Successful suits don't always improve states' care of abused children Some agencies resist court orders to correct deficiencies in protection


WASHINGTON - At least 21 states are under court supervision because they failed to take proper care of children who had been abused or neglected, and many of them have flouted their obligations even after promising in legal settlements to protect the constitutional rights of foster children, court records show.

Judges across the country have found what Judge Thomas F. Hogan of U.S. District Court here describes as "outrageous deficiencies" in child protection services.

Court records paint what a judge in Illinois describes as "a bleak and Dickensian picture."

Child welfare officials in many states, swamped with work, are slow to investigate reports of child abuse and neglect. They often place children in unsafe or crowded foster homes and provide them inadequate medical care.

They afford few of the social services needed to keep families together or reunify them. And they are delinquent in finding adoptive parents for children languishing in foster care.

Surveys by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show the annual number of abused or neglected children has more than doubled in the past decade, to 2.9 million from 1.4 million. The number seriously injured by abuse, it says, has quadrupled, to 572,000 from 143,000.

"Children are being hurt more often and more seriously," said HHS Secretary Donna E. Shalala.

A federal advisory committee said recently that abuse and neglect were the leading cause of death among children under 4 and accounted for 2,000 fatalities a year among children of all ages.

David S. Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America, a private group respected by children's advocates and state officials alike, said social workers were often handling 50 to 70 cases apiece.

The league recommends no more than 15 cases per worker.

The federal government provides $4 billion a year to the states for child protection services. The National Governors' Association recently urged Congress to let each state take its share as a lump sum, or block grant, with more freedom to decide how the money is spent.

But the Clinton administration says it would be foolish to reduce federal supervision and enforcement, in view of the abysmal conditions being brought to light.

Martha A. Matthews, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, cited several reasons for the increase in child abuse and neglect.

Among them are the crack cocaine epidemic and an increase in economic hardship resulting from the failure of welfare benefits and the minimum wage to keep pace with inflation.

Many states are cutting cash aid, and, she said, some families cannot afford housing, fuel and clothing for their children, so accusations of child neglect will probably increase.

Even states such as Utah, which seem far removed from the drug abuse and violence of large urban centers, have been targets of class-action suits charging that they failed to care for children beaten or sexually abused by their parents.

Utah Solicitor General Carol Clawson said that "there were clearly problems" when the state was sued in 1994 by the National Center for Youth Law, a nonprofit law firm. Gov. Michael O. Leavitt agreed to settle the case six months after it was filed in U.S. District Court.

Under the settlement, he promised improvements in virtually every aspect of child welfare services. But an independent panel established under the agreement said last month that the state was flouting 53 of its 92 commitments.

State responses to suits vary widely. Some officials are cooperative and constructive, seeing the suits as an opportunity to make improvements and press state legislators for money. Other states are slow to change and reluctant even to disclose the data needed to assess their performance.

In Alabama, conditions for abused and neglected children have improved considerably as the state carries out a consent decree approved by a U.S. District Court judge four years ago. Statewide, the number of children in foster care has declined 21 percent, to 3,650 from 4,625.

Ira A. Burnim of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, who represents the Alabama children, said, "The kids are safer. Protective service workers are doing better jobs."

In Missouri, by contrast, U.S. District Court Judge Dean Whipple found state officials in contempt of court for failing to carry out a court-approved consent decree protecting foster children in the Kansas City area. The failure, he said, resulted from the officials' "lack of commitment to make the consent decree work."

Lawyers for foster children have been remarkably successful in establishing the children's legal rights, but the victories do not always produce improvements in the quality of care.

Kevin E. has been in the custody of the District of Columbia for 11 years, with no plan for adoption or psychiatric care. "He told the hospital staff that he hated himself," Judge Hogan found, "and he climbed into a trash can and asked to be thrown away."

Pub Date: 3/17/96

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