idiotic ones. These provide the rules, rather than the exceptions. Mary Beth Murphy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on a case in which “Lego pieces on the floor of a toy closet and a lack of beds for all 13 children” were cited as the “primary barriers for reunification” between a father and his children. People were beginning to recognize why children were really being removed from their homes. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on a case in which Allegheny County Children and Youth Services caseworkers visited a mother’s home “and decided that it was too cluttered and dirty for her to keep her two younger children with her.”

The public began to organize. The Telegraph Herald notes that: “More than 60 people attended an emotionally charged meeting to share experiences they’ve had with the Iowa Department of Human Services. Participants responded with anger and frustration while recounting stories demonstrating why they think the department is a punitive system that works against families – destroying reputations and hurting children.” The Anchorage Daily News reported: “Year after year, legislators get calls from parents who complain that DFYS runs roughshod over their rights, violating the sanctity of the family. This year, the heat on the agency was extra high.”

The heat was on the child abuse registries as well, and there were some victories carved out that year. The Athens Daily News reported: “The Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the state’s child abuse registry is unconstitutional, upholding the decisions of two lower courts.” The decision struck down the statewide registry, which included more than 73,000 names since it was started in 1991. Utah’s Deseret News reported: “Names were placed on the huge computer system whether the alleged abuse was substantiated or not, and, in recent years, the Unified Social Service Delivery System has been the target of a tug-of-war between how to protect children without unfairly punishing adults.”

The year was 1998, and even then there were early warning signs that privatization and the other gimmicks intended as quick-fixes would fail to provide desperately needed remedies for a patient described by the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect as suffering from “chronic and critical multiple organ failure.”

Managed-care models were all the rage at the time. According to a report issued that year by the General Accounting Office, child welfare agencies were implementing, planning, or otherwise considering managed-care initiatives in 35 states. According to the American Public Human Services Association, agencies were “experimenting with managed-care strategies that are based on various rate structures, including capitated payments and case rates, rather than on fee-for-service payments.”

Among the early warning signs that our ailing patient had been administered a placebo, Laurie Petrie of the Kentucky Post reported: “Critics charge managed care adds to the already burdensome load of paperwork on social workers and therapists. They also say managed care focuses on quick fixes, such as medicating children to control their behavior, and can be rigid in defining services and setting time limits.”

There were many early warning signs concerning privatization that were ignored as well. The Topeka Capital-Journal reported that: “Kansas legislators have heard horror stories about privatized foster care. One lawmaker was so unsettled by reports from constituents about foster care that the legislator couldn’t sleep.” Lawrence Journal World reported that: “Critics of the privatized foster care initiative say it has made a historically inadequate system worse than ever.” From Illinois, the Telegraph Herald reported that: “Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy criticized DCFS for its rapid privatization of child care and warned that so many of these start-up agencies are ill prepared for the task that more tragedies may follow.”

To this day, we continue to infuse our patient with billions of dollars in federal revenue in our efforts to graft wings in place of the elephant’s ears, hoping finally that it may fly. In so doing, we continue to ravage poor families, and to consign their children to the near-inevitablities of homelessness, poverty, and imprisonment.

Why dwell on the past? As the New York Daily News reported in May of 1998: “Florence Johnston Lowell, 87, sobs in a high, heart-rending tremolo that she may die before seeing her daughter — one of four children whisked out of her impoverished home by child-protection workers in 1937.” Heaven only knows whether she lived to see that day.

Florence is survived by the very system that did this to her. The only critical distinction to be made is that the system is now fully computerized, and hence is far better equipped today than it was then at maximizing federal revenue at the expense of families much like hers.