The 1994 story for which I interviewed Troy Saunders, Tovan Love and several other children in foster care was occasioned by two developments.
First, Newt Gingrich, who had just led the Republican Party to a majority in the House of Representatives, had recently voiced approval of orphanages, provoking much hostile reaction. In fact, thousands of youths in Washington and elsewhere were living in group homes that approximated orphanages; I was curious about the lives kids led there.
Second, the child-welfare system of Washington, D.C., was uniquely dysfunctional. This year, in reporting on Troy's and Tovan's difficult lives after foster care, I also interviewed several people about the state of Washington's system today. You can listen to excerpts from those interviews below.
Nationally, there are very few long-term studies that track the lives of children who experience foster care in the United States.
There are an estimated 800,000 children who passed through foster care in 2004. That's about 1 percent of the U.S. child population.
One person who has explored what happens to these children is Dr. Peter Pecora of Casey Family Programs.
Ten years ago, Pecora began tracking foster alumni in Oregon and Washington states. He found successes and resilience among some alumni, but the overall picture was not encouraging: A disproportionate number of the adults were struggling economically, emotionally and educationally. — Julia Buckley
Hear more from Dr. Peter Pecora
Court Case Filed to Protect D.C.'s Children
In 1989, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the child-welfare system of Washington, D.C., on behalf of a girl in foster care. In LaShawn A. v. Barry (Marion Barry, then the mayor of Washington), the ACLU argued that the city failed to protect the constitutional rights of children in its custody.
In 1991, Judge Thomas F. Hogan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the city's responsibility to the children in its care was a "travesty." The city agreed to implement changes to the system. But it failed to do so.
In 1995, the situation worsened when the city was implicated in failing to prevent the murder of a 3-year-old girl named Rhonda Morris.
By May of that year, Judge Hogan, in an unprecedented move, ordered that the federal court seize control of the agency — stripping the city of all authority of oversight.
Setting New Standards for Care
Hogan set new standards to protect the "LaShawn children." At the time, the agency cared for about 5,000 abused or neglected kids.
Judith Meltzer, deputy director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington, D.C., became the court-appointed monitor of the system in 1992. She paints a picture of a system that in 1992 was a disaster.
"The system did not even know how many children were in foster care," she says. "They could not tell you on any given day where their kids were."
In addition, there were no licensing standards for foster homes or group homes. Workers, who did not receive formalized training, carried caseloads as high as 90. And she says investigations were "a shambles."
"It's totally different now," she says.