A Father to Celebrate

June 19, 1994

Today we celebrate fathers -- whose presence or absence indelibly marks the life of every child. It is a day that should also bring to mind the 1,300 Maryland children who are waiting for a family and a father to call their own. These are children who have been removed from their homes, placed in foster care and are waiting to be adopted.

Of children who enter foster care, about half can expect to be returned to their parents or to relatives within six months. For the rest, the outlook is grim. In many cases, abusive parents have made reunification of the family impossible. More often, the culprit is neglect, with parents either unable or unwilling to provide the basic necessities of life or even a minimal amount of nurturing.

Children in foster care have many needs, but one of the most obvious is a swift resolution of their cases. Under current conditions, adoption placements can take five to seven years, an unconscionable time to leave a child in limbo. Many of these children become too old to be adopted, or so jaded that after age 10 they exercise their rights to object to an adoption.

Rearranging a child's legal relationships is serious business, not to be done carelessly. But crowded court dockets, overworked government agencies and unavailable parents throw roadblocks in the process. The cases fall prey to inertia -- and children suffer. There are ways to change that, but so far it hasn't been a state priority.

More money for adoption services would make a big difference. Child welfare advocates say an additional $3 million could boost adoptions by an extra 250 or 300 cases. The money would underwrite the labor-intensive process of terminating the rights of biological parents, making appropriate matches between children and prospective parents, ensuring that cases are handled speedily and following up after the placement.

For two years, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has rejected these proposals. But legislators also bear blame for the sorry state of adoption in Maryland. The House Judiciary Committee this year turned in a notably self-indulgent performance while considering bills designed to speed the process of terminating the rights of parents whose children are awaiting adoption. At one hearing, a legislator seemed incredulous that a man who hadn't bothered to call, write or even ask about a child could have his parental rights terminated after a full year. But what about the child?

Maryland's adoption backlog is more than a sad footnote to Father's Day. It is a list of tragedies, every one of which deserves a happy ending.

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