Files are misplaced, cases are reassigned -- handed down from worker to worker, while cases pile up by the hundreds on desks or in boxes.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of children continue to languish with scarce hope of ever being returned to their homes.

Lost without a trace, they are America's disposable children.


In New York City, a 1994 audit conducted by the Office of the Comptroller found that the Child Welfare Administration had incorrect addresses listed in the official record for 20 percent of the foster children in its care.[1]

That represents 12,000 children out of about 60,000 in foster care that City caseworkers can not immediately locate.[2]

Auditors also found that: "Five percent of the children in care were listed as living at the CWA headquarters at 80 Lafayette St., even though more than half of those children had been in foster care for more than two years."[3]

The agency directly responsible for these children had listed 2,574 of them as residing at its own headquarters.[4]

According to a 1996 report: "A significant number of records in the CCRS database reflects inaccurate information, including out-of-date or inaccurate addresses, which affects CWA's ability to locate children quickly."

Based on earlier research conducted by the Office of the Comptroller, the following conditions were found to relate to the 50,702 children then in the tracking system database:

Just how many children may actually be "lost" in the system at any given moment? According to Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi:

We reviewed the timeliness of the data input for 9,663 children placed into foster care from June 1991 - September 1992... The CWA did not record initial placement data within the required seven-day time frame for 8,433 (87 percent) of these children.[5]
Another 1996 review included a random selection of 195 cases, of which auditors could not locate four case files. Two of the four were closed according to the data base; another was an active case; and the remaining record was "signed out" to a CWA Deputy Commissioner who denied having the file. Auditors found file folders lying on floors and in unlabeled and haphazardly arranged cartons.[6]

As of December of 1996, New York City was still in the planning stages for a computer database of abuse and neglect cases, still logging them manually on index cards.[7]

News reporter Anna Quindlen spent a morning with volunteers and staff members of Court Appointed Special Advocates, volunteers who are assigned by Family Court judges to look out for the interests of some of the children in New York City's foster care system.

Quindlen describes their role in trying to locate the lost children: "They are on the phone constantly, trying to track kids who often get lost in the labyrinth of foster care, which is full of dead ends. Think about what it takes to get a straight answer out of any government bureaucracy; multiply that by 10 and that is their job."[8]

In New York, an attorney tries to put a good face on how his agency could have forgotten a brother and sister placed in foster care seven years ago. The two are doing well, the lawyer explains, adding: "Obviously, the foster mother took very good care of them."

"Isn't that just lucky?" the outraged judge retorts.

"It's a system in crisis, to be sure," said Robert Praksti of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. "Kids get lost, their cases get lost, casework turnover occurs over and over."[9]

As chaotic, dysfunctional and even destructive as these systems can be, one might think it challenging to find the one that is "the worst" among them.

Enter the District of Columbia, which has managed to lose track of fully 25 percent of the children in its care.[10]

Unlike many of its counterparts among the states, the District of Columbia has a computerized database, the WARD Tracking System (WTS), which was designed to collect and process information regarding case management, client tracking, and vendor payments.

Does it work? Not according to United States District Court Judge Thomas Hogan, who writes:

the WTS cannot provide accurate information on the number of children in emergency care, how long they have been in that status, and when they are reaching the 90-day deadline for remaining in that status. The WTS also is unable to accurately identify the physical location of all of the children in foster care. Additionally, it does not contain accurate information concerning vacancies in foster homes, nor does it contain accurate information regarding which social workers are assigned to which children.

Judge Hogan concluded: "The Court can only wonder how an agency that cannot track the location of the children in its custody can possibly comply with the remaining requirements of federal and District law, much less with reasonable professional standards."

Caseworkers were not using the computerized WARD Tracking System, which required upgrading. Judge Hogan found: "Instead, CFSD social workers track information on thousands of three-by-five-inch index cards."

The tracking system in use was so chaotic that one percent of a sample group were found never to have been removed from their homes, but were listed by the agency as being in foster care.[11]

Losing children is not something unique to New York City or the District of Columbia. The State of Illinois has managed to lose track of a number of children in its care.[12]

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has also managed to lose track of the availability of its own foster homes, its system having been described by the Chicago Tribune as: "a ludicrous tracking system that amounts to three-by-five file cards kept in piles by placement workers."[13]

The ubiquitous three-by-five index card would appear to be something of an industry fixture.

After a young boy was raped in a Massachusetts foster home, it came to light that Department of Social Services caseworkers and supervisors had apparently managed to overlook a pattern of nine foster children having run away from the home.

When asked how they could have overlooked such a pattern, DSS Commissioner Linda Carlisle said that with the Department's outdated computer system, there is no way to check how many children have run away from any given home, adding: "We have 3-by-5 index cards, manual records."[14]

But both the computer and the index cards were more than sufficient for department spokesperson Lorraine Carli just a few years earlier. After a scathing legislative report revealing serious deficiencies in foster care tracking was released, Carli said the agency had a good tracking system and reviewed each placement every six months.

