There Are Worse Things Than Foster Care

The reputation of foster care has become so bad that few may have noticed when New York City’s Department of Investigation reported last month that the Administration for Children’s Services was failing to ensure the safety of foster children. Of course, it is not hard to find headlines about foster parents accused of abusing kids. Earlier this year Jennifer and Sarah Hart drove their S.U.V. off a Northern California cliff, killing themselves and at least four of the six children they had adopted, probably out of the foster system. Last year, Cesar Gonzales-Mugaburu was acquitted after spending a year in prison on a charge of endangering or sexually abusing eight of the nearly 100 boys he had fostered in his Long Island, N.Y., home. In Duchesne County, Utah, a foster mother was charged this month in the death of a 2-year-old boy in her care.

Stories like these buttress the widely held misperception that children are most likely to be abused by strangers and that those in foster homes are therefore uniquely vulnerable.

But if you read past the first paragraph of the New York City investigation, you come upon this startling fact: A majority of the maltreatment incidents (which include cases of both abuse and severe neglect) happened while foster kids were visiting their biological parents. Foster parents were the perpetrators in just 19 percent of maltreatment incidents last year.

That’s terrible, but more disturbing is that children who have been removed from their parents’ homes because of abuse or neglect are then brought back to visit or stay with those parents. And they are subject to physical or sexual abuse all over again.

In 2014, the median rate of reported maltreatment of children in foster care was 0.27 percent, which is much lower than the rate for the general population — around 1 percent. On the other hand, according to Elizabeth Bartholet, the faculty director of Harvard Law School’s Child Advocacy Program, roughly a third of children who are returned to biological parents who maltreat them will be maltreated again. A court-appointed panel in New York found, back in 1997, that 43 percent of children who entered the child-welfare system were again abused or neglected by their families.

These numbers are not surprising when you consider that in 34 percent of cases in which children were removed in 2016, substance abuse on the part of the parents was involved — and we know that addiction is a problem that returns again and again.

So why are we sending kids who are in danger on unsupervised visits home? The real reason is that A.C.S., like almost every other child welfare agency and family court system in the country, pursues a goal of family reunification, even if it can mean risking a child’s safety. Indeed, the Department of Investigation reported that in 2016, of the worst-performing private contractors that manage the foster children’s cases for the agency, four listed as their main focus of improvement on a self-evaluation “permanency,” while only two chose “safety.”

The commissioner of the A.C.S., David Hansell, said that the agency tries to “safely reunify families when appropriate” because “all of the research shows that children are most likely to thrive when they can be reunified with their parents.” He added that last year the agency “launched a $6 million program to enhance safety when children are returning home, and we’ve just begun a new initiative to boost safety during visitation, including systemwide retraining.”

The agency has said that the investigation did not account for the most recent data, which shows improvement from these particular contractors. It’s still hard to believe that safety wasn’t their No. 1 priority in 2016, given the city’s recent history.

Recall that in 2016, Zymere Perkins, 6 years old, was beaten to death, and his mother’s boyfriend charged with the crime, after multiple investigations by caseworkers into the child’s safety and welfare. According to a report by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, at least 10 children died in their family homes in the 12 weeks leading up to that incident, despite each being the subject of at least four maltreatment complaints (A.C.S. and the mayor’s office disputed the report’s data and some of its findings).

Those who stress the importance of keeping families together argue that children are best raised by their parents and that black and poor parents are disproportionately the subject of child protective services investigations. These points are legitimate and we shouldn’t dismiss them, but as James Dwyer, a professor of law at William and Mary, suggests in his recent book, “Liberal Child Welfare Policy and Its Destruction of Black Lives,” concern with keeping African-American families together should not take precedence over keeping African-American children safe.

What if we took the same approach to other sorts of domestic violence? If a woman reports that her husband has been beating her, police officers don’t give her an ice pack and suggest they come up with a plan to work things out.

Casey Family Programs, the nation’s largest foundation focused on foster care, says it wants to reduce the need for foster care by 50 percent by 2020. If reducing the number of kids in foster care is your goal, New York seems like a success story: The number of foster children here has declined to 8,966 in 2017 from 9,926 in 2016. Mr. Hansell of A.C.S. told The Daily News that this reduction was primarily a result of “our focus on keeping families together wherever we can.”

Just last month, a mother in Queens was arrested on suspicion of beating to death her 13-month-old daughter and has been charged with nearly killing the baby’s twin brother. The children had reportedly been removed from the home when they were infants and their mother underwent drug counseling before they were returned. No one wants to see the number of children in foster care rise. But there are some things worse than foster care.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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