It has been more than 25 years since the District closed its large institution for dependent children known as Junior Village, but the practice of housing children in institutions lingers. Today, the District pays a group home $32,000 to $55,000 per year to care for a child when a foster home can provide the same care for about $6,000.

The District must make it a priority to redesign its service-delivery system to make family-based care for most foster children possible -- and not just because of cost.

Placement with a family offers foster children their best option. Foster parents adopt more than 80 percent of the children in the child-welfare system who end up being adopted; such adoptions also are less likely to end in disruption. Further, foster children with chronic or terminal illnesses live longer and are more likely to reach their potential in a family setting. Young people entering adulthood have a greater chance of success if they can rely on a family.

In a rational system, we would promote foster families, and in times of a budget crisis, foster parents would be the last ones to miss a support check. But this is not true in the District. The belief seems to be that because foster parents are motivated by altruism, they need receive no more financial support than absolutely necessary. This reasoning, however, discourages foster parenting by making it a financial hardship.

In the past 25 years, the number of children in the District needing foster care has quadrupled, from fewer than 800 children to more than 3,200 children today. Moreover, the children needing foster care today are far more likely to have serious emotional and developmental needs because of the explosion in drug use, specifically crack cocaine, by women of childbearing age. Foster parents themselves have changed too, from the traditional two-parent family with a stay-at-home mom to many families of two working parents or single parents.

The D.C. government has not responded well to the urgency of finding and favoring families for children needing foster care. For example, the licensure process for a foster parent can take more than a year, primarily because of delays in home inspections by the D.C. Department of Health and by the city fire department. And while only a licensed child-placing agency can recruit, train and certify a foster home, anyone can open a group home in the District, which helps to explain why more than 50 of the District's children under the age of 6 now live in group-care facilities. Family-based care is simply not a priority for D.C. government.

The city must make the same commitment to foster families that the families are asked to make to the children they take into their homes. The government and its agents should be available to foster families 24 hours a day, and ample resources and support should be guaranteed. All child-welfare programs, social workers' performance standards and agency practices should be reviewed in light of the city's historical bias against family-based care for abused and neglected children.

It is often said that every child deserves a family. Our challenge is to make that a priority for the abused and neglected children of the District.

-- Tom Wells

is executive director of the Consortium for Child Welfare.