Ronald Wilