David first attempted suicide when he was 4 years old. One moment, he was playing with his Legos on the kitchen floor. The next, his fingers were wrapped around a paring knife as he went for his wrists.
He'd been a ward of Baltimore's foster-care system nearly his whole life, and its efforts had brought him to this point: sobbing at the kitchen sink, his small face red with anguish, his blond curls damp with sweat, insisting that he wanted to die.
He belonged to no one, and perhaps never would.
David had been well instructed in that lesson by a system that set out to protect him. He was a bruised baby when he was wrested from his mother's trash-strewn apartment. But the system that wouldn't let him live with his parents also wouldn't sever his ties to them. The system placed him in a loving foster home, but made clear the arrangement was temporary. It forever dangled before him the possibility of a family, and then denied him one.
David's reaction to his tenuous circumstances grew violent as the years passed. At 2 1/2 , he clung to his foster mother's skirt and begged her not to make him go. By 4, he was banging his head against walls each time he saw his parents. Before his 5th birthday, he tried to end his misery with a paring knife.
"What you see in the history is the steady destruction of a child, a steady process of destroying him emotionally," said Dr. Leon Rosenberg, a Johns Hopkins child psychologist who reviewed David's case.
"His behavior and his reactions were all totally predictable. He has become a significantly emotionally disturbed child as a result of flaws in the system that was trying to save him."
David is 8 now. He lives in a psychiatric treatment center in Baltimore County.
There are other Davids across the country, children who have been traumatized by long stays in foster care. They are a minority among the nation's more than 400,000 foster children, but researchers say they number in the thousands.
They endure years of uncertainty even though federal law recommends that children be kept in foster care no longer than 18 months. The primary goal is to preserve families by helping troubled parents reclaim their children.
But in Baltimore and elsewhere, child welfare officials and judges offer only half-hearted support of the law's second message -- to find a permanent home if a child cannot go back to his family. Too often, children languish in the system. While most Baltimore foster children go home within a year, for example, one-third will remain in care an average of five years.
Even supporters of speedy adop- tions understand the system's desire for caution. The idea of snatching youngsters from their parents conjures Orwellian fears. And there are worries that if children, particularly older children, are freed for adoption, there may not be families who want them.
But there is a price to indecision, and it is paid by children such as David.
"Emotionally, he could never decide who his parents were, where his home was and what his future would be," said Mitchell Mirviss, a former Legal Aid lawyer who once represented David. "Who's responsible for it? Probably everyone. The whole system. Some more than others, perhaps, but clearly the system failed this child miserably."
The Baltimore Department of Social Services declined to discuss David's case. His history is described in hundreds of pages that contain his family's record with the agency and the city's juvenile court. The documents by law are confidential, but copies were obtained by The Sun. Further information was provided by David's parents -- who categorically deny any abuse -- and by others familiar with his story. David's last name is withheld here. The last name of his foster parents has been changed.
Lawsuits across the country have revealed that sometimes, children such as David are victims of overwhelmed bureaucracies where workers responsible for too many youngsters literally lose track of them. There is some of that in David's case.
But most of the time, well-intentioned people made conscious decisions to continue his tenure as a ward of the state. In the process, they prolonged his agony.
A troubled start
A month before David's birth in May 1983, a social worker visited the girl who would be his mother.
Rose was a textbook example of the kind of parent who might wind up beating her kids. She was just 17 and a high school dropout. She already had one child. Rose had been raising the little girl with occasional help from her boyfriend, but there was no one else to offer support. Rose's father, who raised her, had died the year before. She didn't know where her mother was.
The social worker who dropped in on Rose occasionally was the system's effort to fill that void. But this day, the visit went no better than usual.