Foster-Care System Stretched Too Far

ByCynthia McFadden

July 2, 2002 -- Sally Schofield, the foster mother of Logan Marr, was found guilty June 25 of wrapping the 5-year-old's body with 42 feet of duct tape during a "timeout," causing the little girl to suffocate.

Schofield could face up to 40 years in prison for the child's death.

"The child-welfare system failed Logan Marr in every possible way," said Richard Wexler, the executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. "They failed her … by … ignoring her cries of abuse and they failed her by letting her die in that foster home."

Six weeks before she was killed, Logan was on a visit to her birth mother when, in the presence of a child-welfare worker hired to supervise the visit, she complained that her foster mother was hurting her. "She did this to me and I cried 'cause it hurts me," the child is heard saying on a videotape, although she isn't seen.

Despite this information, there was no immediate investigation and Logan's child-welfare worker failed to make a required quarterly visit to the foster home.

"In Maine, they don't even try to visit children more than once every three months," Wexler told ABCNEWS. "And they weren't even doing that until the scandal surrounding the Logan Marr case."

Across the country, child-welfare workers tell ABCNEWS they are overwhelmed. Some say they have too many cases, others complain of inadequate training, and they all say they are underpaid. The annual turnover rate of workers is as high as 70 percent in some areas.

Foster Children Often Face Frequent Moves

ABCNEWS' Law & Justice Unit spoke to one foster mother in Mississippi who expressed her frustration with the foster-care system. Two baby boys who had been abused were brought to her home when they were only a few months old. One had 18 broken bones, and the other had 22 broken bones, she said.

The foster mother, who asked not to be identified, told ABCNEWS that for the first 18 months, she had to deal with 22 different child welfare workers and that, in the course of three years, she only saw child-welfare workers five times. She also adopted a boy who is now a teenager. Before he came to live with her, he bounced around in foster care, living in 32 foster homes over a five-year period.

Debbie, now 15, was 5 years old when she was removed from her parents' home because of her mother's substance-abuse problem. Debbie and her sister and brothers were all taken from their mother's home, but Debbie was separated from her siblings by New Jersey's Department of Youth and Family Services. She recalls being in 11 or 12 foster homes over five years.

"They would take me out and not tell me where I was going. I would get back from school, my bags were packed, I didn't have the time to say goodbye to anyone," said Debbie. "You have to build up a wall so you don't get close."

In one of the foster home, she was sexually abused. "I felt like nothing," she recalled. "I wanted to be with my real brothers and sister again."

For seven years, the government agency was unable to reunite the siblings or arrange for regular visits. Debbie's story does have a happy ending, unlike that of so many other foster children. She was adopted in 1997 and is grateful she has parents to love and who love her and a place to call home.

Lawsuits Aim to Get Foster Care Supervision

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.

Caseworkers Overloaded

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.

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