Children entering the shadowy world of foster care are often assigned labels arbitrarily and on a bed-available basis. They may end up spending some time in conventional foster homes, only to find themselves shuffled through group homes, residential treatment facilities, mental hospitals and prisons.
Scant attention is given to the needs of these children, and the conditions they are forced to endure are often comparable to those endured by prisoners in some third world nations.
THE LABELING OF CHILDREN
Kenneth Wooden, Executive Director of the National Coalition for Children's Justice, explained to a Congressional Subcommittee that there is little difference in the background and characteristics of children in care regardless of whether they have been labelled "dependent," "neglected," "status offender," "CHINS" (Children in Need of Supervision), or "emotionally disturbed."
It was Wooden's impression that a "shell game" was being played with the labeling process, with dependent children, relabeled as "disturbed" or "hard to place" being shuttled off to private, often profit-making institutions in ever greater numbers. As a result:
Instead of orphanages, we now have so-called "treatment centers"--a "growth industry" which feeds on unwanted children just as the nursing home business depends for its existence on large numbers of the unwanted elderly. And, as is the case with the elderly, the systematic neglect and maltreatment of children in these facilities is being subsidized by the federal government.
In Virginia, former Governor Douglas Wilder discovered the same labeling process to be in use, finding that "children often bounce from agency to agency, from foster to group home to institution, and from funding stream to funding stream."
Wilder explained: "They are often defined by the system whose door they happen to enter: a welfare child if he comes through that door; a juvenile justice child if he happens to come through that system; a school system child; or a mental health child."
Once that label is attached, however, the funding stream may continue to flow, even after a child leaves one system for another. The former Governor testified that when the names of 14,000 children across four agencies were examined, they turned out to be 4,933 children.
Some children are labeled "dependent" or "neglected" and are placed under the jurisdiction of the Department of Social Services, other children are labeled "delinquent" and are under the Juvenile Court or Probation Department, still others are given a psychiatric label and sent to the Department of Mental Health, explained Mark Soler, Executive Director of the Youth Law Center, to a Congressional Subcommittee some years later.
The label slapped on the child may well depend on his point of entry into the juvenile justice system, according to Soler.
"Indeed, the same child may get different labels at different times, depending upon the point at which he enters the system. In reality all of these children may have serious emotional problems, and all certainly come from families or other living situations marked by acute crises," he explained.
Whether it is in a group home, congregate care facility, mental hospital, detention center or prison, foster wards of the state often are forced to endure the very worst of conditions.
Among the conditions the Youth Law Center identified were children in an Arizona juvenile detention center tied hand and foot to their beds; a Washington State facility in which two children were held for days at a time in a cell with only 25 square feet of floor space; children hogtied in State juvenile training schools in Florida -- wrists handcuffed, ankles handcuffed, then placed stomach down on the floor, and wrists and ankles joined together behind their backs.
In the training school in Oregon children were put in filthy, roach-infested isolation cells for weeks at a time. In the Idaho training school, children were punished by being put in strait jackets, and being hung, upside down, by their ankles.
Children continue to be assigned labels arbitrarily, and often on a bed-available basis.
A recent South Carolina audit reveals that a percentage of foster care wards have been labeled as in need of therapeutic placements because of a shortage of conventional foster homes.
Auditors noted that many of these children will bear the stigma of having been labeled as having emotional problems for the rest of their lives.
THE GROUP HOMES
Kenneth Wooden visited over 150 juvenile facilities over a three year period during the 1970s. His findings led to the formation of the National Coalition for Children's Justice.
"Basically, they are called 'youth homes' or 'ranches' with fancy names like Cinderella Hall or Pleasant Valley or Happy Days," he explained to a Congressional subcommittee.
"They have fancy brochures with swimming pools and stocked fishing ponds and tennis courts and the guarantee of the presence of full-time professional medical staff," he explained.
There are no actual photographs of tennis courts or swimming pools, rather they display drawings. "And, when you go there, they do not exist. Or else a stocked fishing pond is a mud pond," said Wooden.
"The reception rooms for parents and State officials responsible for assigning children hold impressive architectural renderings of planned new facilities, most of which never manage to get constructed, most of which are faded by the Sun over the years," he said. In other words, it was all a grand facade intended to woo both parents and legislators.
In his book on the child-welfare system, "The Kid Business," Ronald B. Taylor wrote in 1981 of profiteering by California group-home directors:
Several nonprofit corporations operating child-care facilities were found to be legally skimming large amounts of government money through lease-back arrangements. Operators not only owned the land and leased it to the nonprofit corporation; they often paid themselves handsome salaries and had the free use of homes, cars and credit cards.
