A Critical Look At the Child Welfare System
The Sectarian Agencies

We have created a foster-care monster. A big business with
long tentacles and thousands of patronage jobs.


According to Richard Wexler, the City of New York contracts for preventive services with some of the same agencies that derive their income from foster care. Hence, there is little incentive to provide preventive services that would lead to family reunification.

These agencies prefer placing children in foster care -- and keeping them there -- because they are paid for foster care on a per diem basis. As soon as they do what they're supposed to do -- reunite families -- their money stops.[1]

New York City has an unusual combination of private contractors providing child welfare services. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit describes this arrangement with the city agency, formerly known as the Child Welfare Administration:

CWA has traditionally entered into contracts with private, nonprofit "voluntary" agencies that perform the foster care tasks of placing children into foster boarding homes or congregate care facilities, monitoring placements, and providing essential services specific to each child's needs. Many of these agencies are operated under sectarian auspices. In addition to contracting with voluntary agencies, CWA itself operates foster boarding homes and congregate care programs.[2]

The referenced case finds its roots in a 1973 action against the City of New York and the various private agencies with which it contracts. The case found its way to settlement after years of litigation in 1984, resulting in the signing of the "Wilder Decree," an agreement to end deeply institutionalized discrimination among the private sectarian agencies.

Nearly 22 years after the original suit, the case was once again under litigation as the City of New York and its private agencies argued that foster children in "kinship care" arrangements were not bound by the terms of the Wilder Decree.

Another New York City suit reveals the extent to which some private agencies will go to maintain profits. In a sworn affidavit, a social worker testified that she was told by a representative of a private agency that the agency had imposed a three-month moratorium on sending children home "because it was not receiving sufficient referrals to fill its beds."[3]

But there is a greater difficulty facing those children who desperately yearn to be reunited with their parents today. As part of a recent push to reduce its tremendous foster care caseloads, in New York, the private foster-care agencies have their caseloads reduced if they fail to meet the city's adoption goals.[4]

This development is not unique to New York. Several states have recently turned toward legislative measures to increase adoptions, and measures that would make it easier to terminate parental rights as means of reducing burgeoning foster care caseloads.

One of New York's most prominent and outspoken jurists, Judge Judy Sheindlin, supervising judge of Family Court in Manhattan, comments on the foster care system as it exists today:

In the long run, we have to ask ourselves the following question: When it comes to family, are we better off today than we were 100 years ago? How did government get the idea it could intrude into the lives of families who have typically taken care of themselves?

We have created a foster-care monster. A big business with long tentacles and thousands of patronage jobs.[5]


New York is not the only state where we find social services agencies operating under sectarian auspices. Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, Inc., has outservice offices and residential care programs at 199 sites in 90 communities of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, servicing more than 100,000 people annually. Among the services provided: Adoption and foster care, behavior health care, birth parent services, family and individual counseling, and family preservation services.[6]

Lutheran Social Services also offers: "129 residential centers with capacity to serve more than 1,042 children and adults. Services for neglected children, disturbed and delinquent teens, alcohol and drug abusers, criminal offenders, adolescent sexual offenders, adolescent victims of sexual abuse, people who are developmentally disabled, chronically mentally ill, elderly."

The agency, which has a staff of over 2,000 employees, is owned "by 500,000 Wisconsin and Upper Michigan Lutherans in 830 congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America." Among the sources of its funding are church contributions, United Way allocations, government contracts, client fees, gifts and grants. Its current fundraising goal? $14,000,000.

Lutheran Children and Family Service of Eastern Pennsylvania currently has over 300 children placed through its foster care program.[7]

Lutheran Social Services of the South, Inc., is licensed to provide adoption services in the state of Texas and contracts with other agencies in Louisiana for the service. Both the Texas and Louisiana affiliates provide foster care services.[8]

Lutheran Social Services of New England, Inc., offers a wide array of services in the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Featured among them are services such as: "Home study and licensing," "Birth parent counseling," "Assistance in locating and coordinating out of state adoptions," and, to be sure, "Preparation of legal documents for the termination of parental rights and for legal documents necessary to finalize an adoption."[9]

In Iowa, the Dubuque County Department of Human Services contracts with private agencies for the licensing of foster homes. Four agencies license the county's foster homes, including Lutheran Social Services and Families of Northeast Iowa. Catholic Charities, which licenses homes for adoptive replacement and Alternative Services in Cedar Rapids, is also starting to license Dubuque County homes.[10]


How does the quality of care delivered by sectarian organizations compare to services provided by the state?

