The whole point of modern foster care is for government to step in when needed to provide comfort and substitute care to children who have been battered, abused or neglected. The appalling stories now unfolding about Los Angeles County's foster-care system seem to point to a new purpose: escape from responsibility.
Foster-care children, already victims of dysfunctional families and now bureaucratic neglect, have become no better than secondary priorities in the bickering between the state and the county.
The county is paid $3.3 million a year by the state to license and monitor 3,800 foster homes that house more than 10,000 children. The state now says the county failed to act quickly enough last year when it discovered that 10 children were sleeping on the floor of a garage and again when 20 infants were found in 10 cribs--in a home licensed only for four children.
The county has said that "accidents do happen" and insists that the cases are "not illustrative of the whole system." After state officials warned that they might end their licensing contract with the county, one county official said foster care is best left in local hands but admitted that the state could take it back--if it gives 90 days' notice.
The procedural and turf squabbles demonstrate that foster-care priorities have been turned inside out. No government agency can replace loving parents or halt the essential erosion of many American families. What government can do is remain true to at least the basics of foster care: to give comfort and shelter to forgotten kids.
The number of California children not living with their families (mostly in foster care) increased 44% between 1987 and 1989. These numbers represent future adolescents and adults. Is anyone making the connection? Changing a protocol or letting a new contract between two government agencies is only the beginning. What's really needed is a refocus on the fuzzy priorities in foster care.