The level of care and treatment in far too many of these group homes was minimal at best, because the money was being skimmed off for personal gain.
"In the 1970s, real estate speculators bought up entire downtown blocks," write John Hubner and Jill Wolfson. "After a few coats of paint and some wallboard were slapped up, the houses were given bucolic- or inspirational-sounding names like 'Green Pastures' or 'Excell Center' and found new life as group homes."
The new industry attracted many operators who saw it as a way to wield power, and many applied their own unique brand of "behavior modification" therapy, which included anything from slaps across the face to long periods of isolation, and, in one recorded case, the electronic stinging of autistic children with a cattle prod.
Caseworkers often turned a blind eye to these abuses, Hubner and Wolfson explain: "Child welfare workers, some incompetent, all overwhelmed, were often under such pressure to find bed space that they looked the other way."
A typical story involved a corporation that bought and opened group homes. After operating for one year, the corporation folded the homes without notice, and sold the real estate. The corporation turned out to be a dummy set up by four men running the homes. Money that was earmarked for services was instead being used to pay off the mortgages. The partners sold the real estate for a profit and vanished.
By the 1990s, California's group home operators would become much more sophisticated in managing their financial affairs.
A state investigation of Ron Mayuiers, a long-term group home provider, charged that Mayuiers received more than $2 million in government foster care payments to which he was not entitled for the operation of his California Crest group homes.
The California Crest homes received a top funding rate, more than $50,000 per year per child, for which they were expected to provide thorough, professional, around-the-clock care for adolescents.
The audit, spanning the years 1990 through 1994, found that Mayuiers paid himself annual salaries ranging from $101,501 to $144,000, far exceeding the allowable maximum for group home directors.
It also describes a profitable "pay-back" arrangement, in which Mayuiers and his wife set up a separate corporation to purchase houses with foster care funds. The houses were in turn leased back to the group home at excessive rents.
Sources in the Department of Social Services told Union-Tribune reporters that the state may go after the families assets, including a $1.6 million house in Fairbanks Ranch. Mayuiers also reportedly enjoyed frequent restaurant meals, and drove a Mercedes Benz.
While one may imagine that a man who enjoys such an opulent lifestyle could well afford to be generous to the children in his care, a separate licensing investigation charged that Mayuiers kept the group homes on meager budgets, failing to provide children with adequate food, books and school supplies or supplies for daily hygiene.
Among the other problems identified by investigators were several instances in which children in the care of California Crest were mistreated or left unsupervised; a female staff member having had sex with a boy at the Ivy House group home numerous times; a suicidal girl given bottles of pills by a staff member and subsequently attempting suicide; a girl having been molested at a bus stop after a staff member failed to pick her up as scheduled.
State inspectors from the San Diego community care licensing office had routinely found health and safety violations at the group homes, including rodent droppings in the kitchen, bugs in a cereal bag and meals that failed to meet nutritional standards, but its operating licenses were never suspended or revoked.
A longtime foster care licensing official, speaking to reporters on the condition of confidentiality, maintained that the group home system is still tainted by providers who enrich themselves and by regulators incapable of stopping them.
"It's a barrel with a lot of rotten apples. The level of greed hasn't changed."
He said operators still employ a variety of cash-skimming methods, from costly lease-backs to exaggerating or falsifying credentials of staff members to obtain a higher rate of funding.
"The great majority of group home placements in California refuse to accept referrals unless they are assured that children will be placed for at least 1 year," according to California probation officer Dennis Lepak.
"This seems to be an industry standard."
Children are placed for inappropriately long and arbitrarily determined periods of time. Little or no work is done to return children to their families. Most programs consider home visits to be a privilege, and visits are used as rewards for good behavior rather than as reunification tools.
"I have seen Christmas home visits for young children cancelled for violation of relatively minor internal program rules," Lepak explained.
In Pennsylvania, Julie was removed from her parents by the Northampton County Children and Youth Agency, and put in a succession of institutions, including foster homes and group homes.
As is the case with the majority of removals, there were no allegations of abuse. Rather, the agency had learned of her truancy and some minor family problems.
"I have a question," she said. "How come it's wrong if a parent spanks a child, but in a group home they have permission to slap a kid?"
Julie told The Morning Call of burly male staffers using foul language and roughing up girls less than half their size. One incident involved her roommate. "They put her in a hold so bad she had rug burns on her face. They restrain you a hell of a lot worse than anything your parents can do, but if your parents do it, it's abuse."
The promise of going home, Julie said, is used as an incentive to get kids to play ball with the system, and the rules are manipulative. "They try to keep you in the system."
