Every day across America, harrowing dramas play out in family courts, tragedies that foreshadow a grim future for our children.
In Chicago, Arlene, 25, a pregnant cocaine addict who was a mother at age 14, stands ignored by lawyers and social workers deciding the fate of her two daughters in foster care.
"Mom," the judge finally says sternly, "it's been three years and you're still not off drugs. It's not fair to your kids."
"This is new for me," Arlene mumbles. "I do love my kids."
"How can this be new to you?" the judge snaps. "It's three years."
In Hartford, Conn., Susan is trying to get her son back. A veteran of the system, she was in foster care at 3 and in and out of 16 foster homes, state hospitals and group homes by age 16. At 17, she was pregnant with her first child.
State social workers took her son because he was filthy, homeless and without medical care. Susan regained custody, then lost him again when she was charged in connection with shooting her boyfriend's mother.
The judge delays a decision.
In New York, an attorney tries to put a good face on how his agency could have forgotten a brother and sister placed in foster care seven years ago.
The two are doing well, the lawyer explains, adding, "Obviously, the foster mother took very good care of them."
"Isn't that just lucky?" the outraged judge retorts.
In Boston, lawyers review the case of a 3-year-old boy taken from his drug-addicted mother 18 months ago. The goal is to terminate her parental rights so the child can be adopted.
A year of procedural delays have dragged out the case. And now one attorney is absent.
"Who wants to sit in for Steve?" someone asks. An attorney, loaded with files, volunteers. He is applauded. But then a thought occurs.
"Who is it I'm representing?" he asks.
The debate over welfare reform has renewed the notion of the state as surrogate parent to children at risk. A national dialogue has been initiated by GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Orphanages and adoption have been touted as solutions for the young and disadvantaged.
The Republicans, attempting to revamp welfare to comply with their "contract with America," want to shift authority of foster care to states and sharply restrict federal oversight.
Opponents argue many states already do an abysmal job as guardian; by cutting welfare, they say, more children could end up in foster care.
And as philosophies are discussed, the nation's child welfare system tumbles in disarray.
Instead of securing the lives of threatened children, these safety nets of agencies and gridlocked courts are fraying under the burden of drug addiction, poverty and teen-age pregnancy.
The judges, social workers and lawyers who struggle with the system talk of a losing battle to protect more than 500,000 children nationwide.
"It's a system in crisis, to be sure," said Robert Praksti of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. "Kids get lost, their cases get lost, casework turnover occurs over and over."
Failures can be glaringly tragic.
A Rhode Island boy under state supervision is killed by his father, who hides the body in a closet. A Lakeland, Fla., boy is murdered, shoved headfirst into a toilet by his stepfather. A social worker had persuaded a judge to return the boy home, without mentioning the father's temper.
Less obvious, but far more numerous, are the hidden failures--tens of thousands of children who drift for years through a purgatory of shelters and foster homes, uncertainty the only constant in their lives.
Jimmy Walters, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is a product of this system. Sexually abused before he was 7, in and out of foster care since age 8, molested in a state facility at 13, Jimmy stands shackled in a Baltimore courtroom one recent morning, charged with planting a bomb that blew off a neighbor's arms.
"This," observed a weary Judge David Mitchell, "is not an unusual day."
"The juvenile family courts of this country face issues of destruction of children that would boggle your mind," he said.
An examination of child welfare systems by the Associated Press found disturbing patterns repeated around the country:
* Children are dying under the eyes of the agencies and courts charged with protecting them. A study last year found that 42% of 1,300 children who died of abuse and neglect in 1993 had come to the attention of state child protective services before their deaths.
The Kentucky Department of Social Services documented bruises on 22-month-old Daniel Reynolds five times in 1993. Social workers removed him from his mother, but returned him in two months. Soon afterward, his stepfather beat him to death. Four social workers were charged with complicity.
* Some two dozen jurisdictions are under court order to meet their obligations to children. Cases drag on for years as agencies repeatedly fail to investigate abuse reports in a timely fashion, find permanent homes for children, or even keep track of those under their charge.
The case of the children forgotten by New York officials is repeated elsewhere. Illinois' Cook County, which includes Chicago, had as many as 12,000 children placed on bureaucratic hold for years; no one knows the real number. Washington, D.C., had nearly 300 children on foster care rolls long after their ages would have bumped them out of the system.
* The crisis is reflected in the changing face of its victims. More than a quarter of children in the system are now 3 or under; those under 1 account for twice as many victims as any other age group.
These children spend more and more time trapped in the bureaucracy. The average stay in many cities is three to four years, but a growing percentage of youngsters get out only when they reach 18--despite federal guidelines mandating a solution for children within 18 months.
* This transience wounds all aspects of a child's life, from education to health. Foster parents complain that vital records are misplaced. Medical decisions must be made in court, a process that further slows care.
A General Accounting Office study found 58% of foster care children under 3 had serious health problems, from fetal alcohol syndrome to AIDS.
* The offspring of the child welfare system are tragically overrepresented among society's walking wounded: the homeless and mentally ill, the drug addicts and career criminals, the absent and abusive parents.
A 1991 federal study of foster care graduates found one-fourth had been homeless, 40% were on public assistance and half were unemployed. Connecticut officials estimate 75% of youths in the state's criminal justice system were once in foster care.
"Foster care really screws you up; it makes you depend on the system every day of your life," said Lamont Wilder, who has spent all 20 years of his life as a ward of the New York City system. "By the time you're old enough to make a plan for yourself, you don't know how."
