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A critical look at the foster care system

Children entering the shadowy world of foster care are often assigned labels arbitrarily and on a bed-available basis. They may end up spending some time in conventional foster homes, only to find themselves shuffled through group homes, residential treatment facilities, mental hospitals and prisons. Scant attention is given to the needs of these children, and the conditions they are forced to endure are often far worse than those endured by prisoners in some third world nations.

Kenneth Wooden, Executive Director of the National Coalition for Children’s Justice, explained to a Congressional Subcommittee that there is little difference in the background and characteristics of children in care regardless of whether they have been labeled “dependent,” “neglected,” “status offender,” “CHINS” (Children in Need of Supervision), or “emotionally disturbed.” It was Wooden’s impression that a “shell game” was being played with the labeling process, with dependent children, relabeled as “disturbed” or “hard to place” being shuttled off to private, often profit-making institutions in ever greater numbers. As a result:
Instead of orphanages, we now have so-called “treatment centers”–a “growth industry” which feeds on unwanted children just as the nursing home business depends for its existence on large numbers of the unwanted elderly. And, as is the case with the elderly, the systematic neglect and maltreatment of children in these facilities is being subsidized by the federal government.
In Virginia, former Governor Douglas Wilder discovered the same labeling process to be in use, finding that “children often bounce from agency to agency, from foster to group home to institution, and from funding stream to funding stream.” Wilder explained: “They are often defined by the system whose door they happen to enter: a welfare child if he comes through that door; a juvenile justice child if he happens to come through that system; a school system child; or a mental health child.” Once that label is attached, however, the funding stream may continue to flow, even after a child leaves one system for another. The former Governor testified that when the names of 14,000 children across four agencies were examined, they turned out to be 4,933 children.[1] Some children are labeled “dependent” or “neglected” and are placed under the jurisdiction of the Department of Social Services, other children are labeled “delinquent” and are under the Juvenile Court or Probation Department, still others are given a psychiatric label and sent to the Department of Mental Health, explained Mark Soler, Executive Director of the Youth Law Center, to a Congressional Subcommittee some years later. The label slapped on the child may well depend on his point of entry into the juvenile justice system, according to Soler. “Indeed, the same child may get different labels at different times, depending upon the point at which he enters the system. In reality all of these children may have serious emotional problems, and all certainly come from families or other living situations marked by acute crises,” he explained. Whether it is in a group home, congregate care facility, mental hospital, detention center or prison, foster wards of the state often are forced to endure the very worst of conditions.
Among the conditions the Youth Law Center identified were children in an Arizona juvenile detention center tied hand and foot to their beds; a Washington State facility in which two children were held for days at a time in a cell with only 25 square feet of floor space; children hogtied in State juvenile training schools in Florida — wrists handcuffed, ankles handcuffed, then placed stomach down on the floor, and wrists and ankles joined together behind their backs. In the training school in Oregon children were put in filthy, roach-infested isolation cells for weeks at a time. In the Idaho training school, children were punished by being put in strait jackets, and being hung, upside down, by their ankles.[2]
Children continue to be assigned labels arbitrarily, and often on a bed-available basis.
A recent South Carolina audit reveals that a percentage of foster care wards have been labeled as in need of therapeutic placements because of a shortage of conventional foster homes. Auditors noted that many of these children will bear the stigma of having been labeled as having emotional problems for the rest of their lives.[3]

Kenneth Wooden visited over 150 juvenile facilities over a three year period during the 1970s. His findings led to the formation of the National Coalition for Children’s Justice.
“Basically, they are called ‘youth homes’ or ‘ranches’ with fancy names like Cinderella Hall or Pleasant Valley or Happy Days,” he explained to a Congressional subcommittee.
