For years, child welfare agencies have been stained by accounts of children beaten, starved and murdered while in foster care. Once dismissed as aberrations or blamed on a single social worker, the incidents are increasingly recognized as the tragic consequences of systemic failure.

A recent lawsuit filed in Los Angeles, Calif., places blame squarely on the system. Last September, Los Angeles County supervisors celebrated the reunion of Melinda Smith and her estranged father as vindication of a new program within the Department of Children and Family Services (DCF), which aimed at reuniting families.

Last week, Melinda (now 17-years-old) and her father Thomas Marion Smith filed suit against the county for its 10-year failure to bring them together. The lawsuit alleges that social workers who knew Melinda was deteriorating in DCS custody nevertheless blocked her father from even knowing she had been removed from her mother's care and was "in the system." (Thomas says he tried repeatedly to locate Melinda, whom he thought was still living with her mother.)

Meanwhile, the county blames the "lost decade" on a communications breakdown. Is this case an aberration, or does it point to a common practice: the exclusion of non-resident fathers from the foster care system? A study released this April suggests an answer.

What About the Dads? Child Welfare Agencies' Efforts to Identify, Locate, and Involve Nonresident Fathers was prepared for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service by The Urban Institute. The study "examined nonresident fathers as placement resources" … "with a description of the extent to which child welfare agencies identify, locate, and involve nonresident fathers in case decision making and permanency planning."

Scant research has been done on the role of non-resident fathers except, perhaps, as it relates to child support payments. Thus, the 186-page study is openly preliminary about its findings.

For example, the study examines child welfare agencies within four geographically and culturally diverse states -- Arizona, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Tennessee -- but draws no national conclusions. Nevertheless, "What About the Dads?" constitutes the best available snapshot of how the child welfare systems in general approach non-resident fathers.

Highlights among its findings:

"Caseworkers reported that half of the non-resident fathers with whom they had been in contact had expressed an interest in having their children live with them (…27 percent of the entire sample)….In 4 percent of cases the child's case goal was placement with the father."

Fathers who want custody are particularly significant for children like Melinda who circulate in the foster care system after being removed from a custodial mother.

In 1988, Melinda was born out-of-wedlock. Her father agreed to pay child support and maintained a close relationship with his infant daughter. When Melinda was about 4-years-old, she and her mother abruptly moved. Although they stayed in the same general area, Thomas had no way of finding them. In 1995, after two complaints of suspected child abuse, Melinda was placed into "the system" where she remained for the next decade.

During her first five years in state custody, Melinda was housed at a center with much older children who had been convicted of criminal activity; social workers believed that her "emotional problems" made her "not appropriate for adoptive placement."

At 8-years-old, Melinda stopped speaking and suffered from a deep depression for which she was required to take Prozac at ever increasing doses. During her last five years in custody, Melinda was shuffled between seven foster families.

Last year, Melinda met with retired social worker Peggy Crist who was consulting with DCF on how to find permanent placements for teens who had grown up in foster care. Melinda reportedly told Crist that "the most important thing" was to find her father.

It took Crist one day to locate Thomas at the same address where he had lived since shortly after Melinda's birth. The County had neglected to alert Thomas that his daughter was in foster care even though they were under a legal obligation to do so with "due diligence."

The County explains that Thomas' whereabouts were listed as "unknown." Nevertheless, they were able to find his address for the purpose of sending him several years of child support bills, all of which he paid. Thomas' attorney, L. Wallace Pate commented, "He's a registered voter with a valid driver's license and an open child support case. All they had to do…was pick up the phone and ask the L.A. County Child Support Services Department, 'Do you have a contact on this man?'"

The lawsuit goes farther than charging mere incompetence however; it claims that social workers told family court officials and Melinda that her father was a "deadbeat dad" although his regular child support payments were a matter of record. The lawsuit brashly states what the study "What About the Dads?" suggests: Bias within child welfare agencies promotes the practice of marginalizing non-resident fathers even when a child's only other alternative is institutionalization.

The study explains that social workers fear fathers could be abusive. Nevertheless, it concludes, "the serious problems identified in fathers are the same kinds of problems and issues facing the mothers of children in foster care."

These include alcohol and drug abuse, mental problems, and imprisonment-- with only imprisonment occurring more frequently in fathers. Indeed, the study found that the "demographic characteristics" of non-resident fathers were similar to those of resident mothers with the fathers being slightly older and more likely to marry.

In short, whatever bias exists against nonresident fathers seems to have little basis. Yet the consequences can be vicious. The consequences can be seen in Melinda's childhood, which was a living hell. And needlessly so.

All the time her father's arms were waiting to shelter and offer her the one thing no state agency can capture in a case file: love.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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