One year, Julie ran away to be with her parents for Christmas.
"That was the first Christmas I spent with my parents in two years. You know how you're a little kid and you get to open your presents and all that? That was the first time in over two years I was able to do that."
But Northampton County caseworker Maureen Munley was hardly filled with Christmas cheer. She filed a contempt petition against the family, wanting to put them in jail for something akin to harboring a fugitive.
Northampton County Judge William Moran had to throw out the petition because it was legally preposterous, but he warned the parents that if Julie showed up at their home again, they were immediately to call the Department.
Such disdain for the needs of children and families permeates the system.
The average length of stay at Mooseheart, run by the Loyal Order of Moose and financed mostly through charity, is six years. The institution houses over 200 children, from infancy to age 18, in 24 houses.
Mooseheart, where all placements are made on a "voluntary" basis, will give a child back to his or her biological parents or legal guardians on request, thank you very much. But Rose Haggerty, its director of student services, states firmly, "We don't try to reunite families. We don't mean to usurp biology, but we promote the idea that the child is growing here."
"Whatever the abuses in foster care - and there are many - there is absolutely no reason to believe that equal, if not worse, abuse won't occur behind the walls," said David Rothman, a professor of social medicine at Columbia in reference to the question of expanding congregate care to house more children. "The difference will be that nobody will hear the screams."
Even at highly-regarded institutions such as Mooseheart, four house parents were arrested and convicted of sexually molesting about a dozen children between 1988 and 1992.
Recalls Kenyetta Ivy, who found herself shuffled through nine New York group homes: "There were rats in the stove. I know some girls who tried to commit suicide, and the staff wouldn't even check on them."
Not even the highly-regarded Boys Town can protect itself against the infiltration of those who would take advantage of their wards.
In Orlando, Florida, a Boys Town "resident teacher" found himself charged for having had sexual relations with one of the girls in his care.
Just how bad do conditions have to be before someone steps in to shut a facility down?
When former police officer-turned volunteer Pat Hanges first arrived at the Montrose facility in Baltimore, Maryland, she found evidence of neglect everywhere. On her first assignment at Sanford Cottage she found it lacking in staff, furniture, and recreational equipment.
"The only thing Sanford had was a super-abundance of kids," she told a Congressional Subcommittee.
Each crowded little cell was filled with two children. Many of the mattresses smelled of urine. Children were sleeping on mattresses in halls and in the gymnasium.
"Six children were crammed into a small area in Sanford cottage; in addition to all this crowding, the air in there was so stale and so horrible. The boys were coming to me reporting sexual abuse, and alleged sexual advances were increasing. Along with attempted suicides," she explained.
Children were literally told by staff when to sit and stand, and when they could go to the bathroom. Toothpaste was dispensed onto their toothbrush, and they had to ask staff for toilet paper. Some staff members were verbally abusive and intimidating. The children were not allowed to call home.
And when children would commit a minor infraction, they were locked in isolation in the "pink room."
"It was a room where, even after a child had hung himself, could not possibly be supervised, all the way down the end of the hall, smelled of urine and feces so bad that I had to hold my breath when I went into it, in the summer months," she testified.
The former police officer explained: "I went to social services and asked that a neglect report be made against the State of Maryland, because when I was a cop, if parents treated their kids the way our State treated those kids, I would have locked their butts up."
The JDM Residential Treatment Center near St. Louis seemed like a wonderful place to send abused children from troubled homes.
It offered 120 secluded acres on which they could fish, hike and learn about nature. Two doctors were among its founders, and a professional counselor was to be in charge. The treatment program called for extensive use of pet therapy, group counseling and structured recreational activities. A church operated the center.
So, the Missouri Division of Family Services started sending children there, at a cost of $1,420 a month per child.
Soon thereafter, state investigators substantiated three incidents of child abuse at the home, two of them serious.
The home had gone through six executive directors in one year; failed 175 out of 234 checkpoints during an inspection; the pantry was sometimes bare, with children having to fend for themselves. One winter the thermostat was kept at 55 degrees.
"Nobody else there cared about them," said Brenda Woods, one of the former directors. "They wouldn't even give them a ball to toss around. There were days when they didn't have any food. The whole thing was just a way to make money off the state."
Pat Adams, who as a licensed counselor visited the facility weekly to counsel children under a contract with the state stopped going because she was concerned about her safety and that of the children she was counseling.
"The place was a joke, an absolute joke. It was just set up to get state money," said Adams.
Like Montrose, the facility was finally shut down.
Staffing continues to be a problem in these facilities. Many group home owners pay minimum wage, or slightly above, and turnover remains high, just as it does in the rest of the child welfare industry.
