Debate swirls on how to reduce high foster care rate

Monday, May 19th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Officials in Oklahoma are trying to get a handle on why the state has the nation's sixth-highest rate of children in foster care.

Some blame the problem on drug-addicted parents, although other experts say the trend could be reversed if the Department of Human Services adopted programs used by other states.

Nearly 10 out of every 1,000 Oklahoma children are in foster care, statistics show.

``Contrary to popular stereotype, most parents who lose their children to foster care are neither brutally abusive nor hopelessly addicted,'' said Richard Kessler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection reform, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the child protection system.

``Far more common are cases in which a family's poverty has been confused with child 'neglect,''' Kessler said.

He was responding to an outburst by Steve Bailey, chairman of the state Commission on Human Services, at the commission's April meeting. Bailey wanted to know why the number of children in foster care in Oklahoma is increasing.

DHS data show neglect cases in Oklahoma increased to 28,779 in fiscal year 2002, compared with 24,285 in fiscal 2001.

In their response, DHS officials said poverty, underemployment and lack of education are ``bigger issues that impact neglect and child well-being.''

In a study of 4,000 Oklahoma Children's Services families, those more likely to return to the system were low-income or recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Kessler said that in some counties in Washington state, courts found they could reduce foster care placements by providing adequate legal representation to parents.

Parents' representation in Oklahoma is poor, officials say. The parents often must sign documents admitting to the child abuse before child welfare workers will consider bringing the children back home.

According to some reports, lawyers for parents often spend only a few minutes before court with the parents.

Alabama is rebuilding its welfare system to emphasize bringing families together. Pennsylvania increased funding for prevention programs and family preservation.

In April, DHS Director Howard Hendrick said the foster care increase is hard to control. He said drug use is a primary factor.

Even in those cases, the reason for removal often is listed as neglect.

``Foster children numbers are up because the number of referrals is up, and not every referral ends with a child being removed,'' said Kathy O'Malley, DHS' Area 3 child welfare liaison. ``Safety of the child is paramount.''

DHS officials and case workers repeatedly say that it's best to ``err on the side of the child.''

Kessler, however, said that often any error _ to leave a child with a parent or take a child out of a home _ ends up hurting children.

``When a child is needlessly thrown into foster care, he loses not only mom and dad but often brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers, friends and classmates,'' Kessler said.

He said the overwhelming number of kids being placed in foster care burdens the system.

``The more that workers are overwhelmed with children who don't need to be in foster care, the less time they have to find children in real danger,'' he said.