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It's All About the Children

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Foster care succeeds in Illinois because state and private agencies cooperate. But it stumbles in Kansas, where private contractors run the program.

By Clyde Weiss

Springfield, Illinois

Two years have passed since the nightmarish Saturday in May when child-welfare investigator Barbara Brundige rushed to a local hospital.

A mother of four had been stabbed by her estranged husband. When Brundige arrived at the emergency room, she recalls, "Security people took me aside and told me that the mother had already died" and that her husband was himself in surgery for a self-inflicted knife wound. Their children — two of whom bore wounds from a struggle to save their mother — did not yet know she was dead.

Declared one child, a nine-year-old boy: "She's got to be okay because tomorrow's Mother's Day." Brundige, a member (and steward) of AFSCME Local 805 (Council 31), recoils at the memory: "It was just awful."

The dilemma that faced the state foster-care worker was soon clear. The youngsters, 4 to 11 years old, had no in-state relatives to stay with except those of their father — no good. Complicating matters, Brundige could not locate a foster home where the children could be placed together and, she says, "I couldn't imagine anything worse than separating the kids in such a grievous time."

Temporary living arrangements were made until foster-care workers and a local judge found a more permanent solution — a family friend — to keep the children together. That first night, still reeling from the emotional roller coaster she had been on, Brundige confronted her own feelings. She asked herself, "How do I deal with this?"

Her answer speaks volumes about the people who work in foster-care and child-welfare services. She says simply: "You have to be able to give of yourself."

Along with some 3,000 AFSCME-represented public foster-care and child-welfare workers throughout Illinois, Brundige and 50 colleagues at the Springfield office of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) are doing just that every day: giving of themselves as they perform an often difficult and sometimes thankless job.

Illinois is a leading example of a state that has found success in providing foster-care and adoption services through a public/private partnership. Rather than learn from that example, however, one state — Kansas — has dumped responsibility for its displaced children almost entirely on the private sector, only to see the experiment fall into a morass of financial troubles that have led to a crisis in confidence. Tossing fate to the wind, Florida intends to fully privatize foster care in 2003.

Both Kansas and Florida should look closer at the child-welfare system in Illinois.

 

A solid success

 

 

Returning children safely to their parents, or finding qualified and loving parents to adopt them or serve as foster families, is the goal of these Illinois public employees. Judging from the numbers, they have done well reaching those objectives.

The number of children in the state's child welfare system grew rapidly during the 1990s, reaching a peak in 1997 of 51,331. But that number declined substantially as staff carried out a number of agency reforms including an improved system to assess family problems and an increased emphasis on faster services and referrals. The state also retained its caseworkers even as the number of cases shrunk. For the private sector, Illinois instituted performance-based contracting in 1998. Providers received increased fees, but had to more than triple the number of permanent placements and meet other goals.

By March 2001, the number of children living in foster homes and other substitute care arrangements — state and privately operated — was down to 28,397.

About 30 percent of those in foster care last fiscal year were moved into permanent adoptive homes or reunified with their biological families. "We have been very successful leading the nation in adoptions," says David Morris, a family development specialist and president of Local 805 in Springfield.

The efforts of DCFS employees to improve performance and meet established foster-care standards have been rewarded. In 2000, Illinois became the second state to be accredited by the Council on Accreditation for Children and Family Services. DCFS Director Jess McDonald praised the employees: "They're the ones that turned this place around."

Foster care, adds McDonald, is "the most difficult work in all of human services." But its many challenges haven't discouraged Mary Boltz, one of 12 investigators in the Springfield office, who works exclusively with sexually abused children. "I always knew this is what I wanted to do since I was a little girl."

Boltz, who is also a union steward, said she got into investigations to escape the flood of forms and other paper that comes with the casework, but must deal with loads of it nevertheless. "There was a day when we [investigators] spent most of our time in the field. Now, we probably spend three-fourths of our time doing paperwork," she laments. Since the demands of the field do not ease up, "If you want to be a conscientious worker, you don't have any choice" but to take the paperwork home.

 

Protecting the kids

 

 

Assisting investigators are caseworkers like Glen Sheets. "I'm the guy who works with the family" to develop a plan documenting the nature of the problem and the steps required to solve it, he explains. "For example, dad drinks too much, comes home and beats the kid. There are two problems here: the alcohol and the child abuse. We might do a drug-and-alcohol-treatment program for dad and maybe a parenting class." Meanwhile, the child is protected, perhaps by temporary placement in a foster home.

The job demands much from a foster-care staffer, including patience and the ability to withstand abuse. As Sheets puts it, "You're in a house and somebody's yelling and screaming at you. Sometimes you have to take the kids, go to court, write court reports. Sometimes you have to testify" against the parent or parents.

The ability to empathize also is critical. "We have to try to put ourselves in their shoes," says fellow caseworker Diana Rapaport. For instance, she explains, "We try to imagine that we're poor, that we have roaches in our home, that our boyfriend just beat us up — how would we feel? That's the key to building a relationship with a family."

