Opinion

Reform foster care

Some of the problems with South Carolina's foster care system can be fixed with policy changes. But many of the problems, despite the old saw, might benefit from having some money thrown at them.

Kathleen Hayes, a former adoption services director who was appointed director of the Department of Social Services earlier this year, formed a study committee to find practical ways to improve the system. The 30-member task force, which includes retired social workers, parents who adopt and a family court judge, is set to present its findings to Gov. Mark Sanford by Feb. 1.

The issue is a pressing one. More than 5,500 children are in foster care in the state, but their needs do not end with removing them from abusive households and placing them in foster homes.

On average, foster children spend more than three years in state care and live in more than three different homes before being adopted, returned to parents or relatives, or turning 18, according to the state Children's Foster Care Review Board.

Last year, 400 children were adopted, but they spent an average of nearly four years in state custody before their adoptions were final. Another 400 turned 18 and left state custody having never found a permanent family.

One of Sanford's goals is to shorten the adoption process to years or less. But Hayes also has pinpointed other problems that need to be addressed.

She cites high turnover of social workers and agency lawyers, inadequate training, a lack of technology and an overloaded family court system. She also said that the state's small stipends for foster parents, which are among the lowest in the Southeast, make it difficult for the state to attract the needed number of foster parents.

Hayes said birth parents need more help in improving their lives. And for those who can't, the process for terminating their parental rights takes too long.

Many of these problems could at least be alleviated with higher funding -- better pay to retain social workers and agency lawyers; more money for training; more money for office equipment and technology; more judges to serve in the family court system; more money for foster parents.

Money, of course, is not the only solution, but it could help. If the state continues to try to operate its foster care system on the cheap, children will continue to pay the price in misery.

Foster parents, social workers, lawyers and others who labor on under these difficult conditions deserve our respect. We hope the report of this committee will prompt serious reforms.

IN SUMMARY

Committee has cited a number of problems that plage the state's foster care system..

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