Friday, September 19, 2008

EDITORIAL >>The shame of foster care

If you are young and vulnerable, the state can be a welcome nanny, unless you happen to be in Arkansas. Then your trouble may be only beginning.

After a spring and summer of serial revelations of death and abuse of children under the state’s care, Gov. Beebe and the state Human Services Department have begun a “top-to-bottom review” of the foster-care system. It is a tepid response to a sickening scandal, but we are at a loss to know what else ought to be done, although the firing of everyone running the program sounds like a good option. The governor assures us that he has not been heedless of the horrors and is trying to fix the system.

Four children died in the care of state-chosen foster parents in May and June. The State Police opened a criminal investigation of the deaths, and a Eudora woman has been charged with first-degree battery for assaulting the 22-month-old girl who died in the family’s care.

The agency acknowledged that the foster-care system had serious breakdowns after a Bella Vista man was convicted of molesting foster children in his care and producing child pornography. The children would run away, only to be returned by the state agency despite their complaints that they had been abused. The foster father, after all, had told state officials what they wanted to hear, which was that he had got a message from God telling him that he should be a foster parent.

The scandal, sadly, is nothing new. For many years, through one administration after another going back to the time of Gov. Orval E. Faubus, the state’s children’s programs have been a recurring spectacle of abuse and neglect. Some of it may be overwork, a small cadre of caseworkers being stretched beyond their abilities by the load. Each caseworker has twice the number of children than is ideal, said the director of the Division of Children and Family Services. That is always the bureaucratic explanation, but it may be some of the problem. That is something that the governor can fix.

Part of the problem is that precious few people want to be the guardians of neglected and wayward children so the state turns to the same people, who often take children for the cash supplement that the state provides or for even more invidious reasons.

There are always people who want to make the situation even worse. Religious fundamentalists have put an initiated law on the general-election ballot to forever prevent gay and straight unmarried couples from either adopting homeless children or serving as foster parents, no matter their qualifications and earnestness.

Defeating that mean and bigoted initiative is a step that we can all take to help these children.