Nationwide Amber alert

Posted: Aug 23, 2002 12:00 AM
"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 assistance. 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 investigate itself? 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.