Gaps In An Overburdened System Mean That Children In Foster Care Are Too Susceptible To Abuse

October 1, 2021

By Aara Ramesh

A year ago, last October, USA TODAY reported in a bombshell investigation that a foster father in Florida had been arrested in 2019 and had pleaded guilty to charges for rape, molestation, and producing and consuming child sexual abuse material, among others.

Rick Hazel and his wife Shirley were beloved in their community, and over a seven-year period had fostered more than 70 children in their house. In fact, they were the longest-serving foster parents in St. Augustine. It was only when one child came forward with rape allegations that the case came to light.

The case understandably prompted intense scrutiny and backlash when it emerged that caseworkers had not interviewed the children after they left the foster home, and thus had not uncovered the potential abuse years earlier. A system that was supposed to ensure constant check-ins, interviews, and reassessments of the children, parents, and those running facilities failed completely in this case, and possibly in others, the report found.

In addition, Rick Hazel’s foster file revealed a history of arrests and convictions on various drug, assault, child abuse, and drinking and driving charges, some of which were from before he was even approved to be a foster parent. It is unclear whether the allegations were unfounded, but the report states he was convicted or entered a plea for every charge against him, except one dropped marijuana charge. Per state regulations, the cases were apparently too old to disqualify him from becoming a foster parent.

The problem of abuse in the foster system is widespread and twofold. On one hand, children are removed from their biological families because of circumstances out of their control, usually involving something like abuse, neglect, or abandonment. On the other hand, they may be subjected to these same traumas even once they are removed, be at the hands of caseworkers, in some situations, or their foster and/or adoptive families.

In the latter situation, the kind of abuse foster children face can include sexual abuse, molestation, and harassment; overcrowding; verbal and mental abuse; being hit, burned, or locked in confined spaces; starvation; etc. This is an up-hill battle in many ways, as predators are especially canny in identifying vulnerable children and those who may not have any other recourse, such as runaways or those in foster care. Further, fostering may seem like an enticing money-making route for some, as states generally provide some basic form of non-taxable financial assistance for the wellbeing of the foster child.

In today’s piece, we take a look at the loopholes in the child welfare system that can lead to children being abused and how these can be potentially rectified.

How Widespread Is The Abuse?

Says Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, “The rate of abuse in foster care is much worse than official statistics suggest.”

The Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) itself estimates that around “700 to 800 kids have been abused in out-of-home care each year since 2015,” per the report from USA Today. These statistics, however, only include the complaints that are fully verified, not the ones that were deemed partially verified or inconclusive. Further, there is a feeling that the rate of abuse seems to be falling only because the number of foster care placements has been increasing. In analyzing a University of Miami database of child placements, USA TODAY reporters found that more than 600 children had spent some time in the homes of foster parents accused of abuse. 

One John Hopkins University study found that children in foster care in Mayland are four times more likely to be sexually abused than their peers “not in this setting,” with those in group homes being 28 times more likely to face abuse. Another investigation in Oregon and Washington state said that almost one-third of foster children reported abuse by a foster parent or another adult in the home. One estimate from 2013 said that over half of all the children recovered from sex trafficking situations by the FBI were from foster care or group homes.

Damningly, after examining reports of abuse in New Jersey foster homes, one set of researchers concluded that “no assurances can be given” that any foster child in the state is safe. A separate study in the state also found that 37.4% of those who abused children in foster care were institution staff, while 36.5% were foster parents and 20% were relatives of the victim. 

One investigation by the Arizona Republic highlighted that states routinely under-report abuse data to the federal Children’s Bureau. For instance, the report says, in 2014, all 46 of the states that submitted data said that less than 2% of children in foster care had been harmed in the prior year. But surveys repeatedly dispute that claim, showing that anywhere between 25% and 40% of former foster children reported having been abused or neglected while in care.

Last month, Texas was grappling with a state-wide scandal involving unlicensed facilities, wherein children were given the wrong medication for their illnesses, or were deprived of medications altogether; child-on-child sexual abuse was rampant; runaways were common, as was communicating with sex traffickers; young children were being restrained or handcuffed; children were engaging in self-harm or attempting to commit suicide through hanging, cutting themselves, or investing harmful cleaning chemicals.

