Colorado Ignoring Foster Care Problems by Richard Wexler

© 2005 by Richard Wexler,

Guest commentary Denver Post

Reproduced under the Fair Use exception of 17 USC § 107 for noncommercial, nonprofit, and educational use


 

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Hire an ombudsman.
Sweep away overlapping layers of bureaucracy.

January 2, 2005 — Those are among the suggestions for dealing with the problem of children abused in the very foster care system intended to protect them. But they won't help.

The problem of widespread abuse in Colorado foster care won't be solved until Colorado faces up to the elephants in the room — the issues that no one wants to talk about.


 

Elephant No. 1

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Colorado is in deep denial about the rate of abuse in foster care.

Most foster parents want to do the best they can for the children in their care — like most parents, period. But the abusive minority is significant and probably growing. And abuse in foster care doesn't just include abuse by foster parents; often it involves foster children abusing one another.

Several rigorous academic studies, and several independent analyses of case records, called "case readings," suggest that there is abuse in at least one in four foster homes, and the real figure probably is higher.

In most states, foster parents are not defensive about this — on the contrary, the many good ones are the first to blow the whistle on abuse. Not so in Colorado, where some leaders in the foster-parent community prefer to pretend the problem doesn't exist.

They point to official government statistics showing that "only" one-half of 1 percent of abuse is in foster homes. But "only" about one-half of 1 percent of all children live in foster homes. So even by this measure, there is as much abuse in foster care as in the general population.

More importantly, before a case makes it into the official statistics, child welfare agencies must themselves investigate — and reveal what they found out. Obviously, there is an enormous incentive to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil and write no evil in the case file. Furthermore, in many states, official figures don't even count it when foster children abuse one another. That's why the academic studies and case readings are far more reliable.


 

Elephant No. 2

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The so-called shortage of foster homes in Colorado is largely artificial.

It results from the fact that Colorado takes away, proportionately, more children than almost any other state.

When you compare the number of children removed in 2003, the most recent year for which comparative data are available, to the total child population, only about nine states took away proportionately more children than Colorado. When you factor in the states' poverty rates, only five states took more children than Colorado.

Factoring in poverty, Colorado took away, proportionately, more than five times as many children as Illinois. Yet court-appointed monitors in Illinois say that as that state's foster care population has plummeted, child safety has improved. That's because Illinois rebuilt its system to emphasize safe, proven programs to keep families together, programs that are less expensive, more humane and safer than foster care.

Yes, methamphetamine is part of the explanation. But California has one of the worst meth problems in the country, and California takes children at less than half the rate of Colorado.

Unless there is some logical reason to believe that Colorado has five times more child abuse than Illinois and twice as much as California, Colorado is filling foster homes with children who don't need to be there. That encourages agencies to overcrowd foster homes and lower standards for foster parents. It also means that Shari Shink, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center, is only partially correct when she says that too often removing a child doesn't end the abuse. Sometimes, removing a child begins the abuse.

The reason Illinois succeeds while Colorado fails is because most foster children are not who we think they are. Most of their parents did not brutally beat, torture, rape or starve them. Often, a family's poverty is confused with "neglect." Indeed, the director of intake for child protective services in Denver has acknowledged that children sometimes are taken away just because their parents are down on their luck, out of work, or unable to provide adequate shelter.

But there is no need to look to another state to find better answers. El Paso County recognized the widespread confusion of poverty with neglect. They effectively turned child protective services into child poverty services, and in the process became a national model of reform.

El Paso County takes children at a rate less than one-quarter the state average. Yet it had less re-abuse of children left in their own homes than the average for the state's 10 largest counties. And it has one of the lowest rates of children having to return to foster care after being sent home.

If the entire state followed El Paso County's lead, all children would be safer, the foster care population would plummet, there no longer would be any need to turn a blind eye to abuse in foster care, and there would be plenty of room in good, safe foster homes for the relatively few children in real danger.

But first, someone is going to have to notice the elephants in the room.

 

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Alexandria, Virginia.

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| EJF Home | Find Help | Join the EJF | Comments? | Get EJF newsletter |

 

| Families And Marriage Book | Abstract | Family site map | Family index |

 

| Chapter 8 — Child "Protective" Services —Who's Minding The Minders? |

| Next — Neglected Abuse Warnings Led To Twelve Deaths In El Paso County, Colorado by David Olinger |

| Back — America's Secret Crime Against The Family by Jess DelBalzo |


 

Added February 2, 2006

Last modified 4/11/15