Making it personal

 

Foster care and adoption is much more than a job for office associate Debra Lowe. After spending her days at the office answering phones, handling mail, filing, setting up appointments and entering data into computers, she comes home to a full house. There's adopted daughter Dana, 15, adopted son Dayne, 13 (they're siblings); Michael, 8, a foster child who the Lowes planned to adopt this year, and biological daughter Tisha, 15. Lowe shares responsibility for their care with husband Ron, a Springfield street-department employee who belongs to AFSCME Local 3417.

The Lowes decided to become foster parents after they got married about five years ago and Debra could not bear any more children. "It's hard, it's real hard," she says of foster parenting. "You have to have an open mind to realize these kids have problems and that they have families they've lost. You also have to have a lot of love and be willing to work with the child."

Lowe had to transfer her adoption applications to a private, nonprofit agency because it's considered a conflict of interest for DCFS to handle an employee's own foster-care and adoption cases. But she would prefer to work with her DCFS colleagues rather than private caseworkers. Employees at private agencies, she says, are often inexperienced as well as "overwhelmed and overworked."

It's a partnership

 

DCFS was created in 1964 "as a result of advocacy by the private sector, which recognized the need for a public child-welfare system," says Director McDonald. He calls it a "blended system," in which the state conducts all child-protection investigations and licenses private welfare agencies, day care centers and residential programs.

The state also determines whether to provide foster care or send the child to a private agency — a process called "purchase of service." About 75 percent of the state's wards are in the care of community-based, nonprofit organizations, and they alone maintain residential care facilities for groups of children.

The public/private system works well. "A lot of our workers come from the private agencies," says Morris. "To qualify for employment here, you have to have two years of experience, and more than likely you're going to get it at a private agency."

"There is a need for both types of systems," McDonald agrees. "Our private sector will tell you they don't want to see DCFS out of business."

One state, however, has privatized its foster-care systems entirely. So far, the Kansas experiment has been plagued with trouble.

Privatization stumbles

 

In 1997, Kansas became the first and so-far only state to turn over all child-welfare services to contractors, except for investigations of child abuse and neglect. A legislative subcommittee, looking ahead to the contractor takeover, declared that "long-term benefits to both children in the state and to the taxpayers in terms of reduced costs are compelling reasons to move with all due speed toward privatization."

What actually occurred since 1997 demonstrates why the legislators should have moved more slowly, or not at all: State taxpayers have spent more than $533 million on the privatized system, nearly $137 million (63 percent) more than originally estimated. Even that has not been enough: One major contractor was nearly driven into bankruptcy.

Kansas Action for Children, a nonpartisan, citizen-based group, last year came to the following conclusion: Privatized foster care, with its "history of increasing payments to contractors, has undermined confidence in the legitimacy of the system by drawing attention to how little accountability there is for how public dollars are being spent by the private contractors."

In addition to the serious cost overruns, the report also cited the privateers' "difficulty with retaining experienced foster parents and a growing number of children waiting for adoption."

One concerned Kansas legislator has co-sponsored a bill aimed at restoring accountability to the foster-care system. Says the lawmaker, Rep. Rocky Nichols of Topeka, the ranking Democrat on the House appropriations committee: "I have strong reservations about privatization. I'm just not sold that it makes sense, particularly when you're talking about the most vulnerable kids in the state system of foster care."

Dealing with the 'devil'

The Kansas experience has not stopped Florida legislators from moving ahead with plans to hand over their state's entire foster-care program to contractors in 2003. Illinois DCFS Director McDonald says he was shocked by their decision.

"There could not be a more wrongheaded view of how you provide child-welfare services," he says. "All they're going to find out is that they're trading a challenging devil — providing quality services with the largely public system — for a very new devil they don't understand at all, a totally privatized system that has its own weaknesses."

Carol Ann Loehndorf, a foster-care worker for more than a decade who serves as president of Florida Local 3041 (Council 79), says privatization will also cost public foster-care employees their jobs — and hit the taxpayers hard, too: "I don't see how they're going to do it without spending an enormous amount of money" — far more than the state now spends.

Testifying before a U.S. Senate committee in 1998, Rochelle Chronister, secretary of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services, acknowledged privatization of the state's foster-care system "had nothing to do with saving money." What, then, does it have to do with? If to improve the lives of the children involved, then complete privatization is the wrong solution, insists McDonald.

"This should not be a debate about privatization," he explains. "If it's a debate aboutperformance, I will tell you that the public sector will meet any standard a private agency can meet. You just have to be willing to make the right investments and provide the right leadership and support for staff. If you do that, you'll get equal — orsuperior — results from the public sector."

One other element is surely needed: dedicated people like DCFS's Barbara Brundige, who puts the safety and welfare of the children first. "A big part of the job is caringfor the children," she says. "That's the thing that keeps me going."