One official state report found that during the first half of 2021, around 500 children had spent at least one night in a non-licensed state-operated placement. Further, “on average, children spent two weeks consecutively in unlicensed placements, with one child spending 144 consecutive nights in such placements.”

Similarly, West Virginia was struggling with abuse and neglect complaints at out-of-state facilities the state paid to care for foster kids, and in fact, renewed contracts despite internal investigations revealing abuse. 

In a particularly egregious and extreme example, just a few days ago, two foster parents were arrested in Louisiana on second degree murder charges after the 17-month-old baby girl in their custody died after she was repeatedly shaken and struck.

Children can also face abuse from other parts of the system, like from state or private child welfare organization employees. For instance, in February 2021, a former caseworker with New Jersey’s child protection agency pled guilty to charges of producing child pornography with an underage boy between March 2017 and April 2019. Court documents said the man “did knowingly employ, use, persuade, induce, entice or coerce” the victim to “engage in sexually explicit conduct.”

The U.S. Foster Care And Adoption System In Numbers

A child is removed from their biological family and placed into adoption or foster care only in the most dire of circumstances. It is in a child’s best interests to remain in a stable household instead of moving repeatedly between foster families, group homes, and/or institutions. The preferred outcome is for children to be reunited with their biological parents in a stable household whenever possible, but the next best case scenario is for them to be in a stable home with other relatives or in an adopted family.

Part of the increase in the number of children in foster care and looking at being adopted is the opioid crisis, which ravaged communities all across the country, hitting Appalachia and Native American tribes the hardest, and which is now disproportionately targeting Black communities.

Per the latest available preliminary data from the Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families (ACF), which looks at the 2019 financial year, there were 423,997 in foster care as of Sept. 30, and around 251,359 entered foster care over the course of the financial year. The mean age of the children was 8.4 years old; 52% were male and 48% were female. Racially, 23% were Black, 2% were American Indian/Alaska Native, and 44% were white.

Of those who entered the system in 2019, 63% did so due to neglect, 34% due to parental drug abuse, and 7% due to parental incarceration. The average time a child spent in care was 19.6 months. ACF reports that between the 2012 and 2017 financial years, the numbers of children in care on the last day of each fiscal year increased. Well over 80,000 children in the system lived in institutions, group homes, and other environments, instead of with a foster family.

​​Image source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau

The issue of adoption has wide-ranging effects on society. Per some estimates, just under one in every three Americans has some experience with adoption in their immediate family, while six in every ten say they have a personal experience adoption, “meaning that they themselves, a family member, or a close friend was adopted, had adopted a child, or had placed a child for adoption.” Further, more than one-third of all Americans have considered adoption themselves. 

Discounting private and intercountry adoptions, the government says the number of children waiting to be adopted from the foster care system has increased over the last ten years. Around 140,000 children are adopted by American families each year. Excluding step-parent adoptions, over half (59%) of the adoptions were made from the child welfare system. Per a 2012 report from the U.S. Children’s Bureau, between 1% and 5% of all adoptions fail, leading to kids ending up back in the foster care system.

The Vetting Process

The choice of a foster or adoptive parents is imperative and crucial to children who have been removed from their biological homes as a result of serious abuse, neglect, and trauma. For them to develop fully on a mental and physical level, they need to be placed in a good home with well-trained and well-equipped caregivers.

With children being so vulnerable, it is no surprise that there are stringent laws and requirements in place for anyone who wants to foster or adopt a child, or — for that matter — anyone who wants to work in an area involving child welfare, be it social workers, teachers, childcare facilities, juvenile detention or correctional centers, nurseries, and sometimes with mentorship or youth programs as well. There are some specific felony convictions that authorities are on the lookout for, such as physical assault, child neglect, drug abuse, child abuse, etc.

The federal government, as well those in states, localities, and territories, have their own standards for background checks for prospective adoptive and foster parents. Many also require that any other adult living in the house also have a background check done, with some requiring one of anyone in the house over the age of 12.

The background check process includes criminal record checks and fingerprint-based checks of national crime information databases. This is done on the local, state, and federal level. Further, some states could also require a check of any child abuse and neglect registry, juvenile court records, incident reports of domestic violence, and any sex offender registry. In some states, authorities may even check Tribal and/or military records for offenses. Some require it for the state the family is currently living in and any other state they have lived in for the last five years, others may ask for it from any state the individual has ever lived in.