“They have fancy brochures with swimming pools and stocked fishing ponds and tennis courts and the guarantee of the presence of full-time professional medical staff,” he explained. There are no actual photographs of tennis courts or swimming pools, rather they display drawings. “And, when you go there, they do not exist. Or else a stocked fishing pond is a mud pond,” said Wooden. “The reception rooms for parents and State officials responsible for assigning children hold impressive architectural renderings of planned new facilities, most of which never manage to get constructed, most of which are faded by the Sun over the years,” he said. In other words, it was all a grand facade intended to woo both parents and legislators.[4] In his book on the child-welfare system, “The Kid Business,” Ronald B. Taylor wrote in 1981 of profiteering by California group-home directors:
Several nonprofit corporations operating child-care facilities were found to be legally skimming large amounts of government money through lease-back arrangements. Operators not only owned the land and leased it to the nonprofit corporation; they often paid themselves handsome salaries and had the free use of homes, cars and credit cards.
The level of care and treatment in far too many of these group homes was minimal at best, because the money was being skimmed off for personal gain.[5]
“In the 1970s, real estate speculators bought up entire downtown blocks,” write John Hubner and Jill Wolfson. “After a few coats of paint and some wallboard were slapped up, the houses were given bucolic- or inspirational-sounding names like ‘Green Pastures’ or ‘Excell Center’ and found new life as group homes.”
The new industry attracted many operators who saw it as a way to wield power, and many applied their own unique brand of “behavior modification” therapy, which included anything from slaps across the face to long periods of isolation, and, in one recorded case, the electronic stinging of autistic children with a cattle prod.
Caseworkers often turned a blind eye to these abuses, Hubner and Wolfson explain: “Child welfare workers, some incompetent, all overwhelmed, were often under such pressure to find bed space that they looked the other way.” A typical story involved a corporation that bought and opened group homes. After operating for one year, the corporation folded the homes without notice, and sold the real estate. The corporation turned out to be a dummy set up by four men running the homes. Money that was earmarked for services was instead being used to pay off the mortgages. The partners sold the real estate for a profit and vanished.[6]
By the 1990s, California’s group home operators would become much more sophisticated in managing their financial affairs. A state investigation of Ron Mayuiers, a long-term group home provider, charged that Mayuiers received more than $2 million in government foster care payments to which he was not entitled for the operation of his California Crest group homes.
The California Crest homes received a top funding rate, more than $50,000 per year per child, for which they were expected to provide thorough, professional, around-the-clock care for adolescents. The audit, spanning the years 1990 through 1994, found that Mayuiers paid himself annual salaries ranging from $101,501 to $144,000, far exceeding the allowable maximum for group home directors. It also describes a profitable “pay-back” arrangement, in which Mayuiers and his wife set up a separate corporation to purchase houses with foster care funds. The houses were in turn leased back to the group home at excessive rents.
Sources in the Department of Social Services told Union-Tribune reporters that the state may go after the families assets, including a $1.6 million house in Fairbanks Ranch. Mayuiers also reportedly enjoyed frequent restaurant meals, and drove a Mercedes Benz. While one would imagine that a man who enjoys such an opulent lifestyle could well afford to be generous to the children in his care, a separate licensing investigation charged that Mayuiers kept the group homes on meager budgets, failing to provide children with adequate food, books and school supplies or supplies for daily hygiene. Among the other problems identified by investigators were several instances in which children in the care of California Crest were mistreated or left unsupervised; a female staff member having had sex with a boy at the Ivy House group home numerous times; a suicidal girl given bottles of pills by a staff member and subsequently attempting suicide; a girl having been molested at a bus stop after a staff member failed to pick her up as scheduled.
State inspectors from the San Diego community care licensing office had routinely found health and safety violations at the group homes, including rodent droppings in the kitchen, bugs in a cereal bag and meals that failed to meet nutritional standards, but its operating licenses were never suspended or revoked.

A longtime foster care licensing official, speaking to reporters on the condition of confidentiality, maintained that the group home system is still tainted by providers who enrich themselves and by regulators incapable of stopping them. “It’s a barrel with a lot of rotten apples. The level of greed hasn’t changed.” He said operators still employ a variety of cash-skimming methods, from costly lease-backs to exaggerating or falsifying credentials of staff members to obtain a higher rate of funding.[7] “The great majority of group home placements in California refuse to accept referrals unless they are assured that children will be placed for at least 1 year,” according to California probation officer Dennis Lepak.
