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Health Alarm for Foster Care : Children: Reports find frequent chronic psychiatric and physical illnesses. System’s rolls are increased by drug-exposed babies.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In California, children in foster care are 10 times more likely than other children to suffer from chronic psychiatric and physical illness and receive largely inadequate health care and social services during their years in the child welfare system, according to several statewide studies released Wednesday.

The studies also found an alarming increase in the number of infants and toddlers entering foster care, with more than 18,000 children under the age of 3 presently residing in foster homes and shelters, up from 9,500 in 1986. Foster care officials blamed the rise partly on a huge jump in the number of “crack” or drug-exposed babies in California and an overall increase among parents with substance abuse problems.

The reports, prepared by three nonprofit children’s education and research groups, painted a grim future for the 67,000 foster care children in the state unless drastic improvements are made in their medical and psychiatric treatment and millions of dollars are injected into the overburdened child welfare system.

“The studies show that in many ways, the state and the counties are parenting as badly in their ways as the children’s parents did,” Sid Gardner, director of the Youth at Risk project for California Tomorrow said at a news conference at Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles. “Entering the foster care system is not as strong a substitute for these kids as it should be, and instead of making things better for them, it continues their downward spiral.”

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The three studies were based primarily on hundreds of interviews with foster children, social workers, health care officials, lawyers, judges, foster parents and others. Besides the huge jump in the state’s overall foster care population, the researchers found disturbing numbers of children diagnosed with mental health problems.

According to a report prepared by the Children’s Research Institute of California, nine out of 10 foster children ages 3 to 7 studied in San Diego County had a history of mental health problems and more than half of the 205 children living at MacLaren Children’s Center--Los Angeles County’s primary foster shelter--were diagnosed in December as having behavioral problems, ranging from mild depression to schizophrenia.

A study by the Oakland-based Center for the Vulnerable Child compared Medi-Cal records of foster care children with those of other children and found an incidence rate of chronic mental and physical illness nearly 10 times greater among those in the state’s child welfare system.

“What we have is children without hope, families without help and service agencies that are besieged at this point,” said Jean McIntosh, western director of the Child Welfare League of America. “And the hope and the help that the (service agencies) offer are simply not enough to rebuild the children’s lives.”

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It will take millions of dollars to combat the health problems in the foster care system, proponents say. Researchers suggested that local welfare agencies set up computerized health care services for abused, neglected and abandoned children that will enable nurses and social service workers to chart and track the children’s medical history even when they move to shelters and foster homes throughout the state.

Dr. Neal Kaufman, a pediatrician at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center who is working with Los Angeles County to tackle the problem, also suggested that all children receive an immediate health screening within 24 hours after being taken from their home and should get a complete medical evaluation within 30 days after leaving home.

Children’s group advocates also said that each child placed in foster care should be assigned to a designated social worker who is accountable for the child’s protection, and that special education programs should be designed for children in the system.

The studies follow a report issued by a blue-ribbon panel of experts this year, which evaluated the health and welfare of California’s 7.6 million children and gave the state an overall grade of D.

That report, issued by Children Now, stressed that taxpayers will continue to pay a high price for neglecting children, who are increasingly failed by a lack of preventive services and “face a life of welfare, unproductive work and crime.”


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