States Underserve Disabled Foster Kids, Study Says

State foster-care systems neglect the needs of disabled children — and the foster parents who care for them — according to a national analysis of the child-welfare system. More than one-third of the more than 500,000 children in America's child-welfare system have disabilities, according to the report, the first of its kind. NPR's Rachel Jones reports.

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More than half a million children are in foster care in this country, and more than one-third of them have physical, mental, or emotional disabilities. That's from a new study from the Child Welfare System. It also found that these children often don't get the specialized care they need. NPR's Rachel Jones reports.

RACHEL JONES reporting:

Linda and Craig Companna(ph) had already adopted a child when a hospital social worker called their home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin 12 years ago. A two-month old baby boy named Tim needed a temporary home. Linda Companna was astounded by how fragile he seemed.

LINDA COMPANNA (Foster mother, Wisconsin): All I can remember is just how little he was and we took pictures with our son, Cory(ph), and him next to each other and it's like he was just so little.

JONES: Too little, just five pounds when he was released. But the Compannas were told that despite being premature, Tim would be healthy. But his problems just got worse, first with breathing. Then doctors diagnosed failure to thrive. At six months, he was as floppy as a rag doll. Through it all, Linda Companna says Tim's caseworker wasn't much help.

Ms. COMPANNA: It took a lot of us educating ourselves as far as what resources are out there and programs to get him on lists for, and things like that.

JONES: It would take three more months to get Tim properly diagnosed with cerebral palsy. And the Companna story is not unique. The new research suggests that thousands of disabled foster children, and the people who volunteer to care for them, need much more specialized care and support.

Mr. STEPHEN BENNETT (President, United Cerebral Palsy): There's a lot more kids surviving who wouldn't have survived 20 or 30 years ago, who have quite a bit of damage.

JONES: Stephen Bennett is president of United Cerebral Palsy, a national advocacy group. His group teamed with the non-profit Children's Rights, Inc. to produce the new report. What they found surprised even them. Most disabled children in state care suffered significant prenatal injury or poor nutrition. About 80 percent were exposed to alcohol or drugs before birth. And more than half have mental health and behavioral problems. Bennett says many disabled children wind up in special group homes. Others move from one foster home to another.

Mr. BENNETT: Think about what that does to a child. And the education system, the healthcare system doesn't respond very well in the first place, but if you move a kid from home to home to home, they never catch up.

JONES: The research concludes that children in youth in foster care have worse health than homeless children. Experts say the Child Welfare System isn't even close to figuring out what to do about it.

Dr. RICHARD GELLES (Dean, School of Social Policy and Practice): And so it is beyond chaos.

JONES: Richard Gelles is dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. He says many state agencies don't discover disabled children's problems early enough. Gelles and other researchers say a major problem stems from the qualifications of caseworkers. Today, Gelles says, too many frontline caseworkers are recent college grads who didn't major in social work and have less than six months experience.

Dr. GELLES: That's not enough for this kind of population.

JONES: For example, Gelles says there are 150 graduates in his University's master's of social work program this year.

Dr. GELLES: Of that group, I only know that 20 have taken an advanced course in developmental disabilities.

JONES: Gelles says those who do have advanced training often don't get hired because state agencies can't afford to pay them.

Rachel Jones, NPR News.

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