An informal study conducted by the Northwestern Children and Family Justice Center found that most of the privately staffed residential group home institutions in Illinois had rotating staffs who were not houseparents living with children, but teams that came and went.
Staff turnover was high, with the average time worked at the sites being between 1 1/2 to 2 years. Notes author Renny Golden: "Not much intimate, caring, consistent nurturance is going on in these settings."
"I will tell you I have never, ever, ever, been afraid of one of my clients. But I have been afraid to go into some of those facilities at night and deal with the night staff alone. It is frightening. It is absolutely frightening," explained District of Columbia Bar Association Attorney Diane Weinroth to a Congressional subcommittee.
"They have got some very strange people working in these facilities. I don't know where they come from. But I will tell you this. There are no standards for hiring."
In Los Angeles, where group homes constitute a $238 million per year industry, elected officials and child welfare advocates called for increased oversight in the wake of a 1997 grand jury report that said some of the facilities provide miserable care.
"We are spending a fortune on these homes, at $50,000 or even $60,000 for one kid for a year," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "For that we could put the kid in at least an Embassy Suites if not a Four Seasons. We should be getting as close to perfect care as is humanly possible."
Apparently, many social workers continue to turn a blind eye to problems in the group homes--essentially ignoring child abuse in their own facilities.
Yaroslavsky said some of the shortcomings identified by the grand jury should be evident to county social workers, who typically visit foster children once a month.
"With some things, you walk in the door and you know there is a problem," he said. "We are not getting the kind of feedback from the social worker visitations that we should be, to protect the welfare of the kids."
The Los Angeles County Grand Jury determined that money is "not expended in accordance with federal, state, and local laws and regulations." Audits displayed "significant financial abuses and illegal and inappropriate uses of foster care funds in many of the homes audited."
As for the living conditions, the jury found that: children were inappropriately being sedated with psychotropic medications; children were denied promised rewards for good behavior based on a point system; when group home owners did not want to provide transportation for after school activities, they simply refused to let the child participate; many group homes did not provide tutoring, yet punished the children when they got poor grades.
The grand jury also found that "some group home owners use inappropriate discipline measures such as dragging children across the floor, throwing shoes at them, slapping or hitting a child; others make children stand in a corner for hours at a time."
But the group home owners are not the only ones who enrich themselves at the expense of children. The grand jury found a therapist having written the same comment for each of the six children at one group home.
Some therapists were not seeing the children at all, or spending only five to ten minutes with them, while billing for a full 45 minutes, the jury found.
The jury was particularly disturbed by the response of one therapist, who told them during an inspection: "You obviously don't understand anything about children and therapy. Children do not ever want to talk to a therapist, so I asked the group home owners how the children are doing."
But the buck has to stop somewhere, and in the final analysis the blame rests not so much with those opportunistic group home owners and therapists who soak the system for all its worth, as it does with department head Peter Digre and his control over the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services.
A budget of nearly one quarter of a billion dollars is expended annually on group home and foster care services in Los Angeles County, and group homes have become a veritable growth industry under his command, jumping more than 250 percent between 1990 and 1995--five times the rate of the rest of California.
Digre points the finger of blame at cutbacks in AFDC benefits as responsible for increasing foster placements, having explained to reporters: "Families get caught in a downward spiral: first their utilities are cut off so they can't keep the baby bottles cold. Then they get behind in rent and move in with friend or relatives who may have a criminal history."
Under questioning by a Congressional subcommittee, Digre admitted to legislators that about half of the removals of children from their homes are due to poverty, and not abuse.
"It gets down to those very specific issues about a place to live, food on the table, medical care, and thing like that," he explained, adding that "about half of the families are not physical abusers, not sexual abusers, not people with propensities to violence but simply people who are struggling to keep ends pulled together and are eminently salvagable."
All of this was too much for a frustrated Congressman Herger, who replied: "Evidently, it is your department's practice to remove children from families in about 50 percent of the cases because they don't have enough money."
While Digre has always been quick to blame cutbacks in funding, while playing something of a shell game with statistics, the Los Angeles Grand Jury notes that "the foster care caseload has been steadily increasing since 1990, two years before the first maximum aid payment reduction."
How does his department "assist" those people who are caught in this economic downward spiral? By removing 26,947 children from their homes in one recent year--a figure representing only the first time entrants into foster care.
And, as the Grand Jury report makes clear, the plight of children is often none the better in state care, as they are often denied basic necessities--the lack of which ostensibly led to their placement to begin with.
