Children's Voice May/June 2008

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Children's Issues in the News

California

The Supreme Court has let stand a ruling that San Diego County welfare officers may conduct routine searches of welfare recipients' homes to combat fraud, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The American Civil Liberties Union had challenged the ruling, contending the county's policy of requiring home searches without a warrant violated privacy rights guaranteed by the 4th Amendment to the Constitution. The justices refused to hear the challenge, saying the home inspections do not seek evidence of a crime but are intended to determine whether welfare recipients qualify for benefits.

According to the Times, the San Diego district attorney adopted a policy in 1997 under which applicants for welfare benefits must agree to a "walk through" of their residence while they are present. Inspectors check if the applicant has an eligible dependent child and has the amount of assets claimed, as well as whether a supposedly "absent" parent lives in the home. If the residents refuse to allow the inspection, they can lose their benefits.

"No applicant has been prosecuted for welfare fraud based upon anything observed or discovered during a home visit," County Counsel John Sansone told the high court, according to the Times.

Florida

A Department of Children and Families (DCF) task force on child protection issued a recommendation last fall that DCF collect foster children's DNA as a "more thorough and, under certain circumstances, successful technology for positively identifying a person" than fingerprints.

Some child advocates opposed the idea, however, fearing such an action would invade foster children's privacy and make them feel as if they'd done something wrong, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal.

"One of the things we've been trying to help people understand is that these kids are victims, not offenders in any way," the Daytona Beach News-Journal quoted Andrea Moore, an attorney and Executive Director of Florida's Children First.

DCF Secretary Bob Butterworth formed the task force in August 2007 after a 2-year-old girl disappeared from a foster home the year before and was later found safe in another state. Among the task force's recommendations for improving child safety was to review the feasibility of taking DNA and procedures for collection, storage, testing, and destruction and how this would affect privacy. A state report issued in 2002 already suggested the idea after foster child Rilya Wilson disappeared at age 5 from South Florida. She is now suspected dead.

DCF officials say about 470 children are missing statewide from the foster care system, most of them runaway teens. Butterworth told the Daytona Beach News-Journal he thinks that "for identification purposes it would be a good idea" to collect DNA. A work group within his department will study whether it's practical.

Alan Abramowitz, a DCF administrator who served on the task force, pointed out that some fingerprints are not reliable if they become smudged or hard to see, especially in infants. If DNA was used, fingerprints would not be used, he told the Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Maryland

The Maryland Department of Human Resources has agreed to pay $1.5 million for the care of a 5-year-old Baltimore boy who cannot speak or walk due to brain damage he sustained while in a foster care home where he was placed by the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, according to the Baltimore Sun.

The state's payout includes $80,000 a year for the rest of Brandon Williams's life for his medical care, according to attorneys, as well as $580,000 to the boy's family. Part of the money to the family will pay for a house with easy emergency-vehicle access and a van to accommodate Brandon's wheelchair, the Sun reported. "We believe that we were able to balance Brandon's needs without unduly burdening the state treasury and the taxpayer," Philip Lohrey, an Assistant Attorney General assigned to the Department of Human Resources, told the Sun.

Brandon's mother, Martina Ford, 32, lost custody of her four children in 2004 while hospitalized for sickle cell anemia. Brandon was sent with his sister to live with a foster family. The children's foster mother left them in the care of her adopted teenage daughter, a former foster child, who abused the younger children, according to state records. The teenager, who was charged as a juvenile in the case, is accused of tossing Brandon into the air and failing to catch him as he fell and slammed his head into concrete steps, according to the Sun.

Mississippi

Mississippi recently settled a class-action lawsuit brought by Children's Rights, Inc., to reform its foster care program at an estimated cost of $17 million for the state during the first year alone.

"This is a plan to overhaul this agency and get it back on track," Eric Thompson, Senior Attorney for Children's Rights, told The Clarion Ledger. "In light of where we are now, clearly we have a long way to go to protect children in Mississippi."

Children's Rights brought the suit in 2004, alleging backlogs and overworked and under-trained workers within the foster care system. An agreement reached through the lawsuit's settlement outlines reforms that will take more than five years to phase in. Among them is the requirement to increase the number and hiring standards for social workers, as well as increase medical and educational services for foster children and establish a 24-hour hotline to report abuses. The state's Department of Human Services must also acquire accreditation from the national Council on Accreditation, according to The Clarion Ledger.

"Since only a handful of states are accredited in this area, I expect this settlement to help create a system in Mississippi that will become a national model for how these essential services can best be delivered," Governor Haley Barbour said in a statement.

One of the immediate changes under the settlement will be an increase in foster care rates, which have been ranked in the bottom third in the nation. The state has paid foster homes $325 per month for the care of a 2-year-old, $355 per month for a 9-year-old, and $400 per month for a 16-year-old, more than 70% below the recommended reimbursement level, The Clarion Ledger reported. The settlement calls for Mississippi to reach the recommended levels by July 2009.

New Jersey

New Jersey is now required by law to test all pregnant women for HIV during their first and third trimesters, unless the women refuse. Newborns whose mothers' HIV status is positive or unknown at the time of birth will also be tested, according to Bloomberg News.

"Today, New Jersey becomes the first state to require universal opt-out HIV testing for pregnant women, a move that has the potential to dramatically reduce the transmission of HIV from a pregnant mother to her newborn," Senate President Richard Codey said in a statement issued when the legislation was signed into law in December. Codey sponsored the Senate legislation, modeled after recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Two years ago, the CDC issued a report estimating that the rate of HIV transmission during childbirth might drop to 2% from 25% if universal screening, preventative drugs, Cesarean delivery, and avoidance of breast feeding are combined. According to the same CDC report, the number of U.S. children reported with AIDS after they acquired HIV during childbirth declined to 48 in 2004, from a high of 945 in 1992, largely due to better identification of infected pregnant women and the effectiveness of preventative drugs in reducing mother-to-child transmission.

Bloomberg News reports that only New York, Connecticut, Illinois, and Indiana require some form of newborn testing, but that none of these four states requires universal opt-out testing for pregnant women.


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