Radio show host speaks for Baltimore's foster children

Host aims to help `our children'

January 22, 2007|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun Reporter

Back from a short commercial break, WOLB radio show host Kewanee Smith shouts out a warm "Welcome back, Baltimore!" before turning to the telephone, its lights blinking, to take calls. First up is Johnny.

"My son is 14 years old, and he keeps asking me to adopt him a little brother," says Johnny.

Next up is Sharon, who wants to know why it is difficult to adopt, and later, Linda, who had adopted a little girl and wants to say how happy she is.

Typical talk radio this is not.

And Smith, a licensed social worker with more than 30 years experience in the foster care field, is no typical host.

Her radio program - the short title of which is Putting Children First - has the talk show format, including engaging guests, chatty callers and free giveaways, but is unique in its mission to connect caring adults and needy children.

Smith's success is vital to the mission of the Baltimore Department of Social Services, which has the largest roster of abused or neglected children - about 6,500 - in the state, and an ever-dwindling number of families willing to take them in.

The number of foster families in the city has dropped from 1,784 in December 2004 to 1,456 at the end of last year.

As a result, more city children must be sheltered in foster homes in surrounding counties, a situation that can create stress for fragile children as well as relatives with visitation rights. It also means long drives for case workers - especially in times of crisis.

Samuel Chambers Jr., director of the city Department of Social Services, said it worries him that while his agency approved 117 new foster families between July and December, it lost 157 in the same period. In most of those cases, Chambers said families either adopted the foster child they were housing or decided to drop out of the system after a relative's child for whom they were caring left foster care.

"We have got to be more aggressive," Chambers said. "We have got to market the benefits of staying in the system to families who are thinking about leaving."

The city's push for foster families mirrors one by the state, which has dedicated new funds to recruitment, as well as support for existing foster families.

According to a 2005 report by the state Department of Human Resources, about 73 percent of the state's foster children are placed with foster families, but officials would like to see that number increase. They argue that group homes - facilities that house multiple children - are more costly and are often some distance from a child's home community.

Given the dip in foster families, Smith admits she is under pressure, but explains that in her nearly 20 years of foster family recruitment, that is pretty much the way it has always been.

But if she is stressed, she doesn't show it.

"Good morning, Baltimore!" the social worker/radio personality called out Friday from her studio at WOLB (1010 AM) in Woodlawn. "Today we are going to be talking about strengthening families on behalf of the children of Baltimore!"

With the enthusiasm and pep of a kindergarten teacher, Smith is a hit with her listeners, some of whom are foster parents and foster children. She has been doing the show, which airs from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., for about seven years - a budget cut took her off the air last year - and has hosted programs on HIV and AIDS as well as on "Chessie," a new computer system that is supposed to keep better track of foster children.

"We try to humanize the bigger picture [of foster care] and show people how they can participate," said Smith, explaining how she picks topics for her shows.

The show, which costs about $400 a week to produce, is paid for by the state, and hosting it is, well, part of Smith's job. Off the radio, she is the city's foster family recruitment supervisor, who oversees two recruitment workers and a small support staff.

"I don't get paid extra to do the show," Smith said. "I will have to talk to someone about that," she added with a giggle.

On Friday, the foster care show lineup at WOLB included caseworkers Abdul Hedayatpour and Anna Claxton, who spoke about finding foster children permanent homes with adoptive parents.

"What they need is a family - a father and a mother," said Hedayatpour in response to a question from Smith, who also explained case worker jargon - including "re-placement," the process of finding a new home for a foster child - to uninitiated listeners.

Later, when Claxton started to explain that older foster children can opt not to be adopted, Smith again pushed for clarification.

"But we always revisit that in case they change their minds, right?" she asked.

"Yes," said Claxton. "A lot of people think that when children get older they don't want to be adopted, but who doesn't want a home?"

When it was time for a commercial break, Smith, like any radio pro, instructed her listeners "not to touch that dial." And when she came back on the air - "Welcome back, Baltimore!" - she encouraged listeners to call her with questions.

She said one of her best listeners before her recent hiatus was a truck driver who would distribute foster family brochures at roadside restaurants.

Smith often tells her listeners that if they want to talk to her off the air, they can leave a telephone number and she will call them back.

And she does so, religiously.

Why?

"To support our children," Smith said.

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

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