“This seems to be an industry standard.” Children are placed for inappropriately long and arbitrarily determined periods of time. Little or no work is done to return children to their families. Most programs consider home visits to be a privilege, and visits are used as rewards for good behavior rather than as reunification tools. “I have seen Christmas home visits for young children cancelled for violation of relatively minor internal program rules,” Lepak explained.[8] In Pennsylvania, Julie was removed from her parents by the Northampton County Children and Youth Agency, and put in a succession of institutions, including foster homes and group homes. As is the case with most removals, there were no allegations of abuse. Rather, the agency had learned of her truancy and some minor family problems.
“I have a question,” she said. “How come it’s wrong if a parent spanks a child, but in a group home they have permission to slap a kid?” Julie told The Morning Call of burly male staffers using foul language and roughing up girls less than half their size. One incident involved her roommate. “They put her in a hold so bad she had rug burns on her face. They restrain you a hell of a lot worse than anything your parents can do, but if your parents do it, it’s abuse.”
The promise of going home, Julie said, is used as an incentive to get kids to play ball with the system, and the rules are manipulative. “They try to keep you in the system.” One year, Julie ran away to be with her parents for Christmas. “That was the first Christmas I spent with my parents in two years. You know how you’re a little kid and you get to open your presents and all that? That was the first time in over two years I was able to do that.”
But Northampton County caseworker Maureen Munley was hardly filled with Christmas cheer. She filed a contempt petition against the family, wanting to put them in jail for something akin to harboring a fugitive.
Northampton County Judge William Moran had to throw out the petition because it was legally preposterous, but he warned the parents that if Julie showed up at their home again, they were immediately to call the Department.[9] Such disdain for the needs of children and families permeates the system. The average length of stay at Mooseheart, run by the Loyal Order of Moose and financed mostly through charity, is six years. The institution houses over 200 children, from infancy to age 18, in 24 houses. Mooseheart, where all placements are made on a “voluntary” basis, will give a child back to his or her biological parents or legal guardians on request, thank you very much. But Rose Haggerty, its director of student services, states firmly, “We don’t try to reunite families. We don’t mean to usurp biology, but we promote the idea that the child is growing here.”
“Whatever the abuses in foster care – and there are many – there is absolutely no reason to believe that equal, if not worse, abuse won’t occur behind the walls,” said David Rothman, a professor of social medicine at Columbia in reference to the question of expanding congregate care to house more children. “The difference will be that nobody will hear the screams.”
Even at highly-regarded institutions such as Mooseheart, four house parents were arrested and convicted of sexually molesting about a dozen children between 1988 and 1992.
Recalls Kenyetta Ivy, who found herself shuffled through nine New York group homes: “There were rats in the stove. I know some girls who tried to commit suicide, and the staff wouldn’t even check on them.”[10]
Not even the highly-regarded Boys Town can protect itself against the infiltration of those who would take advantage of their wards. In Orlando, Florida, a Boys Town “resident teacher” found himself charged for having had sexual relations with one of the girls in his care.[11] Just how bad do conditions have to be before someone steps in to shut a facility down? When former police officer-turned volunteer Pat Hanges first arrived at the Montrose facility in Baltimore, Maryland, she found evidence of neglect everywhere. On her first assignment at Sanford Cottage she found it lacking in staff, furniture, and recreational equipment. “The only thing Sanford had was a super-abundance of kids,” she told a Congressional Subcommittee. Each crowded little cell was filled with two children. Many of the mattresses smelled of urine. Children were sleeping on mattresses in halls and in the gymnasium. “Six children were crammed into a small area in Sanford cottage; in addition to all this crowding, the air in there was so stale and so horrible. The boys were coming to me reporting sexual abuse, and alleged sexual advances were increasing. Along with attempted suicides,” she explained. Children were literally told by staff when to sit and stand, and when they could go to the bathroom. Toothpaste was dispensed onto their toothbrush, and they had to ask staff for toilet paper. Some staff members were verbally abusive and intimidating. The children were not allowed to call home. And when children would commit a minor infraction, they were locked in isolation in the “pink room.”
