Foster care: It's broke, let's fix it


FOSTER CARE is meant to be a safe haven for the saddest kids in America -- those who have been abandoned, hurt or neglected by their parents. But it slowly seems to be turning into a system where children who were treated badly are sent to be treated badly again.

* In March, 2-year-old Corese Goldman of Chicago died of drowning and blunt injuries at the hands of his foster mother. She is accused of killing Corese by forcing his head underwater as a way to toilet train him.

* Luis Perez, 13 months, died on July 8 in Springfield, Mass., after being scalded in a bathtub. He had been one of five foster children -- four of them no older than 3 -- placed in the care of a single woman. In Boston not long before, 24-year-old Raul Vasquez, an unemployed single man, was arrested for raping one of two dozen boys the commonwealth had put in his custody.

* Maryland officials put Laura Clem and her two brothers in foster care after their alcoholic mother was killed. For two years, the children were repeatedly molested in their foster home. Examined at age 3 1/2 , Laura didn't know her own name, and bruises covered her body.

* Since 1993, an Arizona child has died in foster care, on average, once every 7 1/2 weeks. According to the Arizona Republic, at least four children were "viciously beaten to death" by their foster parents.

Such horror stories, thank God, are not the norm. There are still many wonderful people in the foster-care system, caseworkers and substitute parents who give of themselves generously. No one suggests that most children in foster care are as bad off as they would be had they been left in their original, dysfunctional households.

But in far too many cases, they are no better off. And without exception they are worse off than they would be if a pair of devoted parents were allowed to adopt them.

In recent years, the number of American children in substitute care has exploded. Today it stands at close to 500,000. Every year, more kids enter foster care than leave it. Way more: The population of children who are wards of the state is growing 33 times faster than the population of children overall.

At this moment, 50,000 foster children are free to be adopted. Their birth parents' legal rights have been severed. Nothing stands between them and the tens of thousands of potential adoptive parents who could give them permanent, stable homes -- except the government.

But the government has far less interest in getting these kids adopted than the kids do. For the state, it is literally more rewarding to prolong foster care -- even bad foster care -- than to promote adoption.

In the latest issue of Policy Review, Conna Craig of the Institute for Children dissects the awful cruelty of the foster-care "leviathan." A former foster child who calls herself "one of the lucky ones" (she was adopted by loving foster parents) Ms. Craig is at pains to dispel the notion that what child-welfare agencies mostly need is more money.

"America already is spending $10 billion a year on foster care and adoption services through public agencies," she writes. "The problem with foster care is not the level of government spending, it is the structure of that spending. The funding system gives child-welfare bureaucracies incentives to keep even free-to-be-adopted kids in state care. State . . . agencies are neither rewarded for helping children find adoptive homes nor penalized for failing to do so."

Cockeyed incentives permeate the system. Foster parents are paid hundreds of dollars per month per child, with the amount rising as each child gets older. The longer kids remain unadopted, the more lucrative they become. "The money is tax free," notes Ms. Craig. "It doesn't take much imagination to see that paying people to parent can lead to mischief. . . . For too many foster parents, the children in their homes are reduced to mere income streams."

States typically claim that "special needs" render children unadoptable. To Ms. Craig, this is the ultimate heresy. Every child is adoptable, she says. Sick children. Minority children. Older children. It is a "myth that adoptive parents are interested only in 'healthy white babies' " -- look at the waiting lists of parents seeking black or Hispanic kids, or kids with Down Syndrome or AIDS. But to the state, an unadopted "special needs" child is valuable -- the designation triggers a federal subsidy.

Ms. Craig scorns the bureaucracy's bias against transracial adoption. She reports that adults deemed unfit to adopt are often hired as foster parents. She details the "victim status" that allows abusive birth parents to assert their legal rights for years: While children bounce between foster homes, their birth parents "are given multiple chances to fail at parenting."

For generations, the adoption of unwanted or uncared-for children was a private endeavor, and on the whole it worked. Now the system is dominated by the state. As a result, kids by the tens of thousands languish in foster care, while parents by the tens of thousands yearn to adopt.

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist.

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