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Children Faith Based Agencies

By STEPHEN O'CONNOR

There are two things to remember about the "long tradition" of faith-based antipoverty efforts referred to by President Bush in his recent speech at the University of Notre Dame: First, for most of American history a primary goal of such efforts was the propagation of particular faiths, and second, no antipoverty program has ever succeeded well or for long without adequate financing.

The child welfare system in New York offers a perfect case study of faith-based antipoverty work. For the last 150 years, the city's services to poor, orphaned, abused or abandoned children have primarily been provided by religiously affiliated organizations.

Modern child welfare was born in 1853, when Charles Loring Brace founded the Children's Aid Society to provide education, jobs and homes to street children. Brace is best known for his so-called "orphan trains" -- a precursor to foster care -- under which thousands of children were sent in groups to the country, where they were taken in by farm families. Brace presented his organization as nondenominational, but he was strongly anti-Catholic and had few misgivings when many Catholic children he had sent away converted to Protestantism.

Beginning in the 1860's, New York Catholics, outraged by what they considered to be a Protestant plot against their faith, founded their own child welfare services, which placed children only in Catholic homes. Later in the century, Jewish organizations set up similar services exclusively for Jewish children.

This religious segregation persisted for most of the 20th century and resulted in tremendous inequality. When African-American children began to make up a substantial portion of the poor Protestant population after World War II, contributions to Protestant agencies declined markedly. Black children then had to depend on an ever-shrinking number of poorly financed services.

In 1973, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of Shirley Wilder, an emotionally troubled black girl. The suit charged that she had received inadequate care because as a Protestant, she had been turned away by city- financed Roman Catholic and Jewish foster care agencies.

While the case was not settled until 1999, religion as an eligibility test for child welfare services effectively ended shortly after the suit was filed. But the child welfare system's original structure -- a network of religiously affiliated organizations -- still creates problems today. Poor communications among agencies and a byzantine bureaucracy can have the direst consequences for the children who are meant to be served.

Moreover, the competition among agencies for limited funds has always made it difficult to give children the care they needed. Charles Loring Brace well understood what we might call the Iron Law of Anti-Poverty Funding, under which no effort to help poor children, including public education, has ever been funded well or consistently enough to operate according to its original design.

Brace knew that the Children's Aid Society would have no chance of success if it couldn't do its work cheaply. He sent children to the country in groups because he couldn't raise enough money to place them individually. Nor could he screen and monitor prospective foster parents. As a result, while many children found fine homes, many others found nothing of the sort.

Budgetary restraints contribute to many of foster care's present failures. New York City child welfare workers must handle an average of 25 cases at a time, roughly double the caseload recommended by the Child Welfare League of America. And caseworkers at private agencies are paid salaries comparable to those of city sanitation workers.

No one can criticize President Bush for wanting to "enlist, equip and empower idealistic Americans" to help fight poverty. Idealists have always been the backbone of social work. But many of them have religious agendas that are incompatible with a multicultural democracy.

Also, as the history of New York City shows, over-reliance on disparate groups to provide needed social services can result in a bureaucratic morass. This will prove especially true if the president's notion of relying on idealists who will work for little or nothing turns out to be sugar coating on a bitter pill of budget cuts to already underfinanced social- service agencies.

Stephen O'Connor is the author of ''Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed.''

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