Abuse in Foster Care: The Denial Runs Deep

Here’s the latest foster care horror from Oregon, according to the Oregonian:

Under the watch of the Oregon Department of Human Services, a lawsuit alleges, a young sister and brother were starved so severely by their foster parents and guardians that they weighed the same at ages 4 and 5 as they did at ages 1 and 2.

 Those facts, largely supported by the state’s own examination of the case, are laid out in a complaint filed against the state Thursday. It says the children ended up resembling victims of a famine: their ribs visible, their bellies protruding and their brain development severely affected.

 The suit says caseworkers and their supervisors and managers overlooked repeated specific complaints and glaring red flags… A caseworker saw the children less than a month before doctors at Randall Children’s Hospital determined they were suffering from chronic starvation, but the caseworker did nothing.

That story comes on top of this one, and this one. That’s just Oregon. A federal judge in Texas found rampant abuse in foster care. And in just the past week, there was this from New York and this from Utah.

Of course, there are plenty of horror stories about how children are treated by their own parents. In fact, the current child welfare system was largely built on such stories. When anecdotes collide, it’s time to look at the data.

But not in the highly-selective way Marie Cohen chose to do so in a recent column published by The Chronicle of Social Change.

She wrote that “State data compiled by the federal government show that the proportion of children in foster care who were the subject of substantiated maltreatment in foster care ranged from 0 to 1.34 percent.”

But the figures she cites come from child welfare agencies’ own investigations of abuse in foster care. For reasons that should be obvious, in such cases agencies have a strong incentive to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil and write no evil in the case file.

If the figures Cohen cites are to be believed, there are three states – Delaware, Vermont and New Hampshire – where absolutely no children at all were abused or neglected in foster care in 2014. New Hampshire has made that claim for five years in a row. Seriously?

Texas claims that fewer than one-third of 1 percent of foster children were abused in foster care in 2014. In other words, if 300 former foster children were gathered in a room and asked, “How many of you were abused over the course of a year?” only one would raise his or her hand.

That’s not what the judge found. And in Oregon, which claims that fewer than three-quarters of 1 percent of foster children were abused, state law apparently sets a higher standard for substantiating abuse if a foster parent or institution staff are accused than if the accused is a birth parent.

In contrast, research has revealed alarming rates of abuse in foster care. One independent study after another has found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes, and the rate in group homes and institutions is even higher. And for reasons related to study methodology explained here, even those figures almost certainly are underestimates.

In response, Cohen abandons the fiction of the official figures and simply tells us the homes from which the children were removed must be even worse because the children were removed from those homes. But just because a caseworker says a home was abusive or neglectful doesn’t make it so – particularly since poverty itself often is confused with “neglect.”

Her argument also presupposes that no intervention other than foster care could prevent recurrence of abuse in the cases in which children were removed. But the real question is: How does the rate of abuse in foster care compare to what would happen if families simply got the help they needed?

It’s not hard to answer, considering that even when families don’t necessarily get the help, foster care often is a worse option. There are two massive studies involving 15,000 typical cases in which the researcher made exactly the sort of comparison Cohen demands: What happens to children placed in foster care and left in their own homes, in the same types of cases?

The children left in their own homes typically do better – and that’s even when the families did not necessarily get any help.

None of this means no child ever should be taken from her or his parents. But foster care is an extremely toxic intervention that should be used sparingly and in small doses. Cohen wants to further increase the dose. I prefer less toxic options.

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Richard Wexler
About Richard Wexler 50 Articles
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org. His interest in child welfare grew out of 19 years of work as a reporter for newspapers, public radio and public television. During that time, he won more than two dozen awards, many of them for stories about child abuse and foster care. He is the author of Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995).


  1. My daughters were taken from me because of false allegations. My children were never neglected. They were taken for being “at risk” for neglect. I was accused of being mentally unstable. I completed the case plan. The therapist told I had to accept a diagnosis of adjustment disorder or they could not bill my insurance to comply with the case plan. The psychiatrist did not prescribe me any medication and said I was fine just stressed from being a single mom working and in school. Even after completing all parenting classes and a good review from 9 months of therap, they still decided to put my kids up for adoption. The foster mother lied on me claimed I was hostile toward her when she saw they were liberalizing my visits. I heard the foster mom tell my kids I didn’t love them one time when I was FaceTiming my daughters. The case worker ignored it all and put me back on monitored visits. The foster mom
    moved out of state with my kids against my will. I am still fighting to get my Angels back but no matter what I do they always find something bad to say about me and the judge and public defender I have just sit there and refuse to let me tell my side in court. I tried to sue DCFS and was told they have complete immunity. They have too much power and are corrupt to the core. Most of their claims of abuse or false allegations and they can now legally take kids for potential neglect!

