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Study suggests ways to help foster kids

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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