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Meanwhile, the annual turnover of social workers hovers as high as 70% in some states. "You can't even run a Burger King with a 70% turnover," says Howard Talenfeld, a Florida lawyer. Social workers have always been undertrained, exhausted and second-guessed--so much so that some have turned to a negative kind of creativity. In Milwaukee, for example, social workers don't answer the phone when their caseloads are full. In other places, they simply stop visiting homes where some children are known to be abused because death doesn't seem imminent. They take advantage of recently implemented policies that allow them to "waiver" a family. This means they fill out a report that says the kids look fine--and their supervisors usually take their word for it. Multiply this state by state and county by county, and the children barely stand a chance.
Ten years ago, the House Select Committee on Children blamed "weak federal oversight" for the "extraordinary failings" of the foster-care system. It has taken the better part of a decade to finalize the monitoring rules that will guide the states in implementing all the new laws that have followed. Shalala, talking about the long wait, says, "We were not after the quick political hit here. This is not a spin operation. This is a very sophisticated, thoughtful set of regulations that are realistic for the states." Her department, nevertheless, missed congressional deadlines to revamp the child welfare-monitoring system by two years. The ostensible reason: it wanted to produce thoughtful social policy that would lead to the "most sweeping reform of foster care in 20 years."
Despite everything, people have managed to emerge from the foster-care system to become pillars of society. In January a 23-month-old girl in Washington was beaten to death after a judge remanded her, despite inadequate paper work, to her mother's care. The case so affected Washington's reformist mayor, Anthony Williams, that he broke from his prepared text in his State of the District speech in March to reflect on his own life in foster care in California, where he lived untended, given up to a life of supposed mental retardation until he was adopted at the age of three. "Experts told my mother I would never make it." He did, but he has the scars to prove it: a crooked smile and an asymmetric head that he believes came from not being turned in his bed or held in an adult's arms. It is the sad legacy of foster care that more children than ever continue to be terribly, terribly scarred.
--With reporting by Melissa August/Washington, Julie Grace/Chicago, Maureen Harrington/Gillette, Hilary Hylton/Austin, Sylvester Monroe/Daytona Beach and James Willwerth/Los Angeles