Trying to bridge the adoption gap for older kids

Program aims to pair parents with children who are harder to place

April 25, 1999|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

As the sounds of popular gospel singer Kirk Franklin waft down from an upstairs dance floor, 9-year-old Donnell takes a break from a game of pool to talk about his dreams for an uncertain future.

"I'm ready to be adopted now," he says as giggling children run and play around him. "I'd like to have a mother and a father and live in a nice house. I'm kind of tired of being in foster care all the time."

Donnell isn't the only one. Yesterday, more than two dozen children met nearly 30 prospective parents in a Columbia recreation center for a few hours of face painting, games, dancing, food and socializing.

It was the first "matching party" sponsored by Howard County Department of Social Services officials who are spearheading Project Bridge, an innovative program that attempts to pair families in the Howard suburbs with older children or sibling groups in Baltimore's foster care system who have been legally approved for adoption.

The three-year project is using $600,000 in federal money to try to match more than 600 children from Baltimore -- the majority of whom are African-American -- with black, middle-class families in Howard, one of 40 communities around the country running this kind of program.

Social Services officials have been betting that Howard -- which has fewer than 10 adoptable children in foster care -- will offer more families willing to adopt than Baltimore does.

For families looking to adopt children, such as Columbia residents Ann-Marie and John Eichelberger, yesterday's matching party was a chance to meet the children casually and spend a few hours getting to know them.

"We're having fun and we're talking to all the children," said John Eichelberger, 33. "We're not looking at it as anything other than what it is -- a way to get to know everyone."

Ann-Marie Eichelberger, also 33, acknowledged that "some people find these parties to be very invasive and a little tense."

"I consider it like a college weeder course," she added. "They're to make sure that you really want to become an adoptive parent and are willing to stick through the whole process."

Matching parties can serve to "calm you down if you're a prospective parent because you see that the children are just normal kids who need real families," says Janice Goldwater, executive director of Adoptions Together, a private agency that recently joined with the state to help place older African-American children in permanent homes. "It can really be a way of breaking down some of the myths about adoption."

Laurel resident Clevetta Tyler, 34, said that while there is no easy way to arrange for children to meet prospective parents, Project Bridge officials "made today's party sound very relaxed -- like it would be a place to make some friends."

"They told me that there was no pressure at all, but I didn't expect to have so much fun and to leave with presents, too!" Tyler said while showing off a beaded bracelet a young girl had made for her.

Though the program has been running for about a year, no children have been adopted, says Project Bridge manager Vivian Walden.

"We have recruited over 200 interested families, and we have a lot of people who come through training," Walden says. "The holdup has been getting people to turn their application packets in. We can't proceed until the applications come in and then begin the home study and training process" for the final adoption.

The adoption process can take six months to a year, Walden says.

Project Bridge officials will likely find it difficult to place many of the children in adoptive homes. According to adoption advocates, black children comprise more than half the foster-care population and are likely to remain in foster care longer than any other group.

Many are older than age 6 and have siblings who also need to be adopted, preferably together.

Children attending yesterday's matching party were between ages 9 and 17, a strategy designed to make them feel less insecure.

"We've learned that when you have matching parties with older and younger children, the younger ones tend to get all the attention," says Shannon McRae, a Baltimore social worker.

"These kids know why they're here and we don't want them to feel a sense of rejection if nothing comes together with a prospective parent," she said.

Project Bridge officials say they would like to place the children with African-American parents but will consider any family that can provide a stable, loving home.

However, Democratic state Del. Frank Turner, who last year sponsored a law designed to help adopted children find their birth parents, says race should have less to do with adoption than finding a good match for parents and children.

"What's really important is to give a child a sense of family," Turner said after playing table tennis with a group of rambunctious pre-teens.

"Most of these children are really beyond mentoring at this point. I would tell a lot of these parents out here in Howard County: Instead of buying a new Mercedes, use the money for something constructive. Adopting a child is a lot more fulfilling," he said.

As the afternoon came to a close, a couple of families seemed to have made a connection with a number of foster children -- a first step in what is likely to be a long, often complex process.

Twelve-year-old Tasia Hopkins spent her day talking to a Howard couple -- and catching up with her siblings, Robert, 8, Jimmese, 10, and Lemar, 11, all of whom live in separate foster homes in Baltimore.

"I just want everyone to know that we're good kids," she says. "I hope that we all get to live together someday."

Pub Date: 4/25/99

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