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Study suggests ways to help foster kids

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Old January 30th 04, 07:36 PM
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Default Study suggests ways to help foster kids

Study suggests ways to help foster kids By Marilyn Elias, USA TODAY
The basic health and educational needs of about a half-million U.S.
children in foster care often are not met, says a report out
Wednesday, the most thorough ever done on how foster kids fare.
"Many are absolutely falling through the cracks," says policy analyst
Sandra Bass of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, a non-profit
that asked experts to review research and front-line practices in
foster care. Performance reviews required by a 1994 federal law set
minimum standards for state foster care systems; so far, 32 states
have done reviews, and none has met all the standards, the report
says. Most states don't even collect or store vital facts about
physical and mental health and school records in a "one-stop"
electronic database that allows each child's overall progress to be
monitored, Bass says. "There's no record of their standardized tests,
academic records may be lost, and some have enough credits to graduate
from high school but they don't even know it," she says. Poor records
also can lead to health problems. Some children have been
over-immunized, while one study found about a third got no
vaccinations. Child welfare groups say caseworkers should oversee no
more than 18 foster kids to ensure careful monitoring, but in some
systems, workers have caseloads of 100 or more, the report says.
Agencies need more money, says Bass, but what's available also could
pay off better if federal funds, covering about half of foster care
expenses, didn't come with such rigid guidelines for use. A waivers
program that expired in 2002 allowed a limited number of innovative
state programs that paid off handsomely, she says. For example,
Delaware used money to treat birth parents with substance-abuse
problems, and Illinois subsidized relatives to care for foster kids.
The waivers program should be reauthorized and expanded, the report
suggests. One bright spot: an 80% increase in adoptions since a 1997
federal law offered states bonuses for placing more foster kids in
permanent homes. Still, children average nearly three years in foster
care, and about 300,000 enter the system every year. Infants and
toddlers are the fastest-growing group, says psychologist Jane Knitzer
of the National Center for Children in Poverty in New York. More than
half of these very young children have serious health problems, so
sketchy monitoring is of great concern. The youngest are most likely
to be adopted, though. Older kids are bounced around, says Knitzer,
"and teens often shuttle between the mental health and juvenile
justice systems." Kids in foster care for many years get less
education than average, and as adults they're more likely to be
unemployed and to serve time in jail, studies show. "Investments in
improving their care will pay off for years to come," says MaryLee
Allen of the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, D.C.

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