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Foster Care Crisis Puts Focus On ‘Boarder Babies’

March 26, 1987

NEW YORK (AP) _ An uproar over the city’s foster care system has put a spotlight on its most innnocent victims: the 300 or so ″boarder babies″ who spend their infancy behind bars in hospital cribs instead of foster homes.

Usually the offspring of drug addicts, the babies are held for months after birth in hospital wards throughout the city, sometimes long enough that they learn to stand and walk in their ″cages,″ as the cribs, many of them steel, are described by critics.

Now, under pressure to reform the foster care system, the city’s Human Resources Administration has announced a plan to end the boarder baby crisis.

Under the plan, announced Wednesday by new HRA Administrator William Grinker, the city would keep the boarder babies in hospitals for no more than a week unless they suffer from serious medical problems.

The city also would boost pay to foster parents, make faster decisions on whether to return infants to their natural parents and expand efforts to work with parents to try to keep a family together even before a baby is born. The plan is due to go into effect by November.

The changes were proposed after the HRA and its Special Services for Children division came under intense fire from child advocacy groups. The Association to Benefit Children filed a lawsuit on behalf of the boarder babies last December.

″When a human baby isn’t nurtured and isn’t given an opportunity to develop a bond to a parent or primary caretaker, the baby loses resistance, loses ground, loses the ability to fight off disease,″ Gretchen Buchenholz, head of the Association to Benefit Children, said Thursday.

″On that count alone, the baby is at risk. Babies don’t develop - physically, emotionally, cognitively and socially - when they aren’t loved,″ she said.

The problem with boarder babies - defined as children under the age of 2 who are hospitalized without medical necessity - is not new.

According to Barbara Emmerth, research director for the Citizens Committee for Children of New York, the city underwent similar crises in 1959 and 1976, as the number of infants needing foster care suddenly shot ahead of the number of foster parents.

This time, she said, an epidemic in the use of the potent crack form of cocaine and an increase in reported cases of child abuse and neglect apparently led to a sudden increase in babies needing foster care.

At the same time, the pool of foster parents was shrinking. One factor might have been an increase in the number of two-wage-earner families, but another, critics say, is that the city was not aggressive in seeking new foster parents.

″It had to get to a crisis situation before they (city) would pay attention to the needs of these children,″ said Ms. Emmerth.

Ms. Emmerth said it costs at least $300 a day to keep children in hospitals. According to Ms. Buchenholz, there were about 125 boarder babies in hospitals last Labor Day, 170 by mid-December, and 300 this month.

One way the city dealt with the problem was to open group care homes that were quickly derided as ″orphanages″ that were inappropriate for infants.

Some children also were returned to their natural parents after months in the hospital, said Ms. Buchenholz. In nearby Westchester County, a similar case created a furor this week when a mother was charged with beating her 18- month-old daughter to death after the child was taken out of foster care and returned home.

The city’s plan for reforming the system was welcomed by advocates for the foster children.

″It’s a plan that I think will really make a major positive difference,″ Ms. Buchenholz said. Still, she added, the Association to Benefit Children will not drop its lawsuit until it has been assured that the new plan will be adequately enforced.

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