About half of the group homes the grand jury visited had no reference books, educational toys or games. About half the homes had furniture with missing drawers, stains on the carpets, walls with holes and bathrooms without toilet paper. One site didn't even provide toothpaste to the children.
But rather than assist a family with a rent voucher or utility deposit, the cost of which may be as little as a few hundred dollars, the Department will spend between $8,000 to $10,000 per month to shelter one child at MacLaren Children's Center. Rather than assist with housing or daycare, it will spend a quarter of a billion dollars to house poor children in dangerous foster homes, and in the city's 700 group homes.
With the incredibly high number of children removed from their homes, court oversight is nearly impossible. A recent investigation by the California State Auditor reveals that the Los Angeles juvenile court follows the recommendations of DCFS is 98 percent of the cases it hears--effectively acting a rubberstamp for the Department.
Even if the rare judge were inclined to provide some closer scrutiny to the Department's claims, it would be nearly impossible, as the cumulative caseload of the Los Angeles juvenile court consisted of 153,700 hearings in 1995, and 96,100 hearings during the first seven weeks of 1996.
Throughout the nation, children continue to enter the system through different doors--each bearing a different label--finding themselves dumped in placement one with another an a bed-available basis.
Keys Youth Services, for example, provides a group home for youths aged 12 to 17 in the Kansas City area.
Juvenile offenders and neglected, abused or abandoned young people live together at the home, according to its executive director, Linda Brown.
What kind of influences are brought to bear on the child alleged to have been abused or neglected in homes such as these?
Police charged eight teen-agers with a multi-night crime spree after sneaking out of the home, committing or attempting to commit several car burglaries. They also set fire to a portable outdoor toilet, police said.
Or consider the plight of the Utah girl who fled from an emergency shelter after having been beaten by older residents.
It took a court order to have her returned to her mother, even as she spent months locked in a psychiatric institute for having dared to flee.
What to do when children maintain that they have not been abused in their homes? Provide treatment to convince them that they have.
In Michigan, a recent series of lawsuits involved former residents of Eagle Village, who claimed counselor Joseph Gardner "brainwashed" them into saying they were sexually molested by their parents.
Gardner apparently held a particular interest in counseling girls alleged to have been sexually abused, claiming it as something of a specialty.
In one suit, an Alpena couple says Gardner brainwashed their daughter into claiming that her stepfather sexually assaulted her. A Harrison couple made similar allegations, and a Wayne County man sued after being acquitted of molesting his daughter. That father also said Gardner led his daughter to bringing false charges.
Eagle Village, which provides residential and foster care, argued that it should be immune from suits based on a ruling by the State Court of Appeals in another case in which the appeals court provided absolute immunity against suits for the court-authorized actions of a social worker.
"Eagle Village is being sued for nothing more than doing its job," said a prepared agency statement.
The practice of manufacturing victims would also appear to be in use in Pennsylvania at the Reaching at Problems group home, if the testimony of one former resident is to be believed.
"I know how they pressure girls," says one former resident. "That's how RAP works. They try to brainwash you... They try and confuse you. They put it in your head and it's locked in your head and that's the way it works."
The girl also signed a statement now in the hands of Lehigh County authorities.
"I was at RAP for approximately three years," it says. "They told me that if I admitted I was abused by others, that they would not go to jail. When I told them no one else had abused me, they continually pressed me to allege abuse against others."
The girl also alleged that another resident of the facility had been "brainwashed" into making allegations of having been raped hundreds of times.
The reader may be tempted toward thinking that these accounts are merely anecdotal "horror stories," and less than entirely representative of the system on the whole.
George Miller, former Chairman of the Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families, may have had a similar thought in mind when he asked Kenneth Wooden how many facilities he would classify as inadequate.
"Most of them, if not all of them. An institution simply breeds an institutional child," came the reply.
In conducting research for this article, this writer came upon literally hundreds of similar narratives from all over the country, using the Newsworks service, which searches over 100 newspapers on the Internet using keywords.
Many involved group home settings for autistic, or physically or mentally challenged children. All of these hundreds of narratives bore a remarkable similarity to those of children in group home and institutional settings having been placed there by the juvenile justice and child welfare systems.
And, as labels are dispensed as freely as aspirin by social workers desperate to find a placement, foster wards often wind up in mental health centers, or in group homes which promise special treatment.
They may find themselves in a place like the Western New York Children's Psychiatric Center, where a state investigation discovered a "sex club" involving children aged five to twelve, in which an initiation rite involved children engaging in anal and oral sex with each other.
Senior officials at the center knew what was going on, but failed in many cases to act--that is until four cases of sexual abuse of inmates by staff came to light.