“It was a room where, even after a child had hung himself, could not possibly be supervised, all the way down the end of the hall, smelled of urine and feces so bad that I had to hold my breath when I went into it, in the summer months,” she testified.
The former police officer explained: “I went to social services and asked that a neglect report be made against the State of Maryland, because when I was a cop, if parents treated their kids the way our State treated those kids, I would have locked their butts up.”[12]
The JDM Residential Treatment Center near St. Louis seemed like a wonderful place to send abused children from troubled homes. It offered 120 secluded acres on which they could fish, hike and learn about nature. Two doctors were among its founders, and a professional counselor was to be in charge. The treatment program called for extensive use of pet therapy, group counseling and structured recreational activities. A church operated the center.
So, the Missouri Division of Family Services started sending children there, at a cost of $1,420 a month per child. Soon thereafter, state investigators substantiated three incidents of child abuse at the home, two of them serious. The home had gone through six executive directors in one year; failed 175 out of 234 checkpoints during an inspection; the pantry was sometimes bare, with children having to fend for themselves. One winter the thermostat was kept at 55 degrees. “Nobody else there cared about them,” said Brenda Woods, one of the former directors. “They wouldn’t even give them a ball to toss around. There were days when they didn’t have any food. The whole thing was just a way to make money off the state.”
Pat Adams, who as a licensed counselor visited the facility weekly to counsel children under a contract with the state stopped going because she was concerned about her safety and that of the children she was counseling. “The place was a joke, an absolute joke. It was just set up to get state money,” said Adams. Like Montrose, the facility was finally shut down.[13]
Staffing continues to be a problem in these facilities. Many group home owners pay minimum wage, or slightly above, and turnover remains high, just as it does in the rest of the child welfare industry. An informal study conducted by the Northwestern Children and Family Justice Center found that most of the privately staffed residential group home institutions in Illinois had rotating staffs who were not houseparents living with children, but teams that came and went. Staff turnover was high, with the average time worked at the sites being between 1 1/2 to 2 years. Notes author Renny Golden: “Not much intimate, caring, consistent nurturance is going on in these settings.”[14]
“I will tell you I have never, ever, ever, been afraid of one of my clients. But I have been afraid to go into some of those facilities at night and deal with the night staff alone. It is frightening. It is absolutely frightening,” explained District of Columbia Bar Association Attorney Diane Weinroth to a Congressional subcommittee.
“They have got some very strange people working in these facilities. I don’t know where they come from. But I will tell you this. There are no standards for hiring.”[15]
Apparently, many social workers continue to turn a blind eye to problems in the group homes–essentially ignoring child abuse in their own facilities. Yaroslavsky said some of the shortcomings identified by the grand jury should be evident to county social workers, who typically visit foster children once a month.”With some things, you walk in the door and you know there is a problem,” he said. “We are not getting the kind of feedback from the social worker visitations that we should be, to protect the welfare of the kids.”[16] The Los Angeles County Grand Jury determined that money is “not expended in accordance with federal, state, and local laws and regulations.” Audits displayed “significant financial abuses and illegal and inappropriate uses of foster care funds in many of the homes audited.”
As for the living conditions, the jury found that: children were inappropriately being sedated with psychotropic medications; children were denied promised rewards for good behavior based on a point system; when group home owners did not want to provide transportation for after school activities, they simply refused to let the child participate; many group homes did not provide tutoring, yet punished the children when they got poor grades.
The grand jury also found that “some group home owners use inappropriate discipline measures such as dragging children across the floor, throwing shoes at them, slapping or hitting a child; others make children stand in a corner for hours at a time.” But the group home owners are not the only ones who enrich themselves at the expense of children. The grand jury found a therapist having written the same comment for each of the six children at one group home. Some therapists were not seeing the children at all, or spending only five to ten minutes with them, while billing for a full 45 minutes, the jury found.
