Fostering efficient adoption policies

March 29, 1998|By Sara Engram

WHAT a difference a full treasury can make! The latest deficit drama for the city schools is smoothed over when the city finds extra funds (partly from unused snow removal money) and when brimming state coffers make it hard for legislators to deny extra funding for the state's most underfunded and overburdened school system.

But money isn't everything. Good procedures -- working smarter, if you will -- can make a big difference, too.

Case in point: In the past three years, there has been a sharp rise in the number of foster children who have been adopted into permanent homes -- from 376 in 1994 to about 600 in 1997.

That's a success story worth celebrating, though there are still more than 1,100 Maryland foster children waiting for a home in Baltimore City.

Four years ago, if a foster child in Maryland had no realistic chance of returning to her family, her prospects for finding a permanent home were bleak. Children could expect years of foster care, and by the time they were eligible for adoption, many of them were too old to care and would reject the offer.

And no wonder. Many of them had endured a series of foster homes and temporary families -- the kind of bouncing around that frays emotional bonds and damages a child's ability to form the trusting relationships with adults that are essential to healthy growth.

Some good news

Three years ago, when Advocates for Children and Youth released a report on adoption prospects for children in foster care, there was a glimmer of good news.

At that point, the average time a foster child eligible for adoption would wait for a permanent home had dropped by five months statewide and 10 months in Baltimore City over the previous several years.

But there was bad news, too: Despite that drop, the average wait for adoption was still 54 months -- 4 1/2 years. In a child's-eye view of time, that's an eternity.

That same year, a state commission recommended important changes in foster care, including an earlier determination of the prospective length of time a foster child would return home -- if ever.

Many -- nearly half -- of children removed from their homes by the state are able to return to their own families within several months. These are the relatively easy cases in which social workers can help families deal with the problems that prompted the removal -- helping the family obtain safe housing or ensuring that an abusive relative is no longer living with the family -- and bring the family together again.

But there are plenty of cases where problems aren't easy to address, such as parents who are drug addicted, sick or otherwise unable to carry out their basic responsibilities to a child.

Such cases require a difficult balancing act between the rights of parents and the needs of children.

Too often, states have given more weight to the interests of parents, allowing them years to "get their act together" before terminating parental rights and making a child eligible for a permanent home.

Maryland has made some important adjustments, and the results are evident in the rising number of adoptions.

According to Stephanie Johnson Pettaway, adoptions manager for the state Department of Human Resources, social workers quickly assess whether a child will be able to return home.

In cases where uniting the family does not seem to be a possibility, they work to find a foster care placement with a family qualified to adopt the child. That way, if the child becomes eligible for adoption, the process moves quickly.

There is also a greater emphasis on "open adoptions," in which social workers encourage communication between biological parents and adoptive parents.

The courts are also helping by consolidating foster care cases and adoption procedures in the same court (family courts are ideal for this). Keeping these cases under the auspices of one court eliminates repetitive paperwork and speeds the process.

All these changes help speed the process -- and where our children are concerned, each day without a home of their own is one day too many.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial page director of The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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