Or they may wind up in a place like the Hegeman Diagnostic Center in Brooklyn, where a twelve-year-old girl who had been raped in a foster home was brought--only to be sexually abused by other girls at the center.
"We believe that assaults, sexual and otherwise, occur daily at the center," said Karen Freedman of Lawyers for Children.
It is precisely because the system is so flooded with children who don't belong in state care that these conditions are allowed to continue. And the tragic consequences of the constant overcrowding, poor management and lack of meaningful oversight are everywhere to be found.
A former resident of the Bethel Children's Home in Lucedale, Mississippi, tells of children being expected to work twelve or thirteen hours a day, six days a week building houses. One boy reportedly lost a finger to an accident with a saw which lacked a safety guard.
An investigation by New York Newsday found the Crossroads facility in the Bronx to be rife with violence and criminal activity, "making the facility unsafe for children and a danger to the community around it."
If ever there was a facility with an inspirational-sounding name, it would be the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin, in Staten Island, where city officials began an investigation into reports of gang sex, beatings, and neglect. Adolescents returning from temporary placements described "a pattern of incidents in which longer-term residents raped, robbed, or assaulted newcomers while night-shift staff slept on the job."
The facility became so notorious that some chose to run away and sleep in the subways rather than accept a bed there for one night.
In Georgia, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution reports that "it's back to business as usual at the Hampton Boys Home after the February 17 arrest of a founder and director of the facility for troubled teenagers."
The director was arrested on charges of sexually abusing former residents. The chairman of the facility described the program as "the finest of its kind in the state."
He may be right. The Macon Telegraph reports a grand jury indictment against two men who ran a private group home.
Edward Palmore and Britt Hoskins were charged with severely beating a 12-year-old at the Project Possibilities home in Culverton.
"It was described to me that the 12-year-old victim was beaten so badly, you could not see the whites of his eyes," said District Attorney Fred Bright.
The child was being punished for taking a piece of cheese.
Additional charges concerned two other youths, who, while wearing only their underwear, were reportedly chained and made to stand on a tree stump for as long as 72 hours with car lights trained on them, Bright said. The lights "would attract mosquitoes and the kids were eaten up," he said.
Included in the home's policies were "forbidden disciplinary methods" such as verbal abuse, ridicule or humiliation, and corporal punishment.
In Westchester County, New York, we find the two institutions once "considered among the state's best." New York Newsday reports that Linden Hall and Hawthorne Cedar Knolls were found to be "plagued by violence, unchecked sex, and poor supervision."
This brings to light one of the more peculiar paradoxes found in the field. While child welfare holds a near-obsessive preoccupation with the issue of child sexual abuse, it more often than not responds by erring on the side of "protecting" children who have not been abused, placing them into institutions in which physical and sexual abuse is a near-certainty.
What to do when allegations of abuse in state care come to light? Simply sweeping it under the carpet would often appear to be the solution.
In Oklahoma, the state Department of Human Services found "considerable evidence" that two employees sexually molested one or more children in state care, but failed to aggressively deal with the allegations, a state oversight commission charged.
Instead, DHS administrator Stacy Hall permitted the accused social worker to transfer out of his child-care job and allowed the accused shelter employee to resign, with no mention of the allegations on their personnel records.
One of the incidents involved a social worker at Family Junction, who reportedly kissed and fondled a young girl in his care.
Hall is no longer is in charge of the DHS children's division. He was himself reassigned for his role in an overstaffing scandal at a juvenile treatment center, where 172 workers were in charge of 13 youths.
Or consider the case of the seven-year-old girl who was repeatedly raped by other children at the St. Joseph's Children's Services Agency in Brooklyn.
A Department of Social Services investigator assigned to the case found "no credible evidence" to support the claim, notwithstanding the credible accounts of several witnesses.
But sweeping it under the carpet doesn't always work with so many children needlessly warehoused in state care, so some states have developed a safety mechanism to insulate their treasuries against potential lawsuits--capping their liability.
In Massachusetts, for example, a 6-year-old girl was raped and infected with gonorrhea after being placed in a coed group home.
Staff members of the home argued almost from the start that the young girl didn't belong there, but DSS took 14 months to move her into a foster home. The move came after she had been assaulted.
A judge found that the young girl deserved $250,000, but pared back the award to conform to a state law that places a $100,000 cap on liability for children harmed while in DSS custody.
"Life is cheap for DSS," said attorney James P. Duggan, who represented the girl.
"What about the perpetrators, do they remain in the system?" asked George Miller of Youth Law Center attorney Mark Soler.
"They often remain in the system," came the reply.