There are multiple levels of official and unofficial checks that are done throughout the process, apart from just the criminal record check. These include confidential references; family assessments; and home safety checks, all of which must be done before the license is issued and a child placed within the home. Usually, the checks need to be done before a child can be placed in the home and they apply regardless of whether the child is being placed with a non-related foster family or with kinship caregivers. 

The Gaps In The System

The functioning of the child welfare system involves a large number of people, from the families and children themselves, to law enforcement, the criminal justice system, child protective services employees, etc. Experts say, however, that many of these individual systems are overstretched and suffer from a lack of resources. In this intricate system, it’s easy for things to slip through the cracks.

For instance, social workers can have anywhere between a handful and up to 30 cases to manage at a time, depending on the location. Social work is also an area that suffers a high employee turnover rate, causing even more strain on new and old employees. Though most jurisdictions require caseworkers to visit the houses roughly once a month, there are a not-inconsiderable number of reports of caseworkers only being able to visit once every few months, sometimes stretching up to a year. One study found that in West Virginia, 40% of foster parents surveyed said their official caseworker visited the child only every three months or less frequently.

Similarly, law enforcement may also be understaffed, and the public attorney assigned to a child could themselves be dealing with up to 100 clients at a time. Similarly, due to a lack of prospective families willing to foster or adopt a child, those that do often have multiple children to take care of at any given time. Group homes and institutions, too, suffer from resource crunches.

In theory, background checks are supposed to be a frequent process, but in reality, it is periodic at best. There is the initial qualifying check itself, and after that whenever a license needs to be renewed, which could range in duration, from a year to sometimes even longer. Individuals are also theoretically supposed self-report any major life changes, like if they are shifting homes, have their own biological child, an immediate family member dies, etc.

However, it is important to note that in most cases it is only disqualifying if a person is convicted of a felony in certain specific categories, not if they have been arrested or accused, if the charges were dropped or dismissed, or — in some cases — not even if a plea agreement was reached.

So theoretically, a person can be arrested and then still have custody of a child for up to a year before the issue comes to light, if it ever does — a situation that is beyond troubling to all involved in child welfare.

What Can We Do?

There is no doubt that the foster care system is crucial. Children do need a place to stay that they will be safe in while their biological families recover from whatever adversities they may be facing. But experts say the current system of self-reporting from children and families is simply not good enough.

For instance, they point out, children may not want to speak up out of fear that they may be removed from a place where they are somewhat comfortable or semi-stable, or if they are worried about going to a group home, or if they have been placed with family and don’t want to be separated. As the Rick Hazel case shows, parents cannot be trusted to self report, nor can the system of occasional background checks suffice. 

It is hard to allocate blame or say anyone is at fault here. The system is overstretched and understaffed across the board, employees are overworked, there are not enough families willing to take in children, and the number of kids in the system is only likely to grow, what with factors like the opioid epidemic and the Covid-19 pandemic, which has left a shocking number of children without a primary caregiver.

Like with everything else, of course, Covid-10 has only exacerbated the situation, further burdening an already broken and struggling system. Lockdowns and school closures have cut children off from non-caregiving adults who may have been able to spot signs of abuse or neglect. Further, foster families have faced increased economic hardship and potentially unemployment. Doctor visits have transitioned online as well, cutting off another avenue for abused children. Even case workers are less able to visit homes and conduct their inspections and assessments. Families, too, have been cut off from support systems, training, peers, and resources, aggravating their stress. Private and non-profit organizations dedicated to child welfare may have been bankrupted or forced to shut down due to the economic downturn or a loss of funding.

It seems, then, that there is a need for real-time, technology-driven updates on changes in employees’ and foster families’ criminal status, one that does not require a concerned person to seek out information, and one that does not rely on a period system to catch changes. This is true for the welfare of the children in the system, who are each of them vulnerable, and it is especially true in cases involving developmental disabilities or abuse from a biological family. 

You can find full vetting requirements, on a state-by-state basis (updated as of Sept. 2018) here