Foster Care Death Scare

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In October, the Administration for Children’s Services announced some welcome news: In 1999, fewer New York City children died from abuse or neglect than in any year since the city started keeping count, nearly two decades ago. The number citywide was 57. Among children whose cases ACS already investigated, deaths dropped to 23–down from 36 last year, and way below the 58 fatalities of 1988.

It’s very good news, but it obscures a darker statistic: Last year, six children died in the agency’s own foster and adoptive homes, a stunning 21.7 percent of the total number of fatalities that took place under the agency’s watch.

A report from the independent Accountability Review Panel confirms that foster children are as unsafe as ever. Between 1990 and 1995, there were an average six deaths a year. In 1998, seven foster children died; in 1997, six. But while deaths have remained constant, the population of kids in foster care has plummeted from 49,814 in 1991 to 36,648. As a result, the fatality rate has actually gone up.

Looking closely at those six deaths last year, the panel found some serious shortfalls at ACS and its private contract agencies. Particularly harmful, according to the panel: “insufficient support” for foster parents dealing with troubled kids.

In one case, two siblings with behavior problems were placed in foster family that was too large to properly care for them. In another case, a boy who suffered from hallucinations and destructive behavior was shifted from home to home, as successive sets of foster parents decided they couldn’t handle him. In a third, a developmentally disabled girl was adopted by an aunt who herself suffered from psychological problems and eventually killed the girl.

The panel recommended better selection and monitoring of foster homes; better mental health care for troubled foster children, including use of specialized group homes; and improved and expanded services for foster parents. In a written response, ACS officials agreed that insufficient help for problem kids is a problem–and called on the state to fund them.

There’s an even more intractable problem, says panel member Patricia Morisey, a retired professor of social work from Fordham University. Under federal law, ACS now has to find permanent homes for children within a year; on its own, ACS is also now pushing to find foster homes in children’s own same neighborhoods.

But good foster homes are harder and harder to find. “The agency has focused on people who have very similar socioeconomic and personal problems to the children’s parents,” observes Morisey. “People who are the most adequate don’t want to get involved in the system.”

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