No more excuses (Editorial)

Date: 2003-12-01
Source: City Limits

LET'S STOP PRETENDING these are freak incidents.

As I write this, New Jersey child welfare authorities are trying to figure out how it could be that the seemingly cohesive, loyally churchgoing Jackson family of Camden allowed their four adopted sons to starve. A caseworker who claimed to have made numerous visits to the foster sister who lived with them reported that the boys were doing fine, and seems to have accepted the parents' explanation that their adoptive sons had "eating disorders." Why did this happen? That's the question on everyone's minds.

It's the same question New York child welfare officials are asking about 8-year-old Stephanie Ramos, a severely disabled child who died in a filthy foster home in the Bronx and whose foster mother dumped her in the trash. And about the lady in Harlem whose brood included a tiger and an alligator as well as foster children. O.J. lawyer Johnnie Cochran is currently suing New York City for half a billion dollars on behalf of a Bronx baby allegedly shaken to death in foster care. As Wendy Davis reports this month in her investigation of the oversight of foster homes, New York's rate of abuse and neglect in foster care is twice the level deemed nationally acceptable.

We can't ever know for sure why an adult hurts a child. (How can we, when abusers themselves rarely understand?) What we do know much about is the multibillion-dollar institution of foster care. We know that foster families volunteer for the job, and that if they take in a large number of kids, or children with special needs like Stephanie Ramos or the Jacksons, the stipend can compare favorably with pay for other bottom-rung jobs. We know that caseworkers assigned to supervise the homes are underpaid for exhausting and emotionally draining work, with caseloads that are too high to provide adequate supervision for every child. And as New Jersey's human services chief has as much as admitted, there are caseworkers who skip out on their obligation to visit every home regularly, and instead simply fake the paperwork.

No more excuses. Children are suffering and dying in order to maintain a political fiction. We remove children from their allegedly negligent families as an act of civic obligation, only to dump the kids into other homes and cross our fingers they won't get into more trouble.

If we won't make a significant commitment of resources to ensure safe and supportive foster care--and since we never have in the century-and-a-half history of the institution, I'm not counting on it now--we will have to seriously consider abolishing foster care as we know it. That doesn't mean letting kids rot in hellish situations. On the contrary, it's an opportunity to invest resources in family preservation and other effective interventions. Nor can we leave families solely accountable any longer for forces associated with child maltreatment in the first place: poverty, overcrowded housing, intolerable stress, and other conditions that are as much a responsibility of our political leadership as is the protection of Elisa Izquierdo and other tragic poster children for child abuse.

Who's responsible for the squalid death of Stephanie Ramos, or the starving of Bruce, Keith, Michael and Tyronne Jackson? In a way, we all are.

--Alyssa Katz, Editor


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