1,300 Unlucky Jessicas

August 09, 1993

The nation watched in horror last week as a 2 1/2 -year-old girl was taken from the people she knew as mommy and daddy to be given back to her biological parents. But in one sense little Jessica DeBoer/Anna Schmidt is lucky. Her problem is that two sets of parents love her and want her. Sadly, in the annals of adoption, that is a rarity.

In Maryland alone, 1,300 children are awaiting adoption. They have been removed from whatever homes they had and placed in foster care, where caseworkers have determined that the only feasible future is to find them new parents. This year, only about 400 of them will find permanent families. That leaves hundreds of youngsters in limbo, sometimes moved from place to place so often that they lose all ability or desire to establish emotional bonds that might soon be ruptured.

In recent years, Maryland has made wise investments in programs to help troubled families remain functional so that children will not have to be placed in foster care. Money doesn't solve every problem, but it can make a difference: In fiscal year 1991, 3,625 children entered foster care; by fiscal year 1993, the number was down to 3,100. That's encouraging news, but it doesn't solve the problems for children who end up in the system. For those children, half will be returned to their parents or to relatives within six months. For the other half, the prospects are grim.

These are the children for whom the chances of patching up a biological family are slim. These cases include abusive situations which make returning to the family impossible. By far the greatest culprit is simple neglect -- kids without needed medical attention, children forced to look for food in trash cans, youngsters left on their own with no human warmth or nurture. One set of 6-year-old twins taken into state custody literally did not know the meaning of the words "up" and "down."

The state has an obligation to rescue such children, but the state cannot be their parents -- only people can be. Unfortunately, an adoption process that takes five to seven years renders a child unable to adjust to a new family. Currently, the state is putting too few resources into adoption. It takes time and effort to meet the legal requirements for terminating the rights of biological parents, to make the matches between children and prospective parents and to ensure that cases are handled speedily. The need for more resources is obvious in the numbers: 1,300 children are eligible for adoption, but only 400 adoptions will be completed this year. That's 900 children left out in the cold.

Child welfare advocates maintain that an additional $3 million allocated to adoption resources could boost the adoption rate by an extra 250 or 300 cases next year. Isn't that a small price to pay for giving a child what every person needs?

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