WASHINGTON – Disabled children in Maryland were less likely than other foster children to be placed with relatives, more likely to be set on a course of long-term foster care and slightly more likely to end up in group homes or institutions in 1998.
The disparity was particularly stark when comparing children with emotional disabilities to other kids in foster care, according to a Capital News Service analysis of 1998 foster care data provided to the federal government. Children with emotional disabilities made up the vast majority of foster kids who were categorized as disabled.
Child welfare advocates cautioned that the numbers do not tell the whole story and that many emotionally disabled youths are getting the intensive care they need. But they conceded that the care of disabled youths is generally more complex.
“It’s more difficult to care for a disabled child,” said Sue Fitzsimmons, spokeswoman for Baltimore City’s Department of Social Services. “It’s not that that’s our plan, it’s whether there’s a relative who’s able to care for the child, and the answer is sometimes no.”
Capital News Service analyzed data from the federal Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System released by the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect at Cornell University. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has required states to provide the data since 1998.
The data show that 16,186 children touched Maryland’s foster care system that year, including children already in care and those who entered or left the system during the fiscal year.
In that year, 19 percent of Maryland’s foster kids were categorized as having a disability, ranging from mental retardation to physical handicaps. Of the disabled children, more than 2,000, or 70 percent, had diagnoses including emotional impairment.
The CNS analysis showed that non-disabled children were more than five times as likely to be staying with relatives as emotionally disabled children. Placement with a relative is typically the first option foster care workers seek in their effort to find the “least-restrictive” setting for children.
While 33 percent of non-disabled children were living with grandmothers and the like, only 6.5 percent of children with emotional disabilities were with relatives, according to the database, which recorded the most recent placement for the child in that year.
Children with disabilities other than emotional problems fell between the two groups, with about 16 percent of them being placed with relatives in 1998.
State and local officials say this is not at all surprising.
“Relatives are not necessarily going to be able to take a kid with special needs,” said Lois Mannes, child welfare administrator for Frederick County. “The relatives are going to say, `Well, I’ll take little Johnny and I’ll take little Suzy, but I’m not going to take the 14-year-old who’s acting out.'”
The data also showed that while about 7 percent of non-disabled children were in group homes or institutions, just under 30 percent of kids with emotional disabilities had such placements, as did 12 percent of those with other disabilities.
But advocates — who note that they are required to put children in the least-restrictive setting — said that those who showed up as being in a group home or institution may actually have been in “treatment foster homes” with families that were specially trained to deal with disabled kids.
Officials are proud of the care kids receive in those homes, where one parent must always be available to respond to problems that arise, such as school crises, and both parents are trained to handle special emotional or medical needs.
Because there is no category for treatment foster homes in the database, however, the advocates suggested that those kids may have been erroneously lumped in with the institutional and group home placements.
The data also showed that the system was more likely to determine that long-term foster care was the best option for emotionally disabled kids, who had that as a goal in 28 percent of their cases. That was the goal for 17 percent of children with other disabilities and 12 percent of all others.
Emotionally disabled children were steered toward reunification with their families in 25 percent of the cases, compared to 36 percent of the time for all other children, including children with other disabilities.
But advocates caution that age could account for some of the disparity in planning and placement of foster kids. Older children are more likely to be placed in group homes and to be on track for long-term foster care, they said, while caseworkers are reluctant to place young children in non-family settings.
“Permanent foster care for a 6-year-old, that’s a failure,” said Judith Schagrin, Baltimore County’s assistant director for children’s services.
The 1998 data suggests that age is indeed a factor in some of the findings: Children whose problems included emotional disabilities were, on average, 4.5 years older than non-disabled children and 6.5 years older than children with other disabilities.
That can be part of a vicious cycle, said Schagrin.
“Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” she asked of emotionally disabled children in the system. “Were they emotionally disturbed before they came into foster care? . . .I think it feeds on itself.”
Jim McComb, the director of the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth, agreed that the difficulties faced by kids with emotional disabilities can make the situation even worse for them.
“As kids get older, and when they did not get what they needed, behavior becomes the issue,” he said.
“It’s extremely difficult to arrange adoption for kids in their teen-age years, particularly those with a history of behavior problems,” he said. “With every passing moment, as kids get older, the chances for adoption fade.”
Age can also compound the difficulty in finding both foster care placements and adoptive homes, officials said.
“We like to say that every child is adoptable, but there’s a reality to it,” said Hetty Fanfani, Howard County’s supervisor for foster care services. “There aren’t too many families out there, and God bless those who are, who are willing to take an acting-out 15-year-old forever.”
Still, officials said they do everything they can to find these children permanent homes.
“We do a lot of work trying to get people to know who they are,” said Stephanie Pettaway, adoption manager for the Maryland Department of Human Resources. “They might have a diagnosis . . . but they’re just regular children.”