When a family falls apart, the state steps in and provides foster care. But in too many cases, foster families are stressed and underfunded, leaving many of them at risk of falling apart themselves.

The Foster Care Task Force has studied the strengths and weaknesses of the foster care system in Utah. Last week, it issued its findings, including recommendations for respite care, training and ways to combat the sense of isolation many foster parents feel. Children are spending too much time in the foster care system as well. Permanency planning should be more effective and case review is insufficient."Though (the state's) first priority is prevention, the number of foster care cases is increasing," said Donna Carr, State Office of Education and task force chairwoman. "The problems are more severe, as well."

"There are about 1,000 youths whose circumstances are so dire that the state must provide for them," Eric Bjorklund, director of Utah Youth Village and a member ofthe task force, told lawmakers on the Social Service Interim Committee.

"By and large, foster parents in Utah are doing an excellent job. "

Burnout and a sense of isolation can be a problem for both foster care workers and foster parents, according to Tom Ivory, Catholic Community Services and a task force member. "More networking is key; burnout would be greatly reduced. There's just too much red tape and paperwork. We need to shift emphasis from case planning to treatment planning. And recruiting and screening are inadequate."

Ivory said children who belong to ethnic minorities have a hard time in the foster care system because of a "lack of cultural and ethnic sensitivity. Non-white children have a hard time finding foster homes."

In addition, he said, there are inadequate resources and too little substance abuse treatment. Even the clothing allowance is a problem: Foster parents cannot clothe a child on what the state allows, so they face a financial burden.

Both foster parents and the state's caseworkers need more extensive training. State foster care caseworkers spend an average of 18 hours on a case, according to Ann Cheves, Division of Family Services. Nationally, workers spend 108 hours. But Utah's caseload is too large to allow more time. A recent decision to hire more foster care workers should ease that problem somewhat.

The state must also look at - and change - its policies toward permanent deprivation, where a court terminates parental custody, according to both the task force and Human Services Director Norman G. Angus, who assembled the task force.

"Foster care is one of the more difficult things we do," Angus said. "And as good as our own workers are . . . we're darn poor parents."

The Department of Human Services has pledged to study the report, which Angus called "thoughtful and thorough," and have a plan to implement recommendations by the end of October.