GAO Investigations of Foster Care Children

One of the rumors to emerge in the weeks following the Jonestown tragedy was that scores – perhaps as many as 150 – foster children had been among more than 300 children and minors who died that day. This rumor fed into a larger perception which took root in the immediate aftermath, that Peoples Temple had engaged in massive criminal activities, both in California and Guyana, in the form of voter fraud during San Francisco elections, in receiving Social Security payments, and in receiving other state welfare benefits. After several investigations by federal, state and local agencies, none of the charges were determined to have merit.

Because they implied deeper issues behind the deaths of children, the rumors concerning improprieties in California’s foster care system raised the greatest alarm, and in early 1979, U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-CA) held two days of hearings into the matter, and called upon the GAO to investigate the allegations.

The GAO released its preliminary conclusions in May 1979, four months after the Cranston hearings. As the GAO said in its release:

The examination was to determine the circumstances of [foster care] placements, the amount of Federal funds utilized for the placement and/or support of these children, circumstances under which foster children were removed from the United States to Guyana, whether any foster children died in Jonestown, and whether any Federal funds were diverted from their statutory purpose. Of the 337 children identified at the time of the tragedy in November 1978, 19 children were in foster care status at some time prior to their emigration to Guyana. … Only 1 of the 19 children was still in foster care at the time of departure.

The GAO’s final report didn’t appear until the end of 1980. Among its findings:

California guardianship children frequently did not receive of all the protection intended for them by State law. California received Federal foster care maintenance payments for guardianship children who did not meet Federal eligibility criteria. Federal overpayments occurred in three California counties, because the counties obtained Federal reimbursement for guardianship children whose care and placement were not the responsibility of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The health and safety of some children may have been jeopardized by placing them in small foster family homes which housed children in excess of capacity.

While these conclusions were made during the investigation of Peoples Temple, though, none of them directly related to any child who had been in the Temple’s care.

Placement of Foster Care Children With Members of the Peoples Temple, General Accounting Office Preliminary Report, May 31, 1979
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Guyana Tragedy Points to a Need for Better Care and Protection of Guardianship Children, General Accounting Office Report, December 30
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A longer discussion on the controversy involving foster children appears here.

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