INTO the maelstrom of horse-trading that is the House/Senate conference committee on the budget will be thrown one of the most excruciating issues in American life.
There, amid the honey-bee subsidies, fuel taxes and income tax hikes will lurk the Family Preservation Act, which could have a dramatic impact on the lives of America's most vulnerable children.
Because Capitol Hill is dominated by liberal Democrats, it is an unquestioned axiom that the Children's Defense Fund and the Child Welfare League of America -- Hillary Rodham Clinton's colleagues and the authors of this bill -- know what's best for America's children. It's a dubious assumption -- on which, more in minute. The conference committee will decide the bill's fate -- the House having approved the administration-backed measure, and the Senate not.
The Family Preservation Act is a response to the appalling number of children in the foster care system. In 1990, there were 407,000 children in foster care nationwide, with an additional 210,000 under the care of child welfare agencies in some capacity or other. And the numbers are growing steeply. Between 1987 and 1990, the number of kids in the child welfare system grew by 45.4 percent.
The Children's Defense Fund and its allies seek to alter the structure of incentives for states, which now receive unlimited federal money to keep kids in foster care. Accordingly, there is no incentive to move them out. Thousands upon thousands of children spend their childhoods in permanent impermanence -- sometimes enduring as many as 15 placements before the age of 5. The solution, according to CDF, is to pump federal money into programs stressing "family preservation" instead of foster care.
It sounds good, but like so many liberal nostrums, it is based on wishes, not facts. Fundamental to a belief in family preservation is the view that all families are fixable -- that with enough social worker effort, counseling and understanding, parents and children can be reconciled happily. Advocates of family preservation count it a victory every time an out-of-home placement is avoided.
The trouble is, there is no evidence to support this optimistic vision. There are no adequate studies of the efficacy of family preservation. But there is a great deal of evidence that an unrealistic belief in family preservation can lead to tragedy. Last year, 400 children were murdered by their parents after being returned to abusive homes.
In 1992, a little girl, who had been known by child welfare officials to be infected with sexually transmitted diseases since the age of 5, was finally removed from her home when she was diagnosed with AIDS -- at age 9.
In Washington, D.C., five siblings were imprisoned in two small, unlighted, foul-smelling, roach-infested rooms for four years. Two children had had their arms or legs broken by their father. The Department of Human Services did not classify the case as an emergency and objected to the children's removal from the home.
It's easy to blame incompetent social workers -- and often they deserve the blame. They leave some children in ghastly, terrifying homes and remove others from parents who are perfectly adequate. But the epidemic of child abuse and neglect in America today simply overwhelms the capacity of social workers to handle it. And the philosophy of family preservation only makes it worse.
Keeping the biological family together no matter what ought not to be the highest priority of child welfare agencies. The primary value ought to be the "best interests of the child." If a parent has been chronically neglectful or abusive, his or her parental rights should be terminated so that the child can be placed in a permanent adoptive home. That's the best way to end the dead end of eternal foster care -- but it is one the liberal child advocates never mention.
The nightmare of child abuse and neglect in this country is just one more gruesome sign of the moral degeneracy into which we have fallen. The answer is not a naive faith in family preservation -- which continues to treat children as the property of their parents -- but a more aggressive approach to children's needs.
Isn't that what Hillary Clinton claims to be for?
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.