Bette Handon has tale upon tale of children who came to her after a frightening experience at the hands of their mother or their mother's boyfriend, only to be returned home. They are sent back, she says, not because a social worker thinks home has improved all that much but because the federally mandated eighteen-month case review is coming up--and the child-welfare agency doesn't want to be cited by the judge for not having made sufficient reunification efforts.

Handon says kids are bounced back out to foster-care homes after second and third reports of abuse or neglect at home. And each "bounce" makes them harder to handle. "Every placement change results in a little bit more damage," says Handon. "Every time you move a kid, it's a rejection, and they see it as such." Finally, she says, the child becomes so damaged he may be beyond help. "They've been drug through the mud so long in those first years of life that you're not going to save them when they're seventeen or eighteen," says Handon. "We won't be able to build enough penitentiaries to hold them all."

The story that hurts Handon most to tell is the one about Amber, now eleven and confined to a California psychiatric hospital. "She was sixteen months old when I got her," Handon remembers. "I kept her for about fifteen months. Three times they tried to reunify her; three times she came back out of the mother's home to me. Finally, they returned her for good, or so they thought. The mother moved to California, and then we heard that the mother's boyfriend had thrown that little girl up against the wall and broke her hip. We contacted social services in California and said we'd adopt her, and we were told they wanted to reunite her with her father. They let me call her, though. And she just kept asking--she was about four or five at that point--why I couldn't come get her."

Richard Gelles, director of the University of Rhode Island's Family Violence Research Program, says nothing short of a clean sweep of the federal reunification requirement will work. "It's not unusual for me to do an interview every day on this issue," says Gelles, who has spent 25 years researching family violence. "They call me from some region or little corner of the country where they have two or three deaths suddenly popping up, and they say, how does this happen? And the answer is, it was inevitable."

Gelles pauses for a moment, then adds, "I just can't stand to watch any more children lowered into the ground on the altar of 96-272."

It's 10:30 on a Tuesday morning, and the nursery at the Denver Family Crisis Center is already in full swing. For children taken into state custody in Denver County, this is the first stop on the often long and winding road to reunification.

Today a four-day-old crack baby, a three-month-old boy and two other babies not yet able to crawl join twelve other kids whom the city has deemed in enough danger to separate them from their parents. They have little faces, tiny and pinched, and the children who do talk say little. They are afraid, cautious, and thoroughly confused by what's happening around them.

The center's director is Anna Frederickson, a lifelong child-welfare professional who also has adopted a crack baby. "Most kids who come here," says Frederickson, "have never eaten a meal at home. They're used to begging for some money and then getting something at McDonald's or 7-Eleven. They come here, and the first thing they ask about is food."

The posted menu at the Family Crisis Center covers only the next two weeks; that's the limit on how long kids can stay. It's the first of many time limits children face on their trip through the system. Children remain at the Crisis Center just long enough to undergo medical, psychological and developmental testing. From there, those who aren't returned home to their parents are sent to what's called a "receiving home" [a temporary foster home] or a shelter where, in both cases, state law limits a child's stay to ninety days. Once kids overstay their state-mandated welcome at those facilities, they may be shuffled to a longer-term foster home, a stay with relatives or an attempted reunification with the parents. Often, they are simply sent to yet another receiving home or shelter--so that on the books, at least, the state's ninety-day statutory limit is met.

It's a system that stumps even the experts. "I don't know why continuity of care isn't important for child-welfare folks," Jenny says, adding that kids also change social workers as soon as they're transferred from "intake" status to "out of home placement" status. "There's got to be a reason they think [continuity] is expendable," she says, "but I sure as hell don't know what it is."

Two thousand children a year pass through the Family Crisis Center, the only facility of its kind in the state. Outside Denver, kids are placed directly into emergency foster receiving homes or shelters--sometimes in the middle of the night. Again, they remain there for the statutorily mandated ninety days or less before they are moved to another receiving home, another foster home, a shelter, a residential facility, a psychiatric hospital or back home to their parents.

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