Growing up, Gladys Fisher remembers that her grandmother's home was always open to other children — family or not. Taking a cue from her grandmother, Fisher and her husband, Keith, have adopted six children and fostered at least 25 others over the years.
"The way I was raised taught me to open my heart to other kids," Gladys Fisher said.
People like the Fishers have helped the state achieve a nearly 20 percent increase in the number of adoptions statewide over the past three years, according to the Department of Human Resources. Since 2007, approximately 8,760 children have been placed with guardians, adoptive families or reunited with their parents. The state had 738 adoptions this year, up from 597 in 2007.
Gov. Martin O'Malley reported the increase Wednesday at the Fishers' home near Forest Park in Baltimore, where he highlighted his three-year-old "Place Matters" initiative that aims to find more stable and secure homes for children in foster care. Three years ago, the state had difficulty even establishing the number of children in foster care, he said.
Now, "we're doing a much better job of fulfilling our mission as adults," O'Malley said.
Much of the progress has taken place in Baltimore, the governor said. The number of local children in foster care has dropped 28 percent, while the number of group home placements has fallen 71 percent, according to state figures.
The Fishers have five biological children and have adopted two sets of three siblings. O'Malley was joined by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, himself an adoptive parent.
Rawlings-Blake said her grandmother lived in the Forest Park neighborhood and that she still knows many of the families who live in the area. Being raised in a stable, loving home makes a difference, the mayor said.
"It reinforces to me that place does matter," Rawlings-Blake said.
State Sen. Bobby Zirkin, who has pushed for group home reform, called the figures "a move in the right direction."
O'Malley also highlighted a 27 percent statewide drop in juvenile homicides this year, saying, "It's all part of the same continuum."
"The better job that we do at reducing the number of children in group homes, foster care and increasing the number of kids that are adopted and placed in family settings, the more lives we save," the governor said.
Along with weak data tracking systems and performance measures, O'Malley said placement decisions in the past usually were not made in consultation with families.
DHR officials now try to place children with relatives when possible, minimize the length of stay in foster care and find options that are as close as possible to the child's original neighborhood.
Officials said the state still needs foster families who are willing to take in children temporarily, even though its goal is to reduce such placements. More than 2,225 new foster parents have been recruited in the past three years.
Michele Burnette, president of the Maryland Foster Parent Association, said weeks of training did nothing to prepare her for the greeting she received when she opened her door to two children in 1998:
"Don't touch me! I want my Mommy!" she remembers the two children yelling.
She said she thought that would be her last experience being a foster parent, but that feeling faded.
"[I realized] that I wasn't the only one feeling overwhelmed and scared," said Burnette, who lives in St. Mary's County. Months later, she said, she realized that the value of being a foster parent lies in "giving a child a childhood."
Fisher's oldest adoptive daughter, Christina Thomas, now 23, said she doesn't remember lacking for anything while growing up.
"We got the same love as the rest of the kids," Thomas said.
The federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, passed in 2008, increased resources for many of the state's initiatives, state officials said. In addition to moving children out of foster care, the act also sought to improve health care, education and opportunities for those in the system, in addition to improving training for child welfare workers.
Maryland received a $196,000 adoption incentives grant last year. The legislation also helped provide additional resources for the state's efforts to serve children aging out of the foster care system and a guardian program, officials said.
A spokesman for former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., O'Malley's likely opponent in the coming election, said the "abrupt departure" of former DHR Secretary Brenda Donald raises concern about long-term leadership. The department currently has an interim secretary.