"We found that not to be the case," said Gloria Fox, a member of the House subcommittee on foster care, which released the report.

"Clearly, they're working on that," Fox said, but "some people haven't seen their social worker in years."[15]

Among the conclusions reached in the 306-page report:

  • State court backlogs leave children's lives dangling from childhood to adolescence; children shift from home to home in a pattern of "foster care drift."

  • Although increasing numbers of children were entering foster care, DSS had no reliable means for tracking the location of children in its care.

  • Massachusetts had, on several occasions, failed to qualify for federal funding because it had not been in compliance with federal regulations.

  • A serious shortage of foster homes in the state had resulted in many children being placed in "marginal homes" only slightly better than those from which they were removed.

  • Foster parents did not receive vital information about the children they accepted, often resulting in less than adequate care.

  • More minority children were entering the foster care system than ever before, but because the system had few minority homes for them, they were being placed outside their ethnic or racial groups.

"I feel we have condemned children to limbo," said Representative Marie Parente, one of four former foster children on the seven-member subcommittee. "They are suffering silently."

Gerald W. Robinson, then the newly appointed Commissioner of the Department, took issue with several of the report's criticisms. He maintained that DSS did have a reliable tracking system for its children, noting that confidentiality requirements prevented the agency from furnishing the legislators with specific information about children in its care.

He described the state's foster care system as "excellent" and "one of the best in the country," and said that though "all the problems the report points out have some validity, it just doesn't focus on the positive part of the system."[16]

An antiquated computer tracking system would appear to be as common a fixture in child protective agencies are the 3-by-5 index card and a consent decree from a class action suit.

In New Mexico, Children, Youth and Families Department officials can't say how many foster parents they've lost in the last year.

Maryellen Strawniak, who heads the agency's policies and procedures division, said CYFD's computer system is too antiquated to retrieve that information.

From all appearances, the computer system is too antiquated to retrieve any information at all.

Asked about the average number of cases per social worker, the agency in a written response to the Albuquerque Journal said only, "The consent decree allows for a social worker to carry a maximum of 20 out-of-home care cases. The number of cases that a worker carries is also a fluid number."

Asked how many supervisors statewide were carrying cases, CYFD would say only the number "varies over time. We do not track this number on a regular basis."

Nor would there appear to be agreement among the staff about matters as basic as the number of foster homes in New Mexico.

In a recent interview, CYFD Secretary Heather Wilson said the agency had made progress in recruiting foster parents, noting that when she took the job in early 1995 there were only 700 homes and now there are more than 900.

But Maryellen Strawniak a week later said a recent count showed only 732 foster families -- a count which included regular foster homes and foster homes in which children are placed with relatives.

Strawniak said the 900 figure, which CYFD had reported in several public releases, erroneously included relative foster homes that are no longer in use.

Department Secretary Wilson, in turn, said that whatever the accurate number was in 1995, there are still 200 additional foster families now than there were then.[17]

Is it any wonder with systems as chaotic as these that children get lost, even in a small system such as New Mexico's?

Like many other states, New Mexico has come up with a bandaid solution to butress its dysfunctional child protective system -- adding another layer of bureaucracy.

A state law, enacted in 1992, calls for an advisory committee appointed by the governor to assist in development of policies and procedures.

Secretary Wilson said she believes that group isn't necessary because there are 16 other advisory groups with which the department works.

The goal of these boards, according to the Albuquerque Journal, "is to make sure children in state custody don't get lost and forgotten."[18]

In Missouri, pediatrician Dr. Susan Pittman has watched the system move from one publicized crisis to another, and she knows its problems from first-hand experience.

She became a foster mother to two young sisters, and had been told virtually nothing about the children's past when they were assigned to her. Hers was their second foster home, and they had been assigned five different social workers in the 17 months they were in the system. Only one of them had ever visited her home, despite state rules requiring monthly visits.

"I could be killing these children, for all the state knows," she said. "The system has lost its focus, to do what is best for the kids. All it seems to want to do is get a kid into a foster home, no matter whether it's a good home for that particular child, and then forget about him."[19]

Sometimes, it is the children themselves who choose to disappear.

The Houston Chronicle conducted a five week investigation of so-called emergency shelters for children. Writes reporter Claudia Feldman: "At times, it was like boxing with a ghost. The many agencies involved want to protect the children, but some use that cloak of privacy to protect themselves."

Among the findings: "The quality of the shelters is widely divergent. Some are sunny places perfect for kids. Others are gloomy places occasionally dogged by problems like lice and ringworm."

In 1995, the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services made 176 placements to the Chimney Rock emergency shelter. As many as four to five youths per month -- nearly a third -- ran away.

Director Ann Hibbert says her staff does not pursue runaways. "Very seldom do they not come back," she says. "And the more we chase them, the faster they run."