Children in institutions don't know what their rights are and they are afraid to tell when they have been abused. "They are afraid there will be retaliation against them. They are afraid nothing will happen," he explained.
"We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg."
THE WILDERNESS CAMPS
California probation officer Dennis Lepak found himself introduced to abuses in the system when he visited the Rite of Passage Wilderness Camp, a group home for California boys located on an Indian reservation in the high desert of central Nevada.
"Boys were intentionally denied clothing adequate for the harsh conditions, routinely assaulted by staff, and deprived of meals," he explained.
Photographs included in newspaper clippings he provided displayed children sleeping in pup tents in the wilderness.
His efforts to help these children were met with resistance at every level. "Despite my report to every local, State -- both California and Nevada -- and Federal agency, there are now 60 more boys at the camp then when I was there 2 years ago," he explained.
There would appear to be no shortage of "therapeutic" wilderness facilities of the variety Lepak identified.
In Texas, many foster children are forced to sleep in surplus army tents. They dig their own latrines, using kerosene heaters and roll down plastic sheeting to keep warm during the winter as they sleep on cots.
The nine state-licensed sites warehouse youngsters from 11 to 18, without the benefits of air conditioning in the summer, or heat in the winter.
In the woods of Trinity County, north of Houston, more than 30 girls are enrolled at the 20-year-old camp operated by Hope Center Youth and Family Services near Groveton.
"It gives me heartburn," said state Senator Frank Madla, as he planned to visit at least one of the camps. "We have abused and neglected children and then we stick them in tents across the state."
Lawmakers, who learned of the 20-year-old facilities during 1996 hearings, questioned why such rustic facilities demand fees ranging from $58 to nearly $100 per child per day paid by the Department of Protective and Regulatory Services.
"We could put the children in numerous hotels in Austin for $55 a night," said Senator Madla. "The only individuals who are winning are the ones who are operating these tent cities. It does not appear to be an appropriate treatment."
The State of Georgia also has an "Outdoor Therapeutic Program" with two facilities, the purpose of which is to "assist emotionally troubled youth in developing responsible behavior so that they can return to their family and community and function at an acceptable social level."
Cleveland Camp, established in 1977, holds 50 males. Warm Springs Camp, established in 1983, holds 30 males and 20 females. Neither facility has electricity, while Warm Springs Camp lacks so much as running water.
Auditors note in a 1995 study that scant attention is given to the actual needs of children during the selection process, that there are problems with treatment plans, camp activities, and release--calling the effectiveness of the entire program into question.
The average cost per day per youth in these luxurious facilities is $97.26, with an average cost per completer of $47,326 and $61,128 at the two camps respectively, making for annual tab of $3.5 million.
Other such "Wilderness Programs" may be found in Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
None of this would be possible without the duplicity of child welfare officials who continue to turn a blind eye to system-wide abuses, even as child protective caseworkers continue to provide an ever-increasing supply of children to warehouse.
None of this would be possible if not for the countless juvenile court judges who routinely rubber-stamp agency decisions.
Nor would it be possible without the unwitting duplicity of those elected officials entirely unfamiliar with the widespread abuses that permeate the child welfare system--even as they continue to fund it.
As sociologist John Hagedorn notes: "The myth that social services provide 'services' is still useful to state legislatures who must provide funds, to a concerned public, and for internal morale."
But nowhere is the child welfare industry's contempt for children more apparent than in San Francisco, where a Superior Court judge ordered the state Department of Social Services to obey a law that requires social workers to assess the needs of foster children in group homes.
As of 1997, the state simply hadn't bother to follow a law requiring that periodic assessments of children in group homes be conducted. The law had been on the books since 1989.
The Department of Social Services contended the law is unworkable and refused to create a "level of care assessment instrument" to guide county social workers, allowing a 1994 deadline to pass.
Invariably, the owners of these facilities structure their businesses as non-profit organizations. Ron Mayuiers, the California group home owner with the Mercedes Benz and $1.6 million dollar home structured his business as a non-profit.
So, too, was a Christian group home in Tennessee incorporated as a non-profit. Jabneel Inc., overseen by Gary and Billie Rich, operated about a half-dozen homes for abused and disadvantaged children.
They were forced to close after reports that adolescent male residents had repeated--and sometimes forced--sex with each other. Five boys aged 13 and 14 since have pled guilty to rape charges.
The items which were to be sold at auction included office equipment, a complete commercial kitchen and 19 vehicles including service trucks, a 40-foot motor coach, eight passenger vans and a 1991 Mercedes 420 SEL.
"I've been to all the sales this year, and I've not seen anything like the scope of this auction," said auctioneer Chris Headrick.
