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With fewer parents to care for them, kids going to uncertain foster homes

With fewer parents to care for them, kids going to uncertain foster homes
An era of harsh cutbacks to child services from Albany has demoralized caseworkers who face huge caseloads, low salaries

Author: HEIDI SINGER; Advance staff writer

Neighbors in Thomas Cusick's upscale Pennsylvania neighborhood were shocked to discover that the polite, reticent composer had been charged with sexually abusing some of the more than two dozen boys placed in his care over the past 30 years.

But advocates for abused and neglected children weren't at all surprised.

"The city is begging for foster homes, and beggars can't be choosers," said Richard Wexler, the Washington director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. "They say we're going to put children first but the truth is that they often don't have any place to put them."

The foster care agency that placed all of Cusick's Staten Island children, the Springfield, Mass.-based Downey Side agency, enjoys a good reputation, according to foster care advocates.

But an era of harsh cutbacks to child services from Albany has demoralized caseworkers - the front-line soldiers agencies rely on to detect problems in their foster homes - who face huge caseloads, low salaries and high turnover.

In the case of Thomas Cusick, the sheer number of children he took into custody might raise warning flags, said Gerard McCaffery, president/CEO of the Seamen's Society for Children and Families, an agency that places a large portion of Staten Island's foster children.

"How does any one person really care for this number of kids?" he asked. "Even Christ limited himself to 12 disciples, but I think they were all functioning adults."

If Cusick requested boys of a specific age, that too could be a warning sign, said McCaffery.

Tightening up the rules on choosing foster parents is a good way to cut back on abuses, say the directors of several New York City agencies. But to create new rules costs money. Several million dollars have already been spent on the state's new fingerprinting system, which gave agencies the ability to check criminal records for the first time last year.

"They're already concerned about the number of foster parents going down," added Daniel Pollack, who teaches social work at Manhattan's Yeshiva University. "If they tighten up the regulations any more, they'll see the number going down even more."

In order to qualify as a foster parent in New York state, it's necessary to undergo a medical exam, personal interviews and home inspections, fill out a lengthy questionnaire, agree to a criminal background check and provide two personal references.

Applicants' names are also run through a central registry that lists child abuse complaints.

Caseworkers are required to inspect a home once a month and talk to each of the city's 36,000 foster children out of earshot of their parents.

These checks may not ensure a child a safe home, said Pollack, but he's not sure anything will.

"Are they guaranteed a safe environment?" he asked. "My answer would be a very reluctant no, any more than every other kid can be guaranteed safety in their own home."

1999 Oct 26