The jury was particularly disturbed by the response of one therapist, who told them during an inspection: “You obviously don’t understand anything about children and therapy. Children do not ever want to talk to a therapist, so I asked the group home owners how the children are doing.”
But the buck has to stop somewhere, and in the final analysis the blame rests not so much with those opportunistic group home owners and therapists who soak the system for all its worth, as it does with department head Peter Digre and his control over the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services. A budget of nearly one quarter of a billion dollars is expended annually on group home and foster care services in Los Angeles County, and group homes have become a veritable growth industry under his command, jumping more than 250 percent between 1990 and 1995–five times the rate of the rest of California.[17]
Digre points the finger of blame at cutbacks in AFDC benefits as responsible for increasing foster placements, having explained to reporters: “Families get caught in a downward spiral: first their utilities are cut off so they can’t keep the baby bottles cold. Then they get behind in rent and move in with friend or relatives who may have a criminal history.”[18]
Under questioning by a Congressional subcommittee, Digre admitted to legislators that about half of the removals of children from their homes are due to poverty, and not abuse.
“It gets down to those very specific issues about a place to live, food on the table, medical care, and thing like that,” he explained, adding that “about half of the families are not physical abusers, not sexual abusers, not people with propensities to violence but simply people who are struggling to keep ends pulled together and are eminently salvagable.”
All of this was too much for a frustrated Congressman Herger, who replied: “Evidently, it is your department’s practice to remove children from families in about 50 percent of the cases because they don’t have enough money.”[19] While Digre has always been quick to blame cutbacks in funding, while playing something of a shell game with statistics, the Los Angeles Grand Jury notes that “the foster care caseload has been steadily increasing since 1990, two years before the first maximum aid payment reduction.” How does his department “assist” those people who are caught in this economic downward spiral? By removing 26,947 children from their homes in one recent year–a figure representing only the first time entrants into foster care. And, as the Grand Jury report makes clear, the plight of children is often none the better in state care, as they are often denied basic necessities–the lack of which ostensibly led to their placement to begin with. About half of the group homes the grand jury visited had no reference books, educational toys or games. About half the homes had furniture with missing drawers, stains on the carpets, walls with holes and bathrooms without toilet paper. One site didn’t even provide toothpaste to the children. But rather than assist a family with a rent voucher or utility deposit, the cost of which may be as little as a few hundred dollars, the Department will spend between $8,000 to $10,000 per month to shelter one child at MacLaren Children’s Center. Rather than assist with housing or daycare, it will spend a quarter of a billion dollars to house poor children in dangerous foster homes, and in the city’s 700 group homes.[20] With the incredibly high number of children removed from their homes, court oversight is nearly impossible. A recent investigation by the California State Auditor reveals that the Los Angeles juvenile court follows the recommendations of DCFS is 98 percent of the cases it hears–effectively acting a rubberstamp for the Department. Even if the rare judge were inclined to provide some closer scrutiny to the Department’s claims, it would be nearly impossible, as the cumulative caseload of the Los Angeles juvenile court consisted of 153,700 hearings in 1995, and 96,100 hearings during the first seven weeks of 1996.[21]

Throughout the nation, children continue to enter the system through different doors–each bearing a different label–finding themselves dumped in placement one with another an a bed-available basis.
The impact of life in residential group homes is psychologically devasting, suggests a new study. Adolescents living with foster parents or in group homes have more than four times the rate of serious psychiatric disorders than those living with their own families.
“One of the most significant findings was that a number of adolescents were suffering from severe, potentially treatable, psychiatric disorders which had gone undetected,” wrote researchers in the December, 1996, issue of the British Medical Journal.
According to the study, not only did the teens in outside care suffer from serious psychiatric disorders — notably major depression — they were also more likely to have conduct disorders, anxiety problems, attention-deficit disorder, and unspecified psychoses.