    • They don’t have complete immunity. You can take them to federal court for violating your civil rights. Using a mental health diagnosis violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

  2. Dcf said my son being abused in my house so they took him. I had a visit with him and he told me that the frost mother make him sleep on the floor. I told my caseworker and she laughed at me.

  3. I was abused in foster care for 15 years. It still haunts me 5 years later. It’s a struggle to make life work. I’m currently battling for my life with illness( cancer ) and I’m so weak.

  4. My father went into coma 1971 till 1991 (20yrs) my mother became a drunk, me and bro went foster care. I was 5 bro was 6. Mom gave up, didnt have visitors. We were in a AN ABUSIVE foster home 5 years, until the foster father murdered the foster mother. She was the wicked witch on wizard of oz, looked like her, but far version. The 1st night in that home, WE were instructed to call them mom and dad! The 1st night, my bro was hungry, got up to find something to eat and got the shut beat out of him. They had 3 kids who watched their mother beat my bro, I jumped in but quickly got beat. I remember her grabbing my head by my hair and litterally ripping it (my head by my hair) down to the floor where she banged my head….I heard and felt my hair being ripped out of my head(bloody and bruised) day number one at 5yrs old. NOW if I had to ask a question I had to address this witch as MOM!! WE BECAME ROBOTS , even her kids and we walked on eggshells in a scares silent manner trying to stay off her radar! She commented on how loud we walked. When we walked from bedroom, to bathroom, to kitchen….almost like in a single file, she didn’t tell us all to do this, we all did in fear. I remember glancing at her from time to time and she would be srarring at me with looks like if they could kill….She didn’t have to speak, she scares you with a look. We were all beat when we stepped out of line, or for no reason at all just felt like beatin the shut out of one of us….98% Time was me and my bro…. We also were not alowed to be in the house. We had to be outside no matter what zero below conditions etc. We were not playing, like EVER! WE WOULD STAND IN SAME PLACE, HER SON SHE FAVORED AND WOULD MAKE HIM COME OUTSIDE AND THOUGH IS IN SNOW OR WHATEVER SHE DICTATED. OFTEN IT WAS MAKE 50 snowmen before dinner or your not eating….We would have to feed our dinner to the poor dog KING, who sadly was never played with:( and left chained to dog house 365 days a yr. It’s hard to make snowmen when it’s so cold the SNOW is powder and not packing, so we would have to WET the snow with thehose … are mittens were HOLES in them to start, they would be drenched ….literally ice on them….my bro would just go bare hands after a few winters…. She was harder on him than me, I would make 20 him sometimes 100….so their yard had like 200+ snowmen in the yard, back yard….They were often SCARY dark gray ice and badly formed and little like us. After a few winter the murdered husband said something , and she would have that favored SON destroy them after we made them daily….but it worked out well because he didn’t destroy well so we could use the ice balls to make some the next day. Winter blizzard of 1978 was a horror show….in middle night her cheating slime of earth incest child molestation husband was not home one night, she woke all kids up…..through candy at us told us to go to Windows oversees driveway, and act like were having fun, we looked out Windows AND IT WAS MY BRO BAREFOOT IN THIN PAJAMAS BEING MADE TO TRY TO PLAY BASKETBALL….EVEN HER KIDS WERE CRYING…..MY BRO LITTLE WALKED UP BACK STAIRS KNOCK ON DOOR SAYS “MOM can I come in”, blue from freezing, she locked screen door grabbed biggest pan she could find. Filled with ice cubes and water opened door through at my bro 🙁 I still cry to day from this! I ATTACKED HER FIRST TIME…..SHE BEAT SHIT OUT ME …BUT MY BRO GOT IN IN THE COMOTION SHIFTED TO ME OFF HIM.

