Inside New York's Foster Care System

34,000 Kids Trying to Catch a Break

What's the connection between Aid to Dependent Children and abuse or neglect? I have read records of approximately 250 children adjudicated abused/neglected, and I estimate that 95 percent were raised on Aid to Dependent Children or other public assistance programs. ACS currently has 34,000 children in foster care. The national foster-care population is roughly 546,000 children.

According to records I have read, the abuse and neglect children have suffered includes beatings that resulted in broken bones and lacerations, plus burns, torture, insufficient nourishment, medical neglect in which mothers do not take sick children to free clinics, and educational neglect in which mothers do not send children to school. Some children are born with birth defects due to lack of prenatal care, despite availability of free clinics and hospitals. Other children are born HIV-positive or addicted to cocaine. Many children are voluntarily placed in government foster care by parents who can't cope with their own flesh and blood.

Most of the children on my caseload are angry, perhaps because they feel cheated out of a decent life. They suffer pain and low self-esteem, often because they know that their absentee fathers don't give a damn about them, and their mothers are too busy with outside activities, such as smoking crack. Conventional psychological and social worker theories have failed most of these children. Nothing makes an impression except Ritalin.

Of course, not all foster children are disturbed. Some not only survive foster care but even graduate from college, a testimony to their sterling inner qualities and the skills of some foster mothers. These rare success stories are paraded periodically before TV cameras, but of my approximately 50 teenagers of college age to date, only three have gone to college and none have graduated. By my count, 80 percent of my teenaged foster children are doing poorly in school—and acting out big time.

Sometimes, after hours of reading case records, I want to scream or cry. I wake up in the middle of the night, thinking about these children. I sincerely want to help them. Instead, I fill out government forms.

According to my job description, I "monitor" two nongovernment welfare agencies, Episcopal Social Services and Graham-Windham, both contracted by the city to provide homes and services to the 126 foster children on my caseload. Translated from officialese, "monitoring" means reading reports written by the contract-agency social workers and signing my name at the bottom, then filling out innumerable government forms based on information in the reports. I have no idea if these reports are accurate, and apparently it doesn't matter. I must sign anyway.

Instead of regularly visiting children for whom I am legally responsible and seeing the truth with my own eyes, I do paperwork. The reason is simple: If the paperwork isn't completed, the city loses federal funds. The more government forms completed, the more federal money the city receives.

Most of the paperwork is ludicrously redundant. For example, consider Form RES 1A, which I must fill out every six months for each child. This form can require a half hour or more to prepare, because necessary data may be lacking. After digging up obscure details and filling in blanks, I submit Form RES 1A to my supervisor, who signs off, and Form RES 1A goes into the family's case record, where it serves no purpose that I can determine.

The bureaucratic rationale for Form RES 1A is that it certifies that the child still is in foster care, but why should someone think that the child has left foster care, since the child never has been discharged? I have racked my brain and consulted with three supervisors, but we can discover no reason for Form RES 1A. Perhaps while I sleep at night, a lobster-shift supervisor accesses my files and studies my Forms RES 1A for a secret government initiative.

And then there's Form 2970, on which I also must certify that a child is in care, although the child never has left care—or in other words, duplication of pointless effort at taxpayer expense.

For another ludicrously redundant example, consider the court Extension of Placement Petition, whose purpose is simply to get on the docket and provide basic facts to the judge. One or two pages would suffice, but instead, for one child, a caseworker is required to fill in the blanks of a 16-page government document. If four children are on the case, not unusual, the caseworker will wind up with 64 pages. Each page must be photocopied as many as 10 times, as must other documents containing pertinent information that first must be typed or written into the petition package. No bureaucrat has explained why pertinent documents can't be submitted without their contents being rewritten, but bureaucratic appetites for superfluous documentation are bottomless. When completed, the petition package will contain over 2600 pages for four children, and another tree has been chopped down in Maine.

For one child, the birth mother's name must be written or typed in seven different places (in the same petition package!), the child's name in six, the docket number in five, the child's birth date in five, the case ID number in six, the child's ID number in two, the date of removal in two, the date of original adjudication in two, the agency worker's name in three, and the caseworker's in five. Naturally, none of this repetitious clerical labor helps foster children.

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