Nationwide Amber alert
8/23/2002 12:00:00 AM - Mona Charen
"Audit Finds Lapses in Maryland Child Care." So announced the
Washington Post front page on Aug. 22. The headline scarcely captures the
scandalous content of the story.
It seems that the agency responsible for ensuring the safety and
health of abused, neglected and abandoned children has lost track of many of
them for months at time, failed to ensure that they were attending school or
getting medical attention and in at least one case, placed a child in foster
care with a convicted child molester.
Of all the government screw-ups, waste, mismanagement and
incompetence, those involving child welfare are among the worst and are --
or should be -- the least tolerable. The entire nation has been gripped by
abduction stories this summer, and we've heard of the Amber Alert system to
get radio stations, police, highway patrols and others involved in searching
for a kidnapped child. That's all to the good. But what sort of system can
we devise to wake people up to cases like these?
In Florida, a 19-year-old caseworker was discovered passed out
(drunk) in her car with a 7-month-old foster care baby in the back seat.
Five-year-old Rilya Wilson had been under Florida's care. But she has
disappeared, and no one in the Child Welfare Department even noticed for 15
months. In Anaheim, Calif., a 1-year-old died of starvation and neglect
despite several visits from police and county child welfare workers. The
decomposing body of 13-year-old Rhiannon Gilmore was found in her Georgia
home. She had been "in the system" for nine years.
In Maryland, the stories are very similar. According to the
audit, caseworkers failed to perform basic criminal background checks on
would-be foster parents in 45 percent of cases. In 68 percent of the cases,
children in foster care received no dental care. "Kids come in here and
their teeth are totally brown," a Legal Aid Bureau lawyer told The
Washington Post. In 35 percent of the cases studied, there were no records
that the children were attending school.
Identical stories can be found in most states in the union. It's
an unconscionable situation. Either the child is abused and neglected by his
own biological parents or he is removed from the home to be abused and
neglected by others -- this time with the state's imprimatur. In Florida,
the state child welfare agency was forced to admit that it had lost track of
500 children! The South Florida Sun Sentinel assigned some reporters to look
for the kids, and they rapidly located nine of them by dialing directory
Maryland child welfare officials defended themselves by
asserting that it was only the paperwork that was sloppy, that the majority
of children were getting optimal care and case workers were merely
forgetting to note it in their charts. But people who work with foster
children know this to be highly unlikely.
In part, the problem is the overwhelming caseload social workers
in this field carry. In the case of Rhiannon Gilmore, who died despite
repeated attempts by teachers and others to attract the attention of child
welfare officials, the caseworker had 44 cases. "If you assume just two
children in each family, that's 88 kids you have to visit once a month, not
to mention contacts with neighbors and paperwork," a caseworker told the
Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Nor do states take great care in the kind of
people they hire for these sensitive positions. It's a backwater of state
government because there is no constituency watching them.
Further, the confidentiality of records in child-abuse cases
impedes accountability. Without public access to the files, it's almost
impossible to prove that child welfare agencies screwed up. Instead, the
agencies are often asked to investigate themselves. Would we ask Enron to
The child welfare mess in Maryland and Florida has made
headlines lately, but it's just as bad as many other states around the
nation. County and state governments are overwhelmed. Private voluntary
organizations, philanthropies and religious groups really must pitch in.
This Dickensian reality for abused children is unworthy of us.