Jean Adnopoz, a psychologist at the Yale Child Study Center, said children who spend years drifting between foster care homes "can't be expected to come out in any way that would appear to be healthy."
"If you have a child with no psychological parents, essentially adrift in the world, you are headed toward all sorts of bad outcomes," she said. "And we as a society are going to pay and pay and pay for it."
States became the parent of last resort for these children in the last four decades, assuming the role from private and church charities. From the beginning, the solution often was to put the child in foster care.
"The system always functioned poorly, but it wasn't as noticeable when it was dealing with fewer kids. It became much more evident when there was stress on the system," said Marcia Lowry, director of the Children's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
But by the mid-1980s, those few children became many.
Fueled by drugs, teen-age pregnancy, AIDS and other crises, the number of children at risk has exploded. The American Humane Assn. says there were 1.7 million reports of neglect and abuse in 1985. The number reached 3 million last year. About 40% of all reports are substantiated.
"There's a giant spigot out there that lots of kids come rolling out of," said David Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America. "It has its source in poverty, drugs, lousy neighborhoods and inadequate affordable housing."
Crack cocaine devastated existing families and created a new urban term: boarder babies, newborns abandoned in hospitals by their addict mothers. Federal researchers estimated 22,000 babies were left in the nation's hospitals during 1991 alone.
Sheer numbers overpowered already wobbly systems. New York City saw the number of children in foster care swell from 18,000 to 46,000 in the last five years; the rolls in Illinois' Cook County spiraled from nearly 24,000 to more than 46,000.
This explosion of numbers carries tremendous costs. Spending on child welfare has tripled in the urban areas of New York, California and Texas, as well as rural states like Vermont and Nebraska. Pennsylvania spends more than $800 million on child welfare alone.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated the federal government will spend more than $9.2 billion between fiscal year 1991 and 1996 for foster care.
The Republicans want to change the formula. They've proposed block grants to the states for all child welfare efforts, arguing that it's best to let the states establish programs that best fit their needs.
But critics say foster care would have to compete with other programs. States would no longer be accountable to the federal government if they didn't measure up.
Even now, courts and agencies are showing increasing signs of poverty. Social workers are underpaid; vital computer systems are antiquated or nonexistent. Washington, D.C., beset by budget crises, recently had most of its caseworkers' cars repossessed.
From her vantage point of Manhattan family court, Judge Judith Sheindlin sees funds that could be used to repair families or get children adopted instead drained by the $20,000 a year it costs to keep a child in foster care.
"The kids are being shortchanged. The taxpayers are being shortchanged," she said.
The system is cracking under caseloads. Social workers often tend to 50, even 100, children; professional standards talk of no more than 20 cases per worker. Courts are so crowded that only a few minutes can be afforded each case to clear the day's calendar.
"What if that case comes up only once a year and you're only spending three minutes? That's horrifying," said Nancy Sidote Salyers, a Chicago judge who handles as many as 150 children a day.
While the complexity of cases grows, with mothers on drugs and children with special needs, the number of skilled social workers is falling.
American Public Welfare Assn. surveys find agencies so desperate to fill spots that they are reducing qualifications. One-quarter of states surveyed don't require a college degree as a prerequisite; less than half train workers before they take on cases.
"You need a skilled professional to do what is a very complicated job," said Mark Hardin, director of foster care and family preservation for the American Bar Assn. "There should be competitive testing and training, like you'd see at a police academy."
Instead, undertrained and hard-pressed workers make tough decisions, pressured by time and limited resources. The easiest decision may be to temporarily remove a child from his or her home.
"If you have such a huge caseload that you can't monitor the child in the home, it's going to lead you to take the child out," said Judith Meltzer, a senior associate at the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington.
Once that happens, the child is often trapped in the slow wheels of the child welfare machine.
Said Judge John P. Steketee of Kent County, Mich.: "Once you get a kid in the system, centrifugal force keeps the kid in."
Part of this inertia is caused by conflicting agendas among various parts of the system. Even the most routine court hearings can cause a pileup of six lawyers before the bench. The prosecutor's office is represented. So is the child agency. And the foster parent. Each child is assigned an attorney; each parent may have an attorney as well.
In a Washington, D.C., courtroom, it takes 20 minutes for all the attorneys simply to agree on a time they can all attend the next hearing. In Miami, neither the judge nor the assemblage of attorneys can explain why they are before him.
"The adversarial process has become an inherent part of the system," said Praksti, of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. "The very people who should be pulling in the same direction for the best interest of the children seem to be pulling in different directions."
Contradicting philosophies contribute to chaos. Over the past decade, the federal government has pushed family preservation as the prime objective for child welfare agencies. A 1993 bill passed by Congress uses the carrot of $1 billion in programs to steer states toward that end.
While social agencies pay lip service to keeping families together, the resources to do so don't exist. There is never enough housing, job training or drug treatment. Often, the parents don't seem to care.
So cases drag on. And the children wait.
Fourteen-year-old June came to the attention of the Washington, D.C., social service agency in 1991 when her crack-addict mother left her with a family friend. June floated from home to home, visited infrequently by a succession of caseworkers. She was hospitalized with venereal disease, arrested for selling drugs.
By late last year, June's case file still talked of reunifying her with a mother who failed repeatedly to get clean, get a job and remain in contact with her children. Her whereabouts are unknown.
"You see the same thing happen over and over," said Lowry of the ACLU. "The worker will have written, 'This child can be returned to parent if they have drug counseling.' You see the same thing three months, six months later, three years later. It makes you want to scream."