BOTH THE D.C. government and a number of good citizens have made Herculean efforts this year to deal with the problems of children needing foster care. Yet, as Post reporter Laura Sessions Stepp reported Monday, difficulties are increasing at a faster rate than solutions. Coping with these children is in large part another legacy of the city's drug problem. Like the strain on law enforcement, courts and prisons and the increase in violent crime and disease, much of the devastation of District families is due to addiction.
About 2,400 of this city's children are in foster care; most have been placed for care outside this jurisdiction. Some are children with special needs who have been institutionalized in other states. Others are in foster homes in adjoining counties or nearby states because only 290 Washington families -- only 290 -- are willing to provide foster care. In the past 15 months, the city has more than doubled the number of social workers assigned to foster care children, but the caseload of individual caseworkers continues to rise. Each is now responsible for 81 children, an impossible burden for a conscientious professional. To this aspect, the public has responded admirably. Funds were raised last year alone for three new residential facilities for boarder babies. Many individuals also responded to an appeal for more foster parents, but only a small percentage followed through.
The truth is that taking on a foster child who has been abused or was born addicted or was born with the AIDS virus or with any of a number of physical or mental handicaps, as many of these children are, can be very difficult though also deeply rewarding. Men and women do step forward, but there simply aren't enough of them.
The D.C. Department of Social Services, the Rivlin Commission and professional social workers as a group believe the best way to deal with the foster care problem is to forestall it. If families can be kept together with help, there will be fewer children in need of foster care. This approach is not without risk, for some parents are abusive or incompetent. So caseloads must be reduced dramatically if social workers are to provide the intensive guidance and continuing supervision that is needed. The Rivlin Commission estimates that a good family preservation services program would cost $1.5 million a year, but within a short period of time, savings in foster care expenditures would be more than triple that amount.
Rep. Thomas Downey (D-N.Y.) and some of his colleagues on the House Ways and Means Committee have set a high priority on the problems of families, and especially children, affected by drug abuse. Federally assisted family preservation programs are on the top of his agenda, and legislation will be considered this year. That kind of encouragement and, we hope, the federal support to implement new programs will be welcomed in this city.