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The Short, Sad Life of Robert Brown : Foster-care system needs legislative remedy to avoid tragic hitches in logic

The story gets no easier to read, no matter how many times we try: Toddler Robert Brown died last month, allegedly beaten to death by a foster mother paid by Los Angeles County to care for him. The 23-month-old boy had been born sickly and underweight to a drug-addicted, transient mother and a father who was in prison.

But the tragedy of Robert Brown’s life is not unique. His death came just five months after an administrative law judge ruled that a San Diego foster mother displayed “gross negligence” in the death of a 5-month-old, whom she had left for three hours in a closed van where the temperature reached about 122 degrees.

More than 80,000 children in California are cared for by foster parents, most of them extraordinarily loving and generous people. Undoubtedly many of the children in their care are better off away from abusive or incompetent relatives. But, unfortunately for some youngsters such as Robert Brown, foster care does not improve the quality of their life as it is designed to do.

State law mandates that families should remain intact when it serves the best interests of children. Foster care--care by strangers funded by the state and federal governments through the counties--should be the last resort for children who can no longer remain with their parents or relatives. Trouble is, the gap between family-unification theory and practice has sometimes proved deadly.

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Robert Brown’s parents had abandoned him but his aunt had not. She had cared for the boy since January, but with three children of her own at home she needed financial assistance and Robert needed care for chronic medical problems. As a relative, she was entitled to far less assistance for Robert--and was required to jump through more bureaucratic hoops--than an unrelated foster-care parent. That needs to be changed.

In January a new law will allow counties to reallocate foster-care money for services to “at-risk” children who remain with relatives. New legislation, which this year is threatened by the state’s budget crisis, would raise the foster-care payment that relatives could receive to equal that paid to unrelated foster parents. In the meantime, several groups are pursuing litigation that would permit more relatives to receive foster-care assistance and increased payments. These efforts deserve support. They would be a fitting memorial to the short, sad life of Robert Brown.


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