The Associated Press

January 25, 2000, Tuesday, AM cycle

HEADLINE: Government to scrutinize state foster care agencies

BYLINE: By KAREN GULLO, Associated Press Writer


   Prompted by moving tales of neglect and abuse, the federal government seized new powers Tuesday to protect the nation's half-million foster children and push states to find them permanent homes more quickly.

Under federal rules that will take effect in March, federal health officials will, for the first time, interview children and foster parents to check for signs of abuse or neglect, conduct inspections at state agencies and monitor programs for recruiting adoptive parents.

States would also be required to conduct criminal background checks on prospective foster and adoptive parents. Those states cited for doing a poor job protecting children could lose up to 14 percent of their federal child welfare funds each year.

"This regulation demonstrates a critical and significant shift in holding states accountable for children's safety and permanency while promoting their well-being," Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala said.

The new powers were granted to Shalala's department in recent laws passed by Congress that shifted the focus in foster care to protecting children from abuse rather than making their return to their biological families the first priority.

More than 540,000 U.S. children are in foster care - many removed from homes because of abuse and neglect. Most return to their parents, but others stay in foster care because of continuing threats.

Lawmakers began acting in 1997 to give the government a greater voice in the $7.5 billion a year foster care system, $4 billion of which is paid by the federal government. They were moved in part by harrowing tales of neglect and abuse in some state programs.

The Child Welfare League of America reported that in 1996, the last year for which there are statistics, more than 3,000 children were abused or neglected by foster parents and 14 died.

Even after Congress acted, more sad examples emerged.

In 1998, a Philadelphia woman was charged with beating her 6-year-old foster daughter to death, stuffing the body into a duffel bag and tossing it into a river.

Officials at the city's human services bureau said the agency had no indication that there was violence in the household.

Under the new regulations, states will be held accountable if children are abused or neglected in foster care.

Welfare officials applauded the landmark change but raised concerns that the government is providing no new money to help states comply with new reporting and oversight requirements.

"Historically the system that was used for accountability was a system that measured processes. What's dramatic and different is now we're saying let's measure for safety and permanency," said William Waldman, executive director, American Public Human Services Association, whose members include state welfare agencies.

"We've taken the position that if they're going to make new requirements, they need to provide the funds."

The regulations were required by the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act, which focused on protecting children and speeding up adoptions. Foster children often spend up to three years in foster care while state agencies attempt to improve conditions in the home.

The new regulations clarify that states don't have to return children to their birth homes if safety is an issue but should speed efforts to find permanent homes.

States must obtain a court order once a year explaining why children are still in foster care and must begin termination of parental rights for children who are in foster care 15 out of the previous 22 months.

In the past, the department simply reviewed case files to gauge how well the states were serving children. There were no penalties if children languished in foster homes for years or were neglected.

Now, states could lose one percent of their child welfare funding for each infraction up to a maximum of 14 percent. They are required to fix the problems within two years and penalties increase each year if problems persist.

"It's a wonderful beginning," said Shirley Marcus Allen, acting co-director of the Child Welfare League of America, noting the new measure had "teeth."

States also face punishment if they discriminate against adoptive parents who want to give a home to a child of another race. A 1996 adoption law prevents states from using race as a basis for placing children.

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