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Saving the Children: Orphaned and Abused Children

Despite billions of dollars and decades of reform efforts, many states still struggle to deal with orphaned and abused children and their problems. Tom Bearden reports.

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  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Any good memories in here?

  • ERIKA LAMB:

    In here? I don't think so.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    This notebook represents Erika Lamb's childhood. It's full of papers from Tennessee's Department of Children's Services, or DCS. It tells the story of a child who, along with seven siblings, was taken away from her parents because of violence in the home. She was put into foster care, which is supposed to be a temporary haven for children in unsafe conditions. But Lamb complains she was shuffled around the foster care system for the next seven years.

  • ERICA LAMB:

    They ruined my childhood. I never had a childhood. I felt like they sheltered me and fed me, but they did not give me what I needed, you know? I needed… I'm a type of person, I have to talk. I love to talk, and they didn't talk, they didn't…

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    When she was 14, Lamb says she was drugged and raped by one of her former foster fathers, who also served as her state-sanctioned sponsor. Lamb says DCS officials were unresponsive when she told them she was raped.

  • ERICA LAMB:

    Well, I think there's a lot of dirty garbage behind it that they just didn't want to bring out because it was going to make them look bad in the end, not me. And nothing was ever done about my case until after I turned 18– my rape case.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Four years later, Lamb, who now studies photography and works full time, received a victim's compensation check for $2,000, even though charges are still pending against the perpetrator. Nationwide, almost 600,000 kids like Erica Lamb are now in foster care. That's triple the amount from 20 years ago. Despite billions of dollars and decades of reform efforts, many states are still struggling to deal with abused children. In 1997, President Clinton signed the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which mandated that states had to move kids out of foster care within 15 months, either on to adoption or back to their biological parents. The federal government already provides states $7 billion each year to help them run their child welfare programs. This year, for the first time in more than six years, those funds are being audited. But advocacy groups say many child welfare agencies are run so poorly run that it takes lawsuits to force meaningful change. In fact, half the states' agencies are currently under court supervision.

  • SPOKESPERSON:

    There's going to be serious enforcement activity. There's just no question.

  • MAN:

    In a very real way.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Marcia Robinson Lowry runs Children's Rights, an advocacy group. She's working with lawyers to press a class action suit on behalf of over 10,000 kids in foster care in Tennessee.

  • MARCIA ROBINSON LOWRY:

    This is an incredibly chaotic foster care system. When you look at the impact on children though, it is one of the worst we have seen. For example, about a quarter of the kids have been in ten or more different foster care placements. One little girl that we represent was in foster care for eight years from birth, had no contact with her mother, didn't get adopted, did not see her caseworker hardly at all for the entire eight years. Now, how is that kid ever going to have a permanent home? Those are the kinds of problems that are being inflicted on children in this state with public money.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Juanita Vesey says the two kids who live in this house are prime examples of a system that doesn't work. Five-year-old Charlotte, who is part of the lawsuit, and her nine-year-old brother, John, came to this foster home after half a dozen other placements.

  • JAUNITA VESSY:

    Both children were sexually abused and physically abused when they came into care. The mother was a prostitute, and not only were they sexually abused by the mother, but also some of her clients. The children were placed in foster care, then they were returned back to the mother, where they were resexually abused again, placed back in foster care, and then returned to relative placements, where they were sexually abused by the grandparents and the uncle in the home.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Their foster mother, who was fearful of revealing her identity because of complaints she has against the state, says the kids have serious problems

  • TENNESSEE FOSTER MOTHER:

    Inappropriate words, inappropriate acting out, slashing himself at school and at home, and breaking glass, holding it to his neck.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    How about his sister? What's her behavior like?

  • TENNESSEE FOSTER MOTHER:

    She seemed to have had more problem ongoing with… Not acting out; in a sexual way, with her brother or just with men.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    She says the state provided inadequate and inconsistent help, and for the last two years, ignored her request for information on how she could adopt the children she'd grown to love in spite of their behavior.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Can you cope with having them permanently in your home if you don't get the kind of assistance that you'd like to get?

  • TENNESSEE FOSTER MOTHER:

    Absolutely not. There is no way that we have the tools to handle these types of behaviors.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Finally, the day before our interview, she reluctantly asked the state to take custody of the boy because he was out of control.

  • MARCIA ROBINSON LOWRY:

    The damage that we do to these children and into their adulthood is really devastating, and it's things that people can't come back from. And it doesn't need to happen, and that's what's so awful about it. It doesn't need to happen.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Lowry and children's rights are demanding a complete overhaul of the Tennessee system.

