Waiting for a Real Home

February 27, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

Remember last summer when camera crews and reporters staked out the Michigan home of Roberta and Jan DeBoer, waiting to capture the wrenching scene when the 2 1/2 -year-old girl they had raised almost since birth was to be returned to her biological parents?

At the time, public opinion seemed mightily touched by the vagaries of an adoption process that takes little account of a child's-eye view of legal proceedings and the eternities they can take to decide something as basic to well-being as who mom or dad will be and what household one can call home.

But life moves on. Events in Annapolis last week prove how even the tears of a little girl can be conveniently forgotten.

Public policy choices could go a long way toward rescuing children from legal limbo. Around the country, thousands of children languish in foster care waiting for adoption, often being shipped from placement to placement so frequently that they lose all ability to bond with an adult or trust a loving relationship. These are children with no hope of returning to their former homes, for whom case workers have decided that adoption is the best course.

In Maryland, 1,300 children now in foster care are waiting to be adopted, but the state has the resources to expedite only about 400 cases a year. Last summer and fall, there was talk of giving the Department of Human Resources additional money to pay for more caseworkers to match children with suitable homes, to track down parents in order to determine whether their parental rights should be terminated and simply to speed the cases through the system. (Adoption in Maryland can often take five to seven years.) Best estimates suggested that an additional $3 million could boost the number of adoptions by 250 to 300 children next year.

In Annapolis this week, legislators heard testimony on the departmental budget, which contains not one extra penny for adoption services. Who wants to explain that to the 900 children who'll get left behind this year?

There is, of course, plenty of sentiment for lowering tax rates for Maryland's wealthiest taxpayers, by allowing the expiration of a temporary but relatively painless budget-balancing measure enacted two years ago.

The 1 percent surcharge would have raised as much almost $60 million next year. Taxes always pinch, but this surcharge is not onerous. The amount varies according to income levels. But as one example, a couple earning between $200,000 and $250,000 a year would pay $104. Yet think what that small sacrifice could mean to adoptable children in Maryland.

As it is, the state tells them they need a new home, but it simply doesn't have enough money to get them into one before they get too old to care. Increasingly, children over 10 are exercising their right to reject a potential adoption, largely because they are so jaded they no longer want to run the emotional risk.

Governor Schaefer considered extending the surcharge to pay for badly needed social programs, but economic development arguments won the day. The fear of Money magazine's infamous ''tax hell'' label outweighed the need to speed an adoption process that currently takes four years on average -- a big chunk of childhood.

So affluent Marylanders can rest easy: the surtax will expire as planned December 31.

This is not to finger-point at rich folks. After all, many people affected by the surtax work hard and long for their taxable income. They also provide much of the investment and economic leadership that helps the state to prosper. Perhaps they can be forgiven for not always rising to the challenges of civic leadership.

But why can't elected officials take a broader view? Why do they let even the threat of anti-tax rhetoric settle any issue without a debate? Shouldn't someone point out that the state will pay a heavy price for throwing young lives away?

There is one piece of good news for those 1,300 children waiting for a real home. This week legislators also heard testimony on a bill that would speed the process of terminating parental rights in cases where a parent has no relationship with a child for one year. This crucial legal step is the point at which many pending adoptions stall. Currently, Maryland courts take, on average, more than a year to act on petitions to terminate parental rights so that children can be adopted. This bill wouldn't fully solve the problem, but it would help. It deserves swift passage.

Someday maybe Americans will tire of the excess resentment they feel toward government and recognize that there are some things we need government to do -- like find 1,300 kids a home. It takes money to do it. What is a home worth to a child? A lot more than $104 a year.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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