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HOW THE GOVERNMENT'S ATTEMPTS TO "REUNIFY" CHILDREN WITH THEIR PARENTS HURT KIDS AS MUCH AS THEY HELP THEM.

Sandstrom's committee compiled a substantial list of recommendations for a joint committee of the state legislature. But that list proved "utopian" in scope, he says--not because the legislators disagreed with the recommendations but because the cost of implementing them was so steep--some estimates were as high as $120 million. The reforms introduced last month by Republican state representative Russell George of Rifle call for expenditures of about $30 million.

But though many of the recommendations from Sandstrom's committee were slashed--among them, personnel training, additional staffing, preventative and family support programs--George's bill does call for some changes that foster parents like Handon find music to their ears. For example, the bill would make the "best interest of the child" the standard by which placements are determined in Colorado and would give foster parents a voice in placement decisions. It wouldn't supersede federal law, but it would encourage state judges to balance the goal of reunification with the overall welfare of a child.

Handon and others, however, are only cautiously optimistic about the prospects for wholesale reform. After all, they say, there is so much to change.

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Crystal Greene, a foster mother in Adams County, says that the two children she's caring for now will be sent back to their natural mother within the next few weeks. "Their mother has only seen them twice since October," says Greene. "The social worker said the mother sort of felt, `Out of sight, out of mind.' Now they're going back there. And I don't have anything to say about it."

Reunification with birth parents has been the goal of this country's child-welfare system since the early 1970s. As putting children in orphanages or youth homes became increasingly unpopular in the 1960s, several states, including Oregon and California, began to argue that, with the proper support, intervention and treatment, many kids could be reunited with their biological parents to the benefit of all concerned. The notion that efforts should be made to reunify became the law when President Jimmy Carter signed 96-272. Passed in 1979, the law ties all federal money that exists for child-welfare programs, including huge portions of Social Security and Medicaid dollars, to the goal of reunification.

But today, nearly a generation later, the tide is turning. In New York City, after the death last November of a six-year-old girl who had been beaten and sexually tortured by her mother, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared war on the state's reunification policy, saying that bureaucrats have been "too rigidly focused on holding families together, sometimes at the cost of protecting babies and children."

Sandstrom says Giuliani's on the right track. "Everyone is thinking that 96-272 will be altered," he says from his Pueblo office. "The states are so adamant about getting some reform in that area that I think the feds can't ignore them anymore."

The proposed revision of Colorado's Children's Code now pending in the legislature takes a big step toward sending a new message to the state's child-welfare system. But no one's placing any bets on what form the measure will finally take: To date, 141 amendments have already been filed with the House Judiciary Committee.

Whatever the state does, Colorado's child-welfare system will remain subject to the federal reunification standards. But while momentum is building at the national level to rework that language, some children's advocates remain hopeful that the system can be made to work without a total overhaul. "We don't need to change 96-272," says Pamela Day. "We just need to tinker a little."

Day acknowledges that the "bouncing" of children from placement to placement is a problem under 96-272. However, she says the problem isn't the law but a child-welfare system populated by social workers with questionable credentials and an unwillingness to take decisive action. "We see it over and over and over again, workers not well-trained, at a minimum a bachelor's degree, and it might be in horticulture," says Day. "We can pass any kind of policy, but it doesn't guarantee that people do good practice."

Dwight Eisnach of Colorado's State Department of Human Services agrees that multiple placements are a problem of practice, not policy. "Our experience has always been, with a little bit of help, families are always the best place for kids in the first place," Eisnach says. "But at some point, those county workers have to make the decision to pull the plug."

Karen Studen, manager of Colorado's Division of Child Welfare, notes that while 96-272 requires that records be kept documenting "reasonable efforts" to reunify, it never says every child should be reunified with his parents. "All that's required is `reasonable efforts' to reunify," she says. For state social workers, Studen adds, "that and the best interest of the child are parallel goals."

At a time when false allegations of child abuse aren't uncommon, serious public-policy issues also surround the removal of children from their parents' custody. "I don't think we want to live in a world where children can be easily permanently taken from their birth parents," says Linda Willoughby, a social worker with the Denver Department of Social Services.

However, the practical effect of well-meaning state and federal statutes has been to send children ping-ponging between placements, as social workers hamstrung by state and federal reunification paperwork try to avoid terminating parental rights.

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