Lawsuits have been filed in Washington, D.C., and nine states — Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, New Jersey, New Mexico, Tennessee and Georgia — asking judges to supervise entire foster-care agencies.
"Most of the caseworkers in this country are inadequately trained, do not have the educational background to do the job, and have caseloads too high for any human being to handle, no matter how well-trained they are," said Marcia Lowry, the director of Children's Rights Inc., a nonprofit organization that represents children in all of these lawsuits.
"There are some caseworkers out there who are doing absolutely heroic work, who are really doing the best they can," she added. "But they are being put in circumstances that are impossible, and they are not getting support."
Michael Ward, a Mississippi judge who has presided over foster-care cases for 23 years, says there's a crisis in his jurisdiction. "I would suspect that probably as many as half of the abuse and neglect cases are not being investigated at all," he said.
Even though her agency advised her not to, Julia Wasvick, a child-welfare worker in Mississippi, told ABCNEWS: "How could any caseworker with a caseload of 70 to 100 manage to go out and see the children? I mean, that's impossible."
Janet Atkins, who has been working as a social worker for child-protection agencies in California since 1986 and who speaks as a union member, says caseloads are so high that social workers have to make hard choices: either give priority to seeing the families and children under their watch, or do the paperwork.
In California, caseworkers assigned to certain tasks have to monitor at least 54 cases at a time. "There's no way you can see 54 children once a month and still do the rest," said Atkins.
ABCNEWS' Legal Unit, including Eric Avram, Deborah Katz and Sylvie Rottman, worked on this investigation.