Experts: Losing Foster Kids Is Easy

ByGeraldine Sealey

June 5, 2002 -- The case of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson, who was missing from a Florida foster home for more than a year before anyone noticed, has drawn the ire of a shocked public. But perhaps it is more surprising that there aren't more Rilyas out there.

Florida's child-welfare agency failed to see 1,237 children in its custody last month, officials announced this week. In Rilya's case, the state did not notice she was missing for 15 months. Her caseworker stands accused of falsifying monthly visit reports.

"Our job is humanly impossible," Christina Castel, a central Florida child protective investigator told state legislators on Tuesday. "I can't help but think we are being set up to fail." Castel took on 60 cases when she was hired two years ago — the professional standard of the Child Welfare League of America is 17 per caseworker.

Florida foster-care employees also lack cell phones, laptop computers, and access to critical information for their cases, they say.

The Rilya Wilson case has brought the overburdened, beleaguered child-welfare system into national attention. The Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil-rights activist, called this week for a criminal probe into the girl's disappearance, and Florida politicians holding hearings are looking for scapegoats.

Lawyers, government officials, caseworkers and advocates who devote their lives to child welfare say blame for the system's ills should be spread far and wide, and that even if Florida is a bad case study, its experience is not rare.

"Florida is like much of the rest of the country only more so," said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. "What happened in Florida could have happened in almost any system, but if someone described the [Rilya Wilson] story and asked what system it happened in, I would say Florida."

Problems From Washington State to D.C.

For sure, Florida's foster care misery knows company.

Almost 600,000 children are in government care across the country, and even the $15 billion spent annually to protect children from neglect and abuse is not enough to help agencies meet their own legal and professional requirements.

All too often, experts say, caseworkers carry heavy loads that make it possible to lose track of children — or even impossible to keep track of them. The average caseworker's load is 40 to 60 children.

And historic, crippling state budget shortfalls further threaten the child-welfare systems across the country.

In Iowa, nearly $23 million has been slashed from state child-welfare programs even though child-abuse cases have skyrocketed to an all-time high, the Des Moines Register recently reported. At the same time, about 340 state human-services jobs have been cut or left vacant.

In Mississippi, federal officials are keeping tabs on whether money and staffing shortages at the state welfare agency are endangering children and families. Almost half of the state's social worker positions are vacant, leaving less than 200 caseworkers handling 3,000 children.

In Seattle, a newspaper disclosed dozens of instances in which children under the care of child-welfare workers died from abuse or neglect.

The Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize this year for exposing records of the deaths of 180 of 229 children under the city's care.

Age-Old Debate: Money vs. Resources

Florida's experience not only highlights the worst problems in foster care, but illustrates the difficulties of improving the system.

The state has convened nearly a dozen special panels to study child welfare in the last 15 years, and is still unable to prevent tragedies like Rilya Wilson's. Even a new $230 million computer system designed to keep track of children under state care got a failing grade from half of the caseworkers who used an early version of it.

Is there a solution? As with many public policy issues, the age-old debate focuses on whether to throw more money at the problem or devise better strategies.

While many child-welfare advocates say money would surely help, they agree that it is not enough.

"It's not an either-or; you need increased resources and better ways of doing business," said Mary Lee Allen, director of the child welfare division of the Children's Defense Fund. "If you don't have a vision, pumping dollars into the system won't help children. The question is, How will we better protect children?"

Still, experts say budget cuts can ultimately hurt child safety. All too often, policymakers train their fiscal axes first on programs aimed at prevention, they say. Cutting such programs could be counterproductive since they help keep children out of the foster-care system in the first place, Allen said.

"We believe strongly that when you look at the tragedy in Florida, it is the tragedy about to happen in too many states," Allen said. "If we're going to make a change we'll have to put more resources into the front, prevention end."

Accountability Fights Corruption

Michigan provides a good example of how boosting prevention programs can help keep kids safe, she said. Caseworkers help families to identify what they need to stay safe and together, then the child-welfare agency approves and monitors the plan to keep the family together.

Other positive examples can be found in Illinois, where parents serve as "recovery coaches" to other at-risk parents, and in Arizona and Maryland, where child-protective agencies and alcohol and drug agencies work together. In Massachusetts, domestic violence and child-protective offices make joint efforts.

Alabama and Pittsburgh are also considered national leaders in child welfare for programs that seek to keep families together and cut the use of foster homes.

Increased accountability for caseworkers and their supervisors is one critical reform that does not have to be expensive, said Sarah Hechtman, a lawyer with Children's Rights, an advocacy group involved with litigation over Florida's foster-care system.

Caseworkers are often young and inexperienced, carry high caseloads, and have supervisors with equally high workloads who cannot do an adequate job, she said. Worse, Florida state workers have been accused of hiding files and mishandling cases to cover up for shoddy work. Dishonesty in the system is not rare, Hechtman said — her group is filing lawsuits over corruption issues in New Jersey and Wisconsin.

"It runs rampant throughout the system," Hechtman said. "Unfortunately, doctored records and lying to the court is all too familiar to those of us who work with these systems."

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