As soon as Bette Handon gets foster children in her home, she starts teaching them what she calls survival skills--no matter how young they are. "You teach them how to turn on the stove without burning the house down," says Handon. "How to open a can. How to scramble eggs or fix toast in an oven or a toaster if they have one at their home. It's important they learn this, even if they're three or four. Because when mama's passed out somewhere, they're going to get hungry."

Across the country, the return of children to parents who are unable or unwilling to care for them is a basic truth of the child-welfare system. It's also part of the reason longtime foster parents like Handon (not her real name) are getting out of the profession. After twelve years as a foster mother for several Colorado counties, having played surrogate mom to a total of 49 kids, Handon says she can't take it anymore.

And she is not alone. Foster parents from around the state echo her frustration at the endless circle followed by so many children placed in the system: being yanked out of their homes, placed in state care, then "reunified" with birth parents who may be chronic drug addicts--or worse. Carole Jenny, a physician who heads Children's Hospital's Child Advocacy and Protection team, describes the phenomenon this way: "We've seen babies--horribly battered--who are inherently adoptable at that age. But Mom goes to a six-week rehabilitation program and gets the kid back. Then she flakes out after a few weeks and--presto--we see the kid again." By the time the state concludes that the parents of that inherently adoptable child are never going to be able to cope with parenthood, says Jenny, the child is often either so damaged--or so old--that he becomes inherently unadoptable.

The wasting of childhoods in a bureaucratic system isn't caused by a shortage of adoptive parents. Rather, it's an outgrowth of federal and state policy regarding reunification--a policy born of the deinstitutionalization craze of the 1960s and nourished thirty years later by a belief prevalent in the social-work field that removing kids from predominantly poor households to middle-class homes constitutes cultural--and often ethnic--bias.

The State of Colorado spends about $83 million per year in combined federal, state and local funds to feed and house the nearly 13,000 kids it cares for annually. About three-quarters of that money comes from federal funds--and thanks to a controversial federal law, it arrives with a condition attached: that the return of children to their birth parents be the primary goal. That law is known by its federal statute number: 96-272. It says that once a judge makes a child a ward of the state, the state agency must document its efforts to reunify the family. And the judge, who has ultimate power over placement, must base his decisions on that goal.

In Colorado, state law mimics its federal counterpart, demanding "judicial reviews" every six months at which social workers must document their reunification efforts. It's a requirement that leaves little time for anything other than reunification efforts, creating stacks of paperwork and cutting into the work schedules of already overburdened social workers. On top of that, a federally mandated "permanency planning" hearing is required eighteen months after a child is declared a state ward. At that hearing, the social worker and the judge must decide whether the family is "never going to be ready"--a conclusion the federal law makes almost impossible to reach.

Adoree Blair, a foster parent in Arapahoe County, says 96-272 essentially forces social workers and judges to return kids to homes that everybody involved realizes aren't prepared to handle them--just to maintain federal funding. "We find kids that go home for one day, get hurt, and come back out," says Blair. "One day, rehurt, and then they can come back into the system for a full eighteen months. All fully funded."

Pamela Day, the Washington, D.C.-based director of family services at the Child Welfare League of America, disputes Blair's vision of a system driven by funding concerns, noting that 96-272 also includes strong language emphasizing the safety and well-being of children. The law does provide certain protections for children who are in immediate danger of bodily harm. But after the initial separation, its emphasis on reunification makes a determination of parental unfitness difficult--even in cases where evidence of prior abuse is overwhelming.

As interpreted by child-welfare agencies throughout Colorado, the federal mandate has the practical effect of moving kids "through the system"--so many days here, so many days there, with "home" always the ultimate, if unlikely, destination. Children grow up in the system, developing more and more behavioral problems while their chances of adoption slip quickly away with each passing year.

These issues were raised repeatedly this past summer when a 24-member task force spent weeks holding hearings regarding the Colorado Children's Code (the portion of Colorado law that deals with juveniles and contains its own language making reunification a primary goal). Pueblo County District Attorney Gus Sandstrom, who chaired the task force, agrees with Handon that Colorado's system overemphasizes reunification. "There's always been a reunification goal for the child and the [biological] parent, and it's just not always appropriate," he says.

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.

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.

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.

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.

"Kids have a right to be safe, to be treated with dignity and respect, and if it's not possible for the [biological] family to provide that for them, then alternatives need to be looked at," says Greene. "Reunification is an admirable goal. It just has to be accepted that it's not always possible.


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