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Protect foster kids

A Tennessee couple with 18 children in their care — most adopted and disabled — stand charged of abusing several of them.

Erika Alexander

The Jackson Sun

Children were beaten and forced to sleep in a fully enclosed metal baby crib, a state indictment says.

Two nurses who worked at the home say children were deprived of leg braces, eyeglasses and a walker as a form of punishment.

Debra and Tom Schmitz, who deny the charges, lacked legal custody of seven of the children, state officials say. Even so, the couple received up to $9,000 a month in government subsidies and child support for the "care" they provided.

The Schmitz case was highlighted in a recent cover story by USA TODAY's Wendy Koch that exposed failures of the nation's child-welfare system. The story documented an underground network of families that take in children others do not want, attempts to sell children adopted from abroad, and vicious discipline by some families.

This is no isolated problem.

All 50 states have failed to comply with standards designed to protect kids from abuse and neglect, says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Caseworkers don't visit families often enough to assure proper care, and kids aren't getting promised health services.

What can be done?

• States need to improve screening to prevent glaring abuses such as those cited here. If that requires spending more money, so be it. If states won't comply with federal rules, hefty fines should follow.

• States can avoid placing too many children with one family. Arbitrary limits might penalize those who do a great job, but it's unrealistic to expect even the most saintly of parents to care well for 18 kids.

• Child-welfare officials can provide more post-adoption services, including parenting education.

• More publicity about existing programs could help expand the pool of suitable, well screened families willing to take in children, says Wade Horn, HHS' assistant secretary for children and families.

The nation's 523,000 foster children — nearly 90% of whom have special needs — deserve more support. It's unconscionable that even one family of foster children can be kept in cages while their "parents" receive thousands of dollars for their care. Government must not abandon these kids after their biological parents already have

2006 Jan 23