Social workers Linda Willoughby and Rita Witmer acknowledge that they've both seen children traumatized by numerous placements. Witmer, a caseworker liaison at the Family Crisis Center, says she can recall one ten-year-old who had fourteen placements in three years. "Nothing worked," she says, shaking her head. "We tried and tried, and nothing worked. And it leaves them untrusting of adults and unable to have solid relationships. Usually they develop low self-esteem."

It's a statement that Bill would agree with wholeheartedly. At 23, Bill is a former state ward who spent his adolescence growing up in the child-welfare system. After his father fell ill, Bill was shuttled between shelters and group homes before finally finding a foster family. He had eight placements in all, not counting the time he was sent home to try to reconcile with a violent mother. When he turned eighteen, he officially outgrew the system. But he still carries its scars.

Bill says being bounced around constantly caused him to "live in fear." He remembers being jealous of kids who knew where their home was. And he recalls the beatings he used to get at the hands of other boys in some of the shelters. "Here I am, twelve years old, and I never really lived in these situations, and I had other kids beat me with bars of soap in socks," he says. "Until I woke up one day and I said, `That's it.' I guess you could say I became a little bit ornery." After entering the system, says Bill, "I went from being a nice guy who cared about people to being a violent shit."

The problem of multiple placements, Witmer says, is exacerbated by the lengthy state waiting list for admission to some residential child-care facilities that provide special services for kids in need of intensive therapy. It is during that waiting period that the system reaches its low point for many of its most desperate children. Kids often wind up moving constantly between other shelters or homes during the wait. Many are reduced to living out of suitcases; the transfers sometimes occur almost nightly.

Bill remembers a move from one group home to another that was interrupted by intermediate stops at three different shelters. He stayed in one shelter for a single night; at the other two, he checked in for a couple of weeks. For children whom the state is determined to reunify, waiting for their parents to get it together can take a lifetime--or, at the very least, an entire childhood.

Willoughby acknowledges that the constant transfer of children from one temporary placement to another may seem counterproductive. But she says it can take time to find the right place for a child. "Oftentimes, when children are placed in their first foster-care placement, we don't have the full picture," she says. "It takes time to figure out what all the issues are, and then we are better able to make a longer-term placement. So the receiving homes [and other first placements] make sense as a structure."

And Willoughby voices what is apparently a common perception among some social workers: that foster parents and others who criticize efforts to reunify children with birth parents are sometimes guilty of a cultural bias.

"You can't apply middle-class values, middle-class eyes, to decide what's okay or not okay," says Willoughby. It's entirely possible, she says, that a child might be intentionally returned to a home like the one described by Handon: a place where a three-year-old might well need to know how to cook his or her own meals. And that's okay, she adds, because many of the birth parents with whom social services deals live in a world much different from that of the foster parents. "It's a totally different culture," says Willoughby. "You may not be able to wash your kids' clothes because it would be too dangerous to walk past the drug pushers in the laundry room."

The state's Studen says she agrees with Willoughby. "You have to evaluate each family," she says. "In some cases it's in the child's best interest to return them to their family, and what that family does may well be very different from what you and I do." She also defends her department's role in placement decisions, noting that only a judge can ultimately approve a child's placement. Counties, adds Studen in a written statement, have to "walk a fine line in trying to balance a child's rights with a parent's rights."

It's an attitude that infuriates Gelles. "The job of the social worker is first and foremost to watch out for the welfare and developmental security of children, not the rights of their parents," he says.

Crystal Greene agrees, calling the "middle-class standard" accusation "baloney. This class thing is ridiculous," she says. "It fosters a cycle. When that kid grows up, he's going to think that flushing a kid's head down a toilet or beating kids with a brush is okay. Because that's what was done with him."

Losing one kid's childhood is bad enough. But critics say the system under 96-272 is doing an even greater injustice: perpetuating a cycle of poor parenting and damaged children.

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