Warehousing Our Children ; an Apparent Shift toward More Institutional Care of Foster Kids Has Some Child-Welfare Advocates Worried That America Is Straining against 100 Years of Research

Article excerpt

These are no angry behemoths hulking on downtown streets or rising on the hills of distant railroad towns. Often, today's American orphanages look so unlike their Dickensian predecessors that you could almost believe the brightly colored cottages were sets for some Disney fairy tale.

The children, too, seem distant from the privations of old. They have food, clothes, and a measure of stability - most even have parents, beyond the wilds of the foster-care system.

Look deeper, though, and perhaps not so much has changed in 150 years.

"The orphanage never really went away," says child welfare expert Richard Wexler. "It sort of metamorphosed" into the system of shelters, group homes, residential treatment centers, and residential educational academies that provide the bulk of institutional foster care in the US today. "But they couldn't change the facts: Institutional care is bad for kids."

Mr. Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (NCCPR), is among a growing number of analysts drawing attention to what he calls a "back to the orphanage" movement now under way. The population of American foster children in institutional settings is quietly growing, they say - not due to any concerted social or legal effort, just a pieced- together system that affords comparatively few services to families in need but offers fiscal incentives to take children away.

These analysts are not the only ones concerned: Last week the US House Ways and Means Committee heard testimony on a Bush administration proposal that would allow states to take their annual foster care money - currently the only bottomless pool of funds available for poor kids - in an up-front sum that could be used for family-preservation services. The child welfare community is divided: some Bush detractors actually support the proposal, citing its potential to strengthen family services; many institutional care providers oppose it.

Half a million in foster care

Today, more than half a million children are in foster care in the US. According to the latest Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) figures, roughly 100,000 live in group facilities: emergency shelters, group homes, and institutions.

But numbers of children in state care are notoriously slippery: Though states began enacting foster-care laws in the late 19th century, and though the first major study of its outcomes was published in 1924, the federal government did not begin to keep comprehensive nationwide data on children in foster care until 1998. Before that, states reported on kids in care voluntarily - and sporadically.

While the four years of available data do not show a rise in group care of foster kids, many in the field say they believe the proportion of children in such care is on the rise.

"It's not a huge upswing, but it's been my impression that it's growing," says Paul Vincent, director of the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group in Montgomery, Ala.

At the same time, says Madelyn Freund-lich of the child advocacy group Children's Rights, a number of states are currently building new institutions, or expanding existing ones, to house these children. In theory, she says, the system's goal is to reunite these kids with their own or foster families, but in practice many kids who land in institutions stay there for the long haul.

Add to that a growing number of faith-based groups - particularly in Florida and Georgia - working to bring back orphanage care as an intentional part of the foster care system, and what you have, says researcher Mary Ford, of the North American Council on Adoptable Children, is troubling.

"All this focus on [institutional] permanency goes against a hundred years of child welfare policy," Ms. Freundlich adds. "Why are we promoting this against all our policy directives?"

A system under strain

Whatever you know about this country's foster-care system, you've probably heard it's a mess: the kids too many and too troubled, their families incompetent or worse, foster parents too few and sometimes abusive, and resources chronically scarce. …

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