Growing up in Burlington, N.J., Kenneth Wooden was a truant and a vandal who was once arrested at gunpoint for stealing a car. He avoided reform school only when his working-class parents pleaded his case before a sympathetic juvenile judge. When he graduated from high school, his reading and writing skills were so minimal he was unable to get a job at a local soap factory. "I couldn't get past the guard shack," Wooden says, "because I couldn't fill out the employment application." Drafted into the Army (which, incredibly, assigned him to the typing pool), Wooden embarked on a self-improvement regimen. Tutored by his wife, nurse Martha Braun, he graduated with honors from Glassboro State College at age 26 and returned to teach history at his old high school. His study of the reading levels of juveniles in the New Jersey prison system (they averaged from third to fifth grade) led to his first book, Weeping in the Playtime of Others: America's Incarcerated Children (McGraw-Hill, 1976). Now living in Morrisville, Pa. with his wife and their four children, aged 7 to 18, Wooden is director of the National Coalition for Children's Justice. He is currently completing an investigation of child care abuse by the late Rev. Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple in Guyana. He talked with Richard K. Rein for PEOPLE about the plight of children who populate the nation's reform schools, foster homes, orphanages and other child care facilities.

How many foster children died at the Peoples Temple in Jonestown?

Of some 300 kids who died in Guyana, I believe more than 50 were foster children. Among the 248 bodies still unidentified, 64 are in three-and-a-half-foot coffins. Those babies were murdered. They didn't take that poison voluntarily.

How did the Peoples Temple acquire foster children?

Jim Jones encouraged members to set up foster homes. In California you can get six kids to live in your house, and for each you get a minimum of about $150 a month. Jones also received thousands of dollars for Happy Acres, an institution run by temple members for 14 "developmental damaged" children and adults. These little streams of dollars fed a river of millions to the Peoples Temple.

Was the Peoples Temple unique in cashing in on child care?

No, Jim Jones used the system just like all the other bastards have in warehousing kids. We have a large industry that feeds off kids in trouble. The captains of this industry shrewdly foresaw a large market created by government programs that aren't properly monitored.

Where does the money come from?

Local, state and federal agencies. There's money for the educationally handicapped, for learning disabilities, for the physically handicapped, for vocational education. If you're hustling the money, you know where all the pockets are. Some private child care facilities charge $2,000 per month per kid, and the cost is usually picked up by the state or federal government.

How does that work?

I recently approached the Milwaukee County Welfare Department to find out how much it would cost to place a child at Eau Claire Academy, a private facility that charges $2,317 per month. I told them I was not poor—I made over $40,000 a year. They did some checking and told me I would have to pay only $4 a day; federal and state funds would handle the rest.

Where do the kids in such facilities come from?

Juvenile judges commit most kids. But in some cases parents can place their children without a hearing.

Why are kids cut loose from parents?

All the usual things: divorce, delinquency, the breakdown of the family, lack of government services for the family. What intensifies the situation is the tendency of the courts to move in and grab the kids with little family counseling.

Do parents view juvenile courts as a convenient dumping ground?

In some cases, yes. When a friend died 20 years ago, she left five children. The father told New Jersey he couldn't take care of them anymore. The state willingly took them. He in turn remarried and started a new family. No one said, "Hey, mister, they're your kids and you raise them, or we'll nail you for neglect." The kids still suffer the consequences.

How many juveniles are there in the child welfare system?

We're talking about a floating crap game of at least two million.

Are they primarily juvenile delinquents?

No. Only about 200,000 kids have actually committed crimes. Another 500,000 are dependent and neglected children, whose parents could not or would not support them. Another 500,000 have some sort of mental handicap. Some 500,000 are "educationally handicapped," a new term for kids who become problems in school because they don't have basic skills. Finally, there are about 300,000 "status offenders."

Who are status offenders?

They are kids who hang out in unruly crowds, who drink too much, are having sex, are generally out of control. They are frequently truants or runaways, but they have not been convicted of any crime.

Should all two million of these kids be institutionalized?

In some cases families are disasters; incest is real. These children should be taken away. But I have seen surveys which maintain that one-third of all children in foster care should go home. Another third could go home with adequate family counseling. The last third can never go home.

Should youthful criminals be treated differently from adults?

I'm not a bleeding heart. If a teenager commits rape or murder or armed robbery, then that little SOB ought to be locked up. I don't want him in my neighborhood. On the other hand, with the same intensity, I don't want a kid who is a truant or a runaway to be kept with the criminal kids.

Should kids have the same rights as adults?

No. Kids are immature and they do stupid things; they need some kind of protection. But let's give them the most basic human rights.

What rights are denied foster children?

In many cases they are denied due process. Their mail is censored. They can make no phone calls. The physical abuse is incredible—from quack medicine to drugs to beatings. Pregnant girls are put in solitary confinement because they won't take abortion medication.

What's the future for such kids?

I once wrote Charlie Manson in prison to get information on his childhood in Indiana, where he spent four years in institutions. He wrote back, "You have seen me in the eyes of 10-year-olds. I was just an early warning." He's right. I've seen the hate in these kids' eyes.

Are we, as a nation, growing weary of children? Is that why they are mistreated?

No, it's not because we dislike children. It's because these are kids who have no power. They can't communicate, they can't organize, they aren't a political constituency. In this, the International Year of the Child, President Carter is proposing to cut juvenile delinquency funds by 50 percent. It's a political liability to be seen as a coddler of criminal kids.

Has there been any progress?

Yes, the federal Runaway Act passed in 1974 is excellent. It provides shelters in several cities, staffed by people trained to work with runaways. But that bill went no place until they found 27 bodies in Texas—all runaways who had been sexually assaulted and murdered.

What other legislation is pending?

Two bills before Congress now would be a fitting memorial to the children killed in Guyana. One would require the review of the placement of children in foster care every six months. The other would authorize the Justice Department to intervene for young people where there is a clear pattern of denial of basic human rights. Both bills were killed last session.

What still must be done?

We will not have reform in juvenile justice until two things happen: The doors of these institutions must be open 24 hours a day to the press and anyone else, and the financial books must also be opened. What's been missed until now is the economics behind the incarceration of neglected children.

If your children were orphaned, would you want them in an institution?

Interestingly, I asked that same question at a recent meeting of the National Association of Private Homes for Children. I asked members individually if they would ever place their own children in their own institutions. The answer was always, "God, no!"