Of 88 teens studied, aged 13 to 17 years, living in foster or group residential settings, the rate of psychiatric disorders was 67%, compared with 15% in those living at home. The differences between “conventional” foster homes and residential care are equally marked. Such disturbances were identified in 57% of those in foster care, and in 96% of those in residential care.[22]

1. Testimony of Douglas L. Wilder, Close to home: “Community-based Mental Health Services for Children,”, hearing, Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families, U.S. House of Representatives, April 29, 1991. p. 15.
2. Testimony of Mark Soler, Children in State Care: Ensuring Their Protection and Support, hearing, Committee on Children, Youth and Families, U.S. House of Representatives, September 25, 1986.
3. South Carolina Legislative Audit Council, Report to the General Assembly: Selected Issues in Foster Care, Audit, Reference: LAC/94-2, Chapter 2. January, 1995 Index.
4. Testimony of Kenneth Wooden.
5. Uri Berliner, “Mining Riches from Troubled Kids,” San Diego Union-Tribune, (June 5, 1994).
6. John Hubner and Jill Wolfson, Somebody Else’s Children: The Courts, the Kids, And the Struggle to Save America’s Troubled Families, (New York: Crown, 1996). p. 213
7. Uri Berliner, “Care Group is Overpaid, State Finds – California Crest Homes’ Excess Put at $2 Million,” San Diego Union-Tribune, (March 30, 1995); Uri Berliner, “Mining Riches from Troubled Kids,” San Diego Union-Tribune, (June 5, 1994); Uri Berliner, “Board Set to Ask for Investigation of Group Homes,” San Diego Union-Tribune, (June 15, 1994).
8. Testimony of Dennis Lepak, Foster Care, Child Welfare, and Adoption Reforms, Joint Hearings before the Subcommittee on Public Assistance and Unemployment Compensation of the Committee on Ways and Means and the Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families, U.S. House of Representatives, April 13 and 28, May 12, 1988.
9. Paul Carpenter, “They Prefer the Girl to be On the Lam,” The Morning Call, (February 27, 1996).
10. David Van Biema, “The Storm Over Orphanages,” TIME Magazine, 144 (December 12, 1994).
11. Associated Press, “Boys Town Supervisor Charged With Sexual Battery of Girl,” as reported in Naples Daily News, (October 12, 1997).
12. Testimony of Pat Hanges, Children in State Care: Ensuring Their Protection and Support, hearing, Committee on Children, Youth and Families, U.S. House of Representatives, September 25, 1986.
13. Martha Shirk, “Idyllic Setting Masks Child Abuse, Neglect,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, (October 3, 1993
14. Renny Golden, Disposable Children: America’s Child Welfare System, (Belmont, Ca.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1997) p. 135.
15. Testimony of Diane Weinroth, Foster Care: Problems and Issues, hearing, Subcommittee on Select Education of the Committee on Education and Labor, U.S. House of Representatives, September 8, 1976.
16. James Rainey, “Reforms Called for in Group Homes,” Los Angeles Times, (April 10, 1997).
17. 1996-1997 Los Angeles County Grand Jury, Juvenile Services Committee, Final Report, Early Release #3, March 1997.
18. Margot Hornblower, “Fixing the System,” TIME Magazine, (December 11, 1995).
19. Testimony of Peter Digre, President Clinton’s Budget Proposal For New Funding for Child Welfare Services Targeted for Family Support and Preservation Services, hearing, Subcommittee on Human Resources, Committee on Ways and Means, U.S. House of Representatives, April 21, 1993. pp. 87 – 88.
20. Los Angeles County Grand Jury. See note 18.
21. California State Auditor, Bureau of State Audits, Los Angeles County: The Department of Children and Family Services Can Improve Its Processes To Protect Children From Abuse and Neglect, October 1996.
22. Reuters, “Teens In Public Care More Troubled,” (December 13, 1996).
A critical look at the foster care system

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