  5. I was physically, mentally and sexually abused while in foster care. This is common. My foster parents raped me and my siblings. They were christian too. I had a few physically abuse me. Foster care is not safe. I was so glad I aged out of that awful system.

  6. As someone who was abused by parents who never once saw me as family, I find your take on foster care as a “toxic intervention” too generalized. I only stumbled on this article trying to sort out the complete rejection as a human being by comparing it to that of appointed family — and while I can’t deny that the figures are almost definitely beyond grossly understated, it’s annoying when the fact that the foster care system is completely broken becomes a point against the concept itself.

    As someone who had the misfortune of suffering at the beck and call of complete sociopaths, I would’ve taken physical abuse alone over what they did. I’m sure there are many others who were never given a chance that, even knowing how horrid foster life often is, would have taken it knowing that they wouldn’t have faced complete dismissal speaking ill of abusive foster parents.

    • Foster care can be a good thing but too many times the Foster carers take out their frustration on their Foster children. I know that fostering children is not easy especially when the Foster carer is fostering teenagers. When I was a teenager in Foster care I got arrested by the Police numerous times and I admit that this caused stress for my Foster mother that had to collect me from the Police station because I was below the age of 17 so I was not allowed to leave the Police station alone. I also used to stay out late on the street and I did not come home until the next morning. I once returned home so high of smoking marijuana that my Foster mother had to remind me that I left the key in the front door. So I am going to be fair because I know that being a Foster parent can be a very stressful job but that does not give Foster parents the justification to use violence against their Foster children. My Foster mother tried to threaten me with violence when I was complaining to her to her about her grandson punching me in my face for refusing to steal from a bank. My foster mother threatened me with violence the day before I left her by calling another one of her relatives that was a body builder to intimidate me because she feared that I may take physical revenge against her grandson that punched me in my face because I refused to steal from a bank.

      Of course I was not afraid of her relative that was a body builder because I knew that if he had assaulted me I could get revenge against him either by reporting him to the Police or I could use my friends and cousins that were armed gangsters to injure him severely. The next day she was crying and attempting to apologize when my social workers appeared in the morning to remove me from her home. Now I’m 35 years old and I know her grand sons are afraid of me and they do not have a clue where I live and they live in fear that I may take physical revenge against them. I have already gotten revenge against 1 of her grandsons by telling my friends to rob him back in 1996 the same year her other grandson punched me in the face for refusing to steal from a bank. I have never been to prison but I did get arrested during my teenage years for numerous minor offences including Graffiti vandalism and small theft. Foster care can be good but Foster care is usually dangerous for teenagers.

  7. I was in the system as a kid. I was hospitalized for two weeks for malnutrition from a foster mom.
    Another two weeks for bruised kidneys from being pushed down the stairs. From foster mom.
    Two weeks is a very long time. This is how serious it was.
    One foster home, very religious, stated my pneumonia was a punishment from God as I didnt pray hard enough. ( only when I was moved to another home, my new caseworker took me to the drs)
    A broken hand in a group home went untreated.
    At another home, I got in a fight at school, walked home with a huge gash on my eye, bleeding everywhere, and the foster mom handed me money for bus fare saying for me to take a bus to hospital for stitches. She was late for bingo.

    A dentist? Never saw one. Or a counselor.
    I was a warm body. It wasnt til after I just walked away from the group home that the state asked if I wanted to go home, I found out…that they took me without a court order. For years I languished in care.
    I sued the state, and won a small monetary settlement. They destroyed all my records.

    • This is atrocious. As a foster mother, I so apologize that the state failed you so completely. No one should be able to take a child without a court order, and there should be multiple checks and balances to ensure safety, treatment, and proper medical care. It is never ideal to take children from parents, but I do see children from horribly abusive and neglectful situations who bloom in care and often find permanent families. I honestly know that many would be dead had they been left with their parent(s). My state takes children only in severe cases and works hard to reunify. There are also multiple people who oversee each child, so it is difficult for a child to remain in a harmful foster home, but it still does happen. I’m so so sorry that the system you were subjected to is clearly so poorly run. I hope you find peace and joy.

    • No one should be able to force a child back even with a court order. Children are not your property, no matter how many certificates or deeds you have.

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