Judy Hay of the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services says older children in custody "run all the time. For troubled kids, it's a common way to cope."

She says she doesn't know precisely how many of the children return to the emergency shelters because their placements broke down or no longer fit the children's needs. She estimates it is 25 percent to 30 percent.

Glenshire Village owner Pearl Bolton estimates that once the girls leave her shelter for a permanent placement, 30 percent of them make return visits. Usually, according to Bolton, that means their permanent placement broke down for some reason.

At another Houston area shelter, several caseworkers say off the record that the problem is that they simply can't stand the place. They say they pick children up from the shelter in worse shape than they were in when they came in.[20]

But there are reasons aside from lice and ringworm that children run away from the shelters.

In Utah, a nine-year-old girl had stayed in an emergency shelter for a month and a half before she ran away after a group of older girls beat her up. The child sought help from the Utah Transit Authority's main office about a block from the center.

A Transit Authority employee agreed to drive her home in a company car. But when state officials finally located the girl, she was placed at the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute for seven months while her mother fought in court to get her back. Her daughter was eventually returned home.

"They treated her for nothing," her mother told reporters.[21]

In Wisconsin, an 11-year-old girl ran away from her foster home after being sexually assaulted at knifepoint by two men in the basement.

Police contacted a 7-year-old girl, also placed in the home, who told them she had also been sexually abused while in care.

Dane County officials received complaints about the men who lived in the home, but never performed required background checks. One man was on probation for having sexually assaulting a minor. The home's foster care license expired three months before the attack, and the county had not gotten around to renewing it.

As a result of a lengthy series of litigation stemming from the attacks, the State Supreme Court ruled that foster children have a constitutional right to safe and secure homes. The County had argued that it had no constitutional duty to protect the girls and that counties are immune from lawsuits in such cases.[22]

Many other children can't run away because they are maintained in detention without legal representation -- locked in prisons and mental institutions.

According to recent Congressional testimony rendered by the Deputy Director of the Child Welfare League of America:

...I have visited children in jails, 9 years old, whose only offense is to have been sexually abused by an adult, in jail because there was no other place to locate the child; children, 13 years old, in straitjackets because of mental illness, in local lockups without legal representation.[23]

The inappropriate use of prison facilities to warehouse allegedly abused or neglected children has long been documented.

The Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families heard testimony that the juvenile justice system is "often used inappropriately because no other services are available."

Among the testimony rendered before the Select Committee:

The juvenile justice system becomes the social service agency of first resort. The only way a lot of these kids can be assured of getting halfway decent social services is by getting locked up...

One witness flatly told the Committee: "There are still neglected and abused children in jail because there is no other place."[24]

The Committee also found that mental health facilities intended for very short term evaluation of children with acute mental health problems "are used to warehouse children of all kinds because the social services system has no other place to put them."

The Committee heard testimony describing life in juvenile facilities, in which "isolation, official neglect, abuse, and suicide of children are all to common."

A witness documented the numerous abuses that occur in the mental health and residential school systems:

In the state mental hospital in South Carolina, children who attempted to commit suicide were stripped to their underwear, bound by their ankles and wrists to the four corners of their beds, and injected with psychotropic drugs. In the Phoenix Indian High School in Arizona, Indian children found intoxicated on school grounds were handcuffed to the fence surrounding the institution and left there overnight. In a private treatment and special education facility in Utah, children were locked in closets for punishment, grabbed by the hair and thrown against walls, and given lie detector tests as part of their 'therapy'.[25]

Marcia Robinson Lowry, who has filed suits against several state operated child welfare systems through the Children's Rights Project, defines the legal status of these children and the protections they must be provided:

Every child who is in foster care is in government custody. Our society long has recognized that when the government takes custody of an individual, there must be basic legal protections to assure that that custody is not inappropriate or abusive. Given the serious problems that pervade many state foster care systems. it is particularly important that children in foster care have such legal protections.[26]

How many children are literally lost while in the care of the child welfare system is a difficult estimate to derive given the chaotic and deceptive nature of the child protective bureaucracy.

A conservative estimate of five percent would provide 25,000, approximately twice the number lost in New York City alone. Ten percent would provide 50,000, which may provide a closer estimate.

What is clear is that those children who are not literally lost are literally forgotten. They languish in inappropriate placements, drifting from home to home for years at a time.

Adding to the numbers of lost children are the others who languish in prisons or mental institutions having committed no offense. For too many children, life on the streets is the only alternative to life in state care. For others, unable to escape, the answer is a solution far more permanent.

The children lose more than their homes. They invariably lose each other, as siblings are almost-invariably separated. In many cases, they lose all sense of cultural identity--their very heritage having been stolen from them. Some lose all sense of who they are, while others lose the very will to survive.

They are among the countless casualties in America's war on child abuse. A war, which as all wars, will result in far fewer casualties once ended.

Copyright 1997 - 2002 Rick Thoma

Last Updated June 2, 1998

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