WASHINGTON – Scores of Maryland kids who ended up in foster care after their parents or caregivers were accused of sexual abuse were returned to their homes, some just days after the state deemed their households unsafe.
Of the 539 children who were in state care in 1999 because of claims of sex abuse at home, 59 were sent back to live with their primary guardians, according to a Capital News Service analysis of foster care data provided to the federal government.
In more than half of those cases, home problems other than sexual abuse — physical abuse, abandonment, neglect or alcohol and drug abuse by their caretakers — were also cited as reasons for removal.
Thirty-four of the children spent less than a year in foster care before they went back to their families.
Officials who work with Maryland’s foster care system — which handled 16,383 children in 1999 — said a short turnaround for a kid placed in foster care does not mean the child is being put back in an abusive home.
“If there is an investigation and the perpetrator is arrested and jailed, then there’s no reason to not consider reunification with mom, if mom hasn’t done the abuse and dad is gone,” said Claudietta Johnson, head of children and family services for Baltimore City’s Department of Social Services.
But child welfare advocates said kids might end up back in dangerous situations because the state sometimes bends to accommodate parents’ custody rights and gives them the “benefit of the doubt” after they have repeatedly mistreated their children.
“With a system that’s geared toward parents, they are going to have to return a child home,” said Amy Hill, interim child welfare director at Advocates for Children and Youth, a Maryland lobbying group.
“It would not be such a stretch to believe that some of the investigations might not be leaving kids in the best situations,” she said.
CNS examined the most recent data available 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 findings supported the state’s assertion that parental reunification is a priority. Caseworkers recommended that one-third of the 539 kids who might have been sexually exploited return to their primary guardians after a short stay in state care.
“We certainly believe that being with a biological parent, when it is a safe place, is the best place for the child to be,” said Elyn Garrett Jones, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources.
“But our No. 1 concern is always, first and foremost, the safety and well- being of children” she said, “even over the rights of parents.”
Carolyn Douglas, who runs Associated Catholic Charities’ family services center in Baltimore, agreed that even in cases where there has been substantiated physical or sexual abuse, family reunification is often the best option.
“For a lot of kids, the trauma isn’t so much around the allegation as it is around the separation,” Douglas said. “Even when a child has been seriously damaged at home, to leave it is traumatic. All of their energy gets put on dealing with the uncertainty in their lives, all these strangers who are taking care of them, being separated from their families.
“Their families are who they are,” she said. “That’s what they know.”
But Douglas, whose organization contracts with the state to place 125 children in foster homes, said there is not enough local infrastructure to provide counseling and other support services to families so kids return to corrected, healthy environments.
If the government intends to continue making parental unification a priority, it should secure more federal and local dollars to help abusive parents and mistreated children before they are reunited, Douglas said. It also should work to counter the root causes of sexual exploitation so children never wind up in foster care, she said.
“So often I feel that we’re just trying to keep up,” she said, “that we are still a little late and a little short.”
Advocates pointed to the number of kids who land in foster care more than once as a sign that the system does not always work properly. In 1999, 100 kids who ended up in foster homes because of alleged sexual abuse had previously been in state care — some as many as three times — although it could not be determined why they were removed the other times.
Incomplete state investigations of child abuse could lead to kids being returned to perilous situations. Advocates said social workers have too many cases to handle each one effectively, and too few doctors are qualified to determine whether a child has been abused and to testify about it in court.
Charlie Cooper, administrator of the state’s independent Citizens’ Review Board for Children, said this year’s tight state budget has frozen hundreds of human resources jobs. That means that as caseworkers quit or retire, co-workers have to take on additional cases.
“It’s probably going to get worse for a while before it gets better,” Cooper said.
Meanwhile, the state is trying to lower the ratio of cases to social workers to bring it in line with national standards. Jones said that although the legislature passed a bill two years ago to hire caseworkers, resources remain limited.
“That is a real issue and a concern for the state,” she said.
While Cooper said the foster care system generally serves children well, he has spent three years organizing a network of volunteers to analyze cases of child neglect and abuse.
Plans call for the board to check out 400 files a year to determine how the system handles a broad range of cases. It will focus on kids with multiple reports of abuse, those who enter foster care and very young children, and will make recommendations to state departments.
Because the group has only considered about 15 cases so far, Cooper could not cite any trends that seem problematic.
“We certainly do have concerns about whether investigations are thorough, and that’s why we wanted to do this,” he said.