The non-profit, which received payments of $2 million per year to care for children, also divested itself of real estate. Interestingly enough, records show that it transferred land to Child and Family Services of Knox County for $130,000.
The system not only attracts a disproportionate number of fast-buck artists, but the vast sums of money flowing in without accountability can sometimes corrupt even the more dedicated people.
Consider the case of the former Catholic brother who admitted stealing more than $250,000 from a south Kansas City home for developmentally disabled men where he was once the director.
An assistant U.S. Attorney said the former brother used the money to take trips to Hawaii and Florida with family and friends, and to buy goods and services for himself, his friends and family.
Authorities think the fraud took place over a period of at least two years, and involved using money misappropriated from Community of the Good Shepherd Inc. to pay off monthly American Express bills that ranged from $2,661 to $6,314 per month.
"Scams permeate the system from top to bottom," writes outspoken veteran Family Court Justice Judy Sheindlin. "They range from individual cases of fraud and abuse to multi-million dollar rip-offs by so-called nonprofit agencies, all in the name of helping disadvantaged people."
Notes Sheindlin: "Individuals who rip off the system are occasionally caught and sometimes even punished. Lowering the boom on large agencies is a real challenge. They have the veneer of respectability, even though they plunder the public purse with no less abandon."
THE IMPACT ON THE CHILDREN
The impact of life in residential group homes is psychologically devasting, suggests a new study.
Adolescents living with foster parents or in group homes have more than four times the rate of serious psychiatric disorders than those living with their own families.
"One of the most significant findings was that a number of adolescents were suffering from severe, potentially treatable, psychiatric disorders which had gone undetected," wrote researchers in the December, 1996, issue of the British Medical Journal.
According to the study, not only did the teens in outside care suffer from serious psychiatric disorders -- notably major depression -- they were also more likely to have conduct disorders, anxiety problems, attention-deficit disorder, and unspecified psychoses.
Of 88 teens studied, aged 13 to 17 years, living in foster or group residential settings, the rate of psychiatric disorders was 67%, compared with 15% in those living at home.
The differences between "conventional" foster homes and residential care are equally marked. Such disturbances were identified in 57% of those in foster care, and in 96% of those in residential care.
VOICES OF THE CHILDREN
In San Diego, staff from the Child Advocacy Division of the Department of the Public Defender and from the University of San Diego Patient Advocacy Program, at the request of the Bar Association's Task Force on Children at Risk, sought to obtain the views of children under the juvenile court system, interviewing 23 children.
The average age was 14.9. Seventy-eight percent were either in an acute psychiatric hospital or a group home at the time of the survey. The remainder were either in a shelter or residing with a family member. Seventy-four percent were dependents of the court, 6 percent were wards.
These 23 children were placed in a total of 198 placements, an average of 8.6 homes per child. The average time "in the system" was 4.25 years.
The children described a system in which they felt trapped, punished and personally disempowered. One child described a particular group home as ". . . a storage place. You were alive but not living."
Among the comments from some of the other children in the group:
"The system is a punishment. They look at you as a file or paperwork, not as a person."
"The system messes you up. You are always being threatened with being moved to another foster home."
"Don't get used to one place because they will move you, they will toss you around like a ball."
"No one listens to you, no one believes you."
In describing where they would like to go next, nearly 83 percent said they wanted "out of the system," either through legal emancipation or being returned to either a parent, grandparent or other relative.
Remarkably similar narratives were told by five Missouri foster children at an event sponsored by the Child Welfare League of America.
The League meets every five years to discuss issues relating to out-of-home care. The event marked the first time it had assembled a panel of children who live in state custody.
All five children lived in residential treatment centers for emotionally disturbed children.
"I had to go to court this past June, and there was a lady there who I'd never met before who made a recommendation about what was best for me," said 18-year-old Sheila. "A month later, I saw her again, and she didn't even know who I was."
Said 14-year-old Ashley: "At first I was told I'd be in care one month, and then another month, and then another. It's now been five years."
"I was first taken some place just to sleep overnight, and the next day the social worker took me to a children's home in the country, two hours from St. Louis. I was really disappointed because I was so far from home," she said.
"I hate it when the staff members yell or act mean or hold a grudge or won't get me something that I need," said 15-year-old Heather.
"The worst experience I've ever had was when the male staff watched while I took a shower," she said.
"When I was taken out of my home at 12, I was put in a place for runaways and kids with drug problems. I wasn't a runaway, and I didn't have a drug problem."
Said Heather in closing: "I hope all of you were hearing what we had to say, because you are in a position to make things easier for kids."