Government makes a poor parent, as plenty of foster children can attest. Maryland's challenge is to instill its foster care system with a greater sense of urgency in resolving the cases of children in its care.
As things stand now, foster children who cannot return to their biological families can wait years for a permanent home. But life in limbo is tough on children; as time passes, they become less attractive to potential adoptive parents, particularly when they bring with them troubled histories.
There are plenty of Maryland families willing to open their hearts to children in foster care. But the older the child, the harder it can be for an adoption to work smoothly. A 9-year-old bed-wetter with emotional problems is a far more daunting prospect than a 4-year-old with the same description. Bureaucratic delays exacerbate these problem and, in the end, help account for the fact that too many youngsters grow into independence with no home of their own.
A recent report from the private, non-profit group Advocates for Children and Youth provides a useful service in pinpointing reasons for delays in resolving foster care cases. The report's recommendations provide a good road map for future action. Some legislative changes have already helped speed adoption, but the report recommends several others. There are also judicial and executive changes that could make a big difference. The report notes that Maryland has many good regulations already in place; enforcing them more vigilantly would make a big difference in many children's lives.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is simply convincing the people in the system that time counts, that giving each foster child a permanent home is urgent business. That "system" includes both the executive and judicial branches. Caseworkers and officials in human services departments around the state can't hurry up a case if they can't get a judicial hearing to terminate parental rights or resolve other legal matters. It is important for Governor Parris N. Glendening to send a message through the executive branch that finding a permanent home for foster children is an urgent matter. It is equally important for Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy to engender the same attitude within the judicial system.
There are few things sadder than children left adrift in the world. Foster care can give a child a shelter, but it can't provide the stability and permanence children need. Maryland has many of the pieces in place that could vastly cut down on the time children spend in foster care limbo. What it needs now is the political will to make it all work.