  • MARCIA ROBINSON LOWRY:

    What we're really asking for is that the specific problems that are hurting children in this state be fixed; that there be a good system of accountability. What we've asked for in this particular case is that an expert panel be appointed to prepare a plan for this state.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    The Department of Children's Services would not consent to an interview because of the ongoing litigation. But Michael McSurdy, who acts as a consultant for the state, thinks DCS is doing the best it can.

  • MICHAEL McSURDY:

    I think that, you know, when you're dealing with, at any given time, 11,000 children in our system– probably in a year we provide services for approaching 20,000 children– unfortunately there are going to be the cases that aren't good news. I don't think it's the norm, though.

  • SPOKESPERSON:

    Hopefully there will be a period of trying the new plan and getting feedback from the regions.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    After the threat of the lawsuit, the state hired Carolyn Hill of the Child Welfare League, an organization that regularly works with states trying to reform their programs. She says DCS is working hard to improve the system, and that lawsuits are not the best way to do that.

  • CAROLYN HILL:

    It's clear that there are systemic reforms needed. It's also clear that the department is well on their way in addressing those. There are more effective means to bringing about the system reforms that we'd like to see, whether it's Tennessee or any other state.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    But plaintiffs in Tennessee point to Jackson County, Missouri, where e similar class-action suit has made an enormous difference.

  • WOMAN:

    They go away when the snow melts.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Lori and Randy Ross live in Jackson County, just outside of Kansas City. More than 150 foster kids have received their love and care over the past 16 years, including many who have suffered severe physical or sexual abuse, or had other disabilities.

  • SPOKESPERSON:

    Fine, I don't care.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Currently they have 13 biological, adopted, and foster children in their home. The Missouri lawsuit was settled in 1977, but the Rosses say it had little effect until 1994, when the courts finally ordered the state to comply with the consent decree. It forced the system to weed out bad foster parents, and support good ones.

  • LORI ROSS:

    Foster parents can be a parent if they have the support and services that they need; if they have the relationship with the state agency that they need to have; if they can work closely with that child's birth parents, or help that child move on to adoptive parents, or make a commitment for adoption themselves. That's what they need. Kids need permanence.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Since the consent decree, the state has set up procedures to make sure those relationships happen. Sheila Agniel is part of a monitoring committee that implements those procedures.

  • SHEILA AGNIEL:

    So these services are in fact being provided then by the school district and not DFS.

  • WOMAN:

    They're supplied by the school district.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Everyone involved in the child's life is interviewed to determine whether kids are getting adequate care.

  • SPOKESPERSON:

    What the report says is that the school districts don't deal well with foster children.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Agniel submits reports to a quality assurance committee that makes recommendations to the Department of Family Services. As a result of those recommendations, foster parents now get more extensive training.

  • WOMAN:

    Sometimes these children have been very badly abused by their birth families.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    And biological parents whose children are in foster care get therapy sessions designed to prepare them to care for their kids rather than lose them to adoption.

  • WOMAN:

    How are you going to know the difference between what is normal sexual exploration and child-to-child sexual abuse?

  • PARENT:

    Force…

  • WOMAN:

    If one child forces the other child?

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    An entire unit is now devoted to matching kids with adoptive parents, trying to comply with the 15-month federal deadline for moving kids out of the system. Randy and Lori Ross had just adopted three-year-old Jimmy on the day we visited.

  • JIMMY:

    Mommy, give me a chocolate chip cookie.

  • LORI ROSS:

    No.

  • JIMMY:

    Why?

  • LORI ROSS:

    Because it's almost dinnertime.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    They say he'll be much better off with his family status firmly resolved, instead of being in foster care limbo during his formative years.

  • LORI ROSS:

    It used to be that in foster care, children could be in a foster home without permanence for years. We had children in our home for five years that then ended up going back with their birth mother. That situation doesn't happen anymore.

  • RANDY ROSS:

    We've had kids that had been in foster homes, six or seven different foster homes in a year, if not more.

  • LORI ROSS:

    And that is not common anymore. In general we're doing a lot better job of finding families for kids and getting them in families more quickly, and that gives them a better chance in life.

  • WOMAN:

    Sam says good-night and goes to bed.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Most child welfare advocates hope that a combination of more money, more attention, and when necessary, lawsuits, will help spread Missouri's success to the rest of the nation.

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