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For families hauled into foster care, the future is frighteningly unclear. One thing, though, is just about certain: the caseworkers they depend on to help them fix what's broken are often ill-equipped to do the job.

Now, the child welfare experts charged by a federal judge with scrutinizing the city's foster care system have issued something close to an official indictment of casework services.

In its fourth and most scathing report on New York's child welfare bureaucracy, the panel has concluded that on the whole, caseworkers are poorly trained, horribly paid and encouraged to function more like bureaucrats than social workers. The report describes a litany of failings, echoing the complaints that parents and their advocates have been making for years.

The system stresses paperwork over helping clients, panelists observed. “Workers sometimes seemed honestly puzzled,” they wrote, “when asked to describe what it would take to re-unite a family or to best meet the needs of a child in care.”

Visitation arrangements “too often impede, rather than further” the ability of families to come back together, the panel found. Caseworkers had little idea how to deal with the extremely common problem of domestic violence. And instead of figuring out how to resolve the natural conflicts that come up between teenagers and their parents, caseworkers often threw the teens in group homes instead.

The report isn't just hot air, either. If the city's child welfare office doesn't make an effort to comply with the report's recommendations, they could end up back in court.

Family advocates welcomed the report. “There has been a great deal of effort at the top of [the child care agency] to think differently abut how to run a child welfare system, but there remains at the ground level an enormous difference between aspiration and what goes on,” said Columbia Law School professor Jane Spinak, who formerly headed Legal Aid's Family Court operations. “This says, in broad strokes: Here's what needs to be changed to make the system work for families.”

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