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Panel Laments the Growing Ranks of 'Discarded' Children

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Washington--Nearly half a million children currently live in foster homes, hospitals, and detention facilities, and their number could reach 840,000 by 1995, according to a Congressional panel.

Poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, child abuse, and weak federal policies are "propelling children into out-of-home care at an escalating rate," concludes a report by the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families.

"Social and economic conditions are hurting large numbers of American families in ways that our current child-welfare, mental-health, and juvenile-justice systems were not created and are ill-prepared to address," says the report, "No Place To Call Home: Discarded Children in America."

It notes that many troubled children lack access to services and that judges, probation officers, and social workers are overwhelmed by large caseloads.

Preventive services are "rarely available," the report argues, adding that few workers or foster parents are trained "to deal with the complex and difficult problems confronting chil4dren and families today."

The report also charges that children's services are not coordinated and that federal oversight is weak.

Despite advancements in foster care resulting from passage of a "landmark" reform measure in 1980, "our new study documents that the system has not kept pace with worsening conditions," said Representative George Miller, the California Democrat who chairs the committee.

The report, released last month, found that:

Foster-care rolls, which account for the largest share of children placed outside their homes, grew by 23 percent between 1985 and 1988, from 276,300 to 340,300.

The number of children placed in foster care more than once nearly doubled between 1983 and 1985, and there has been no significant progress in reducing the average of two years that children remain in foster care.

The number of youths held in public and private juvenile facilities increased by 27 percent between 1979 and 1987, from 71,922 to 91,646.

The proportion of children in fos8ter care who entered before the age of 6 increased from 37 percent in 1985 to 42 percent in 1988.

Between 1983 and 1986, there was a 60 percent increase in the number of children under 18 placed in the mental-health-care system.

The 46 percent of foster-care children who are members of minority groups is more than twice the proportion of minorities in the nation's total child population.

The report also indicates that increases in the rate of drug abuse by parents and in the number of infants born exposed to drugs have added to the ranks of neglected and abandoned children in recent years.

In New York State, for example, crack use was identified in nearly 9,000 cases of child neglect in 1988--more than three times the number in 1986. In the District of Columbia, more than 80 percent of the reported cases of child abuse and neglect involved substance abuse, the report says.

The report faults the federal government for what it describes as a lack of leadership and oversight and a failure to adequately fund programs that provide support forel10lchild-welfare, juvenile-justice, mental-health, and foster-care services.

Some funding mechanisms even provide "disincentives to keeping families together," the study contends, adding that "weak federal monitoring and oversight have undermined implementation" of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980.

"Family preservation" programs providing intensive services in the home are the most successful, the report argues, but are "far too limited in number and extent."

In dissenting views, the committee's 12 Republican members disagreed with the report's projection that out-of-home placements will reach 840,000, which they said was based on a "fatally flawed" selection of data.

While acknowledging that such placements are increasing and that "just one child in foster care is too many," the dissenting members raised the concern "that the [majority's] numbers are so unreliable that the message will be dismissed."

The Republicans also took issue with the view that federal policies have contributed to the problem, citing family dissolution and a "devaluation of human life" as root causes.

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