Although conditions for Baltimore's foster children have improved under a 4-year-old federal consent decree, an increasing number of children who need to be adopted are having to wait a year or more, according to a report filed in U.S. District Court.
Prepared by children's lawyers in a class-action suit and reviewed by the Department of Human Resources before it was filed yesterday, the report says 149 of the 337 children approved for adoption as of March 16 have been waiting for at least a year for the termination of their parents' rights, a key legal step in freeing them for adoption.
That represents an 89 percent increase in the number of delayed cases since May 1991. And, while the number of cases increased 18 percent overall, the number of adoptions dropped 19 percent from 1990 to 1991, said Gayle Hafner, a Legal Aid attorney.
"This is not just a complaint about insufficient resources and bureaucratic delays," states the report, one of a series filed at six-month intervals over the past two years. "For [the children] it is a veritable race against the clock, which is lost in far too many cases."
The examples include:
* A 5-year-old known as A. J. who entered the system at age 1, when his mother put him up for adoption. More than four years passed before he was placed in a prospective adoptive home, largely because the Baltimore City Department of Social Services was slow in developing an adoption plan for A. J. and shepherding it through the legal process.
* D. N., 2 years old and infected with the AIDS virus, was abandoned by her mother at birth and put in foster care in August 1989. Her foster parents want to adopt her. The city Social Services Department waited nine months before filing a petition to terminate the mother's parental rights. Another 13 months passed before the agency filed a motion waiving parental notification, necessary because of the child's abandonment. Meanwhile, maternal relatives surfaced, so the process has to start all over again.
* S. D., 5, is waiting to be adopted by his aunt. His parents are in prison -- his mother on a 45-year sentence, his father on two life terms. A court ordered the department to plan for the child's adoption in 1988, but it took until March 1992. The department maintains the delay was because the aunt was "confused about her options."
The report also details the plight of other children who have been in numerous foster homes or failed to receive proper medical attention while in foster care.
The 1988 decree resolved a lawsuit against the city and state social services agencies by five children brutalized in the foster-care system.
The agreement specifies staffing levels and caseload limits, most of which have been met. It also directs the city to provide complete medical examinations for children coming into the system. While the state's other 23 local departments were not named in the lawsuit, they are required by a subsequent state law to meet the same standards.
The reports are the only measure of the department's progress. The agreement was the first comprehensive consent decree for foster care in the country, but unlike subsequent cases, it provides no monitoring by a neutral board.
Technically, the department was supposed to be in compliance by August 1990. Ms. Hafner said full compliance is not imminent, but added that neither side wants to return to court.
"We are extremely concerned about some areas and how long it has taken," she said. "There's a lot we don't feel we know. We have asked for the information. It has been denied us, because it's not set out in the consent decree."