Three-year-old Steven Allen Hoffa died in a Dubuque County foster home May 18 of 1996. A grand jury indicted the foster mother on one count of child endangerment with multiple acts, and two other counts of child endangerment against Hoffa and his 5-year-old brother, Gary. The injuries included a fracture in his skull, and mysterious injuries on his penis and buttocks. His brother had suffered a similar fracture, and burns on his chest.

The Iowa Department of Human Services, Lutheran Social Services of Iowa, and the Visiting Nurses Association of Dubuque together monitored his care.[11]

The quality of the recruitment process, it seems, is at least partly to blame.

In North Carolina, where at least 42 former prison inmates with crimes ranging from shoplifting, forgery and bribery to cocaine trafficking, armed robbery, assault and murder were licensed as foster parents in 1994, we find foster parent Barver Dean Hunt, who shot and killed two men during a drunken argument in 1974.

"They wanted to borrow my car, and neither one of them didn't have a license," said Hunt. "I asked them to leave. They didn't. They had a knife and came at me. I reached in the rack and got a gun and drawed it on them. They said I didn't have enough nerve to use it on them, and that's when I started shooting."

When Lutheran Family Services in Robeson County recruited Hunt and his wife as foster parents in 1992, they somehow failed to discover the murder convictions.[12]

In San Francisco, Selena Hill was removed from her parents shortly after birth. There were no allegations of abuse or neglect. Selena was removed because of concerns that the couple may be "unfit" as parents.

Some weeks later, seven-week-old Selena Hill was admitted to Children's Hospital in Oakland with multiple skull fractures that nearly killed her, and which may result in permanent brain damage.

Social workers had placed the infant in a foster home with a long history of domestic violence. Police had been summoned to the home at least three times during the previous year. The home was licensed by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.[13]


A 1993 report prepared by New York State Senator Franz S. Leichter, New York State Abandons Victims of Institutional Child Abuse, illustrates in graphic detail the extent of physical and sexual abuse to be found in institutionalized foster care facilities. The report describes the apparent unwillingness on the part of the Department of Social Services to validate the abuse that often occurs in these settings.[14]

One such case involved a seven-year-old girl who was repeatedly raped by other children at the St. Joseph's Children's Services Agency:

One of the cases this office claimed to be unable to substantiate involved a seven-year-old girl who was apparently repeatedly raped last year by other children at St. Joseph's Children's Services Agency in Brooklyn. When deposed in a lawsuit brought by the little girl's mother, the DSS investigator testified that boys at the facility had told her about their sexual contact with the girl, staff members had admitted witnessing the abuse, and one staff member had admitted engaging in sexually provocative behavior with the girl. In addition, medical evidence which the investigator failed to request confirmed that the little girl had been raped since she arrived since she arrived at St. Joseph's. Nevertheless, the DSS investigator's official finding in the case was that there was "no credible evidence" of child abuse or staff neglect.
The report continues:
In the Form 2223, the investigator, in her own handwriting, directly contradicts facts she had sworn to in the deposition only days before. She states that she found

"...no evidence of a lack of supervision."
"...no evidence of sexual abuse on behalf of staff."
"...no knowledge of resident' sexual acts" on the part of staff.

She concludes, "We find no credible evidence to substantiate allegations of sexual abuse."


Marcia Robinson Lowry, of the ACLU Children's Rights Project, filed the original 1973 suit that resulted in the ending of deeply institutionalized racial discrimination among the New York City non-profit sectarian agencies. These agencies, operated primarily by influential Jewish and Catholic organizations, including the Archdiocese of New York, argued for years that they had the right to place children into their facilities based on religious and ethnic background.

The Archdiocese of New York, the largest non-profit provider of such services to the City, spent millions of dollars arguing in support of foster care placements based on religious and ethnic criteria. Undeterred by years of litigation, the Archdiocese announced that it would continue to provide foster care services to the City.[15]

Critical of the reform efforts is William Donohue, a sociologist and president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in New York City. Incredibly, he accused attorney Marcia Robinson Lowry of attempting to destroy the Catholic child welfare agencies when she filed the 1973 Wilder v. Bernstein suit, calling Lowry "anti-Catholic."[16]

Copyright 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 Rick Thoma

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Last Updated May 17, 2000