The Smallest State Still Has Enormous Problems with Its Foster Care System

Four years into the campaign to reform Rhode Island’s foster care system, Children’s Rights renews its fight on behalf of vulnerable kids with recent stories of abuse and neglect — along with enduring statistical evidence of systemic dysfunction.

2011-07-06_ri_blog_post_kids_blurry_runningStates are ranked across endless categories: population totals, educational performance, obesity rates, on and on. In some cases, ranking high is a laudable achievement. In others it’s simply an embarrassment.

With respect to keeping vulnerable kids safe while in the state’s care, Rhode Island falls squarely in the latter category. In six of the last 10 years, Rhode Island has had the highest rate of abuse of children while in foster care. In only one of those 10 years did the state rank outside the four worst performers. Barely. It fell to seventh.

Because of Rhode Island state officials’ virtual inattention to its dysfunctional child welfare system, Children’s Rights has asked the court to permit additional kids to represent the more than 2,000 children at risk in the state’s foster care in our lawsuit to reform that system. Our investigations continue to yield data and statistics that reveal a dangerous system posing great risk to the children it’s supposed to protect.

But those are just numbers. Certainly, statistics are crucial in assessing the overall well-being of abused and neglected kids. The numbers don’t breathe, though. They don’t dream. They’re not born with hope or with unlimited potential.

Jared and Alex are not numbers.

The boys’ parents started a family on a foundation of devastating problems. Their mother struggled with drugs and had mental health issues. Their father carried a hefty criminal record, with three domestic violence incidents and several stints in prison. Despite this history, child welfare officials tried to make this family work — for far too long.

By the time the state finally took Jared and Alex into custody, they were three and five years old. While child welfare officials managed to keep the brothers together — temporarily — they immediately separated the boys from their younger sister. Nearly five years have passed since either boy has lived with her.

Child welfare officials sent the boys to live with foster families — almost always a preferred environment, especially for young children. But their first foster home placement only lasted five months, and the second home was a disaster in the making.

After about six months living in that second foster home, state officials discovered that the boys’ foster parents had been sexually abusing the children in their care. It took several years before the extent of abuse Jared and Alex suffered fully revealed itself.

In the meantime, the state removed these boys — then aged six and four — from this dangerous home and placed them in a temporary group shelter, an unsafe and inappropriate environment for kids so young.

This wouldn’t be their only stop in congregate care. After another placement with a foster family fell through because the boys exhibited increasingly sexual behavior, the state sent the boys to separate institutions, in different towns.

Alex spent a year and a half in an institution, Jared two years.

Even though they’ve since been placed with new families, but again not together, their behavioral and mental health problems are far from solved. Neither is on a path to the permanent, loving family kids so desperately need to thrive.

The tragedy in these boys’ lives stems from all the major failures of Rhode Island’s foster care system:

  • The state’s abuse rate in foster care is almost four times the national standard.
  • For the past few years, between 31 and 35 percent of kids in Rhode Island’s foster care have lived in congregate care settings, more than twice the national average.
  • In the most recent reporting period, nearly 12 percent of kids experienced six or more placements in their current foster care episode.

There’s little doubt that Rhode Island’s inability to recruit new foster homes plays a huge role in shaping this systemic dysfunction. What’s the reason for the shortfall? One factor could be that the state pays foster care parents about one-third the rate that the federal government says is needed to raise a child in that part of the country.

Jared, now 10, and Alex, eight, are young. While the harms they have endured have been significant, there’s still hope for them. They’ll need huge amounts of attention, therapy, and education, but they can — and must — be rehabilitated. The same goes for Rhode Island’s foster care system.

This has proved to be a tooth-and-nail fight, with state officials battling Children’s Rights on every legal front. We won’t give up on Jared or Alex or any of the more than 2,000 kids in Rhode Island foster care who aren’t getting the support they need and deserve. Because every kid deserves to be number one in somebody’s eyes.

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