Monday, May 24, 2010

The most common lie in child welfare (It’s the one about the rate of abuse in foster care)

I have a question for the child welfare professionals reading this blog.

Suppose, hypothetically, you could gather in one room 200 former foster children, all of whom had been in foster care for up to one year. Suppose all of them felt free to give open, honest answers to any question you asked them. And suppose you asked them this: "How many of you were abused while you were in foster care?"

How many of you child welfare professionals would expect that only one of those 200 former foster children would raise her or his hand?

Of course you wouldn't expect that. You know the very idea that only one in 200 former children is abused in foster care is absurd. Indeed, this oft-repeated claim may be the most common lie in American Child Welfare. So why do some of you, and you know who you are, keep perpetuating that lie when you talk to the press and the public?

The people who make this claim don't put it in a way which makes the notion so obviously preposterous, of course. Typically, they obscure the absurdity by using percentages.

One child welfare agency chief recently told a legislative committee, presumably with a straight face, that more than 99.5 percent of the foster children in his state were not abused in foster care in the past year. That's the equivalent of one foster child in 200.

It's not that he made up the number out of whole cloth. Rather, this is the number of cases where his own agency was made aware of an abuse allegation in foster care and substantiated it.

The problem here should be obvious.


When a child welfare agency investigates an allegation of abuse in foster care it is, in effect, investigating itself. Even though an employee of the agency didn't inflict the abuse, the agency chose the foster parent who did or placed the child in the group home or institution where a staffer did it, or put the child in the placement where another foster child did it. So there is an enormous incentive to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, and write no evil in the case file.

Contrast this kind of official figure to what former foster child Rose Garland said on the PBS series Frontline:

I know that there are good foster families out there, OK? But I also know that every foster kid that I have ever talked to, including myself, have been abused in foster homes. And I'm talking physically, emotionally and sexually.

Or consider what Marcia Lowry, who runs the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights – a group that has proven itself over and over to be profoundly hostile to family preservation - recently told the Philadelphia Daily News:

I've been doing this work for a long time and represented thousands and thousands of foster children, both in class-action lawsuits and individually, and I have almost never seen a child, boy or girl, who has been in foster care for any length of time who has not been sexually abused in some way, whether it is child-on-child or not.


But that's just "anecdotal evidence." What does the research tell us? It tells us that the official figures are b------t.

Except as noted, the studies below define foster care generically – that is they include group homes and institutions. So don't think for a moment that the problem can be avoided by going back to the orphanage. On the contrary, when studies are limited to institutions, the rate of abuse tends to be even worse.


· A study of reported abuse in Baltimore, found the rate of "substantiated" cases of sexual abuse in foster care more than four times higher than the rate in the general population.
(Mary I. Benedict and Susan Zuravin, Factors Associated With Child Maltreatment by Family Foster Care Providers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health, June 30, 1992)).

· Using the same methodology, an Indiana study found three times more physical abuse and twice the rate of sexual abuse in foster homes than in the general population. In group homes there was more than ten times the rate of physical abuse and more than 28 times the rate of sexual abuse as in the general population, in part because so many children in the homes abused each other. (William Spencer and Dean D. Kundsen, "Out of Home Maltreatment: An Analysis of Risk in Various Settings for Children," Children And Youth Services Review Vol. 14, pp. 485-492, 1992).

· A study of foster children in Oregon and Washington State found that nearly one third reported being abused by a foster parent or another adult in a foster home. The study did not even ask about one of the most common forms of abuse in foster care, foster children abusing each other. (Peter Pecora, et. al., Improving Family Foster Care: Findings from the Northwest Foster Care Alumni Study (Seattle: Casey Family Programs, 2005). And see our full analysis of this study here).

· Another Baltimore study, this one examining case records, found abuse in 28 percent of the foster homes studied more than one in four. (Memorandum and Order of Judge Joseph G. Howard, L.J. v.
Massinga, United States District Court for the District of Maryland, July 27, 1987.)

· A study of cases in metropolitan Atlanta found that among children whose case goal was adoption, 34 percent had experienced abuse, neglect, or other harmful conditions. For those children who had recently entered the system, 15 percent had experienced abuse, neglect or other harmful conditions in just one year – that's 30 times the widely-quoted official figure. (Children's Rights, Inc., "Expert research report finds children still unsafe in Fulton and DeKalb foster care," press release, Nov. 5, 2004.)

· Even what is said to be a model foster care program, where caseloads are kept low and workers and foster parents get special training, is not immune. When alumni of the Casey Family Program were interviewed, 24 percent of the girls said they were victims of actual or attempted sexual abuse in foster care. Furthermore, this study asked only about abuse in the one foster home the children had been in the longest. A case in which a child quickly was moved from a foster home precisely because she was abused there wouldn't even be counted. (David Fanshel, et. al., Foster Children in a Life Course Perspective (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p.90.) Officials at the program say they have since lowered the rate of all forms of abuse to "only" 12 percent, but this is based on an in-house survey of the program's own caseworkers, not outside interviews with the children themselves. (How Are The Children Doing? Assessing Youth Outcomes in Family Foster Care. (Seattle: Casey Family Program, 1998)).

Except for part of the Atlanta study, these studies sometimes ask if children had been abused at any point during their time in foster care, while the official rates are for one year only. An apples-to-apples comparison would require doubling or tripling the official figure, since the average length of stay in foster care is 27.2 months. But that still leaves an official rate that vastly underestimates the real rate of abuse in foster care.

This does not mean that all, or even many, foster parents are abusive. The overwhelming majority do the best they can for the children in their care -- like the overwhelming majority of parents, period. But the abusive minority is large enough to cause serious concern. And abuse in foster care does not always mean abuse by foster parents. As noted above, it also can mean foster children abusing each other.

If some people who run child welfare agencies or child advocacy organizations and use the absurdly low official figures for abuse in foster care don't know about this research, then they are inexcusably ignorant. If they do know, and quote the official figures anyway, then they need to stop lying.