Endangering children

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David lived with his mother and her boyfriend in a trailer heated by a vat of boiling kerosene. One day, David complained about being cold. So, his mother’s boyfriend threw him into the boiling kerosene. Social workers removed David from his mother’s custody and placed him in foster care. The courts gave her two years to provide a suitable home for David, but she couldn’t do it. Though the third-degree burns over David’s body are still visible, far worse are the invisible scars he bears for lack of a stable family.

Takira’s mother loves her very much. But she’s addicted to cocaine. Takira’s mother put her in foster care so she could overcome her addiction. For three years, she’s been in and out of rehab, while Takira moves from one foster home to another. Takira’s mom has been clean for 10 months now. She hopes to get Takira back — some day.

Kimberly doesn’t remember how many foster homes she’s lived in. She’s thinks it’s seven, maybe eight. Years ago, one foster family wanted to adopt her, but the courts said no. They wanted her foster family to adopt Kimberly’s siblings as well. Kimberly became so depressed that she ended up in a psychiatric hospital. Though she would have liked living with her brother and sisters, what she wanted more than anything was a permanent home.

David, Takira and Kimberly have never met. But they are members of the same club — a club that no child wants to join. They are among the nation’s half-million foster children. Despite the best intentions, the family courts charged with their care have failed these children miserably.

More than 119,000 of America’s 523,000 foster children are eligible for adoption. But many of these children languish in foster care because the family courts which decide their fate need significant reform. The 2004 Pew Commission Report on Children in Foster Care has published comprehensive recommendations to improve these courts.

Consider this: Each year, thousands of children enter the foster-care system, totally dependent on the decisions of a complex web of social workers, lawyers and family-court judges. Yet these judges often receive no training to address the issues of children in foster care, and lack a sense of urgency about their needs. Many judges have no means to gather data, observe trends, or review the progress of individual children. They have no means to learn whether their interventions work.

Of particular concern is the courts’ adherence to the goal of family preservation, even when there is no real family to preserve. When choosing between termination of parental rights, which allow children to be adopted, and reuniting children with their families, courts favor reunification. Yet one-third of the children reunited with their families return to foster care. They return older, more emotionally damaged and less likely to be adopted if their parents terminate their rights years later.

The fragility of these children can not be overstated. Children in foster care frequently report that there is not a single person in their lives upon whom they can rely to secure their future.

What can be done? The National Council For Adoption (NCFA) recommends that family courts create and adhere to performance-based measures to chart their progress. These specific, measurable objectives will allow the courts to determine their strengths and weaknesses, be accountable to the public and better serve the children whose lives they hold in their hands.

These are the top performance-based measures that NCFA believes family courts should implement: 1) Reduce the length of stay. The average child will spend four years in foster care — far too long. How can the courts reduce this time? 2) Increase permanence. The average child will live in three foster homes in his lifetime — greatly damaging his sense of security. How many children can leave foster care if judges recommend adoption over reunification? 3) Ensure due process. Court hearings are often continued for three months, six months or more, often due to minor technicalities. How can the courts reduce the time between hearings and the number of appeals allowed? 4) Ensure safety. Many children go home to parents who continue to abuse or neglect them. How can the courts address this problem? Performance-based measures will give family courts the tools they need to assess their performance, be accountable to the public and make better decisions about children in foster care. For children like David, Takira and Kimberly, this isn’t bureaucratic jargon. It’s their passport to a secure life.

Rosemary C. McDonough is Chair of the Board of the National Council For Adoption (www.adoptioncouncil.org) in Alexandria, VA.

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