Futile reform

Posted: Feb 20, 2004 12:00 AM

A neighbor notified police when he heard someone rummaging through the trash. When police arrived, they discovered that it was Bruce Jackson, searching for food.

The story, as it unfolded, was this: Four brothers had been adopted out of foster care by Vanessa and Raymond Jackson. When police arrived, they at first thought Bruce was an extremely thin 10-year-old. He was 19 -- and weighed just 45 pounds.

Then they saw the other boys. The 14-year-old weighed 40 pounds, the 10-year-old weighed 28 pounds, and the 9-year-old weighed 23 pounds. None stood more than 4 feet. The Jacksons had starved the boys for their entire lives, locking the doors to the kitchen. The children had eaten portions of the wall and the insulation behind it. The Jacksons received a stipend from the state of about $28,000 to care for their adopted children. (Three girls in the home were apparently better treated.)

In this case, New Jersey authorities did take steps to hold employees of the child welfare department accountable. Several people were fired after it was revealed that caseworkers had made 38 visits to the home and somehow failed to notice anything amiss. But this is hardly the first horrific case to come to light in New Jersey in the past year. In another case, the decomposing body of a 7-year-old boy was discovered in the basement of a Newark house, while another two starved boys were found in the same home.

Gov. James McGreevey has now announced plans to overhaul the child welfare program in New Jersey -- which is welcome, but ... The plan pours good money after bad. Yes, part of the problem with the child welfare system -- not just in New Jersey but nationwide -- is that caseworkers are overwhelmed.

There are currently 550,000 children in foster care. There simply are not enough caseworkers to follow these kids in the way they should be followed. And stories like New Jersey's are all too common across the country. But McGreevey's plan is utterly lacking in imagination. By hiring 1,000 new caseworkers and "forensically trained" investigators who will supposedly respond to allegations of abuse within 24 hours (we'll see), the plan merely hopes to put out fires faster. The governor also proposes to increase the stipend for foster care families by 25 percent.

But that does not improve matters at all. The best foster parents are not motivated by the money, and increasing payments may simply lure more of the bad ones into the system.

New Jersey and the rest of the nation should be attempting to think more

radically about overhauling the child welfare system. The foster care idea is a failure. Too many children fall through the cracks. States do not have the capacity to make judgments about the fitness of hundreds of thousands of foster parents, who -- unlike biological parents -- have no natural bond to the child. While the system works for some, it is an absolute nightmare for far too many.

A much better solution for children who cannot be raised by their biological parents or adopted (the Jacksons were a grotesque exception to the rule of adoptive parents being loving and responsible) is boarding school. In several states, including Minnesota, large-scale experiments with boarding schools have already begun.

There are many advantages. A good boarding school can give children the kind of permanence the foster care system rarely provides. And instead of having overworked caseworkers driving from place to place every day, attempting to discover through home visits whether foster parents are doing an adequate job, the state can hire staff who are professional and committed to children's welfare.

A variety of sports teams, music education and cultural enrichment can be provided to the children, as well as regular classes (though it may be overoptimistic to think that the education would be any better than it is at other government schools).

The cost would be about the same as subsidizing children in the foster care system, or perhaps a bit more. But if it costs more, so be it. Reforming welfare costs more than not reforming it would have, but in the long run we are better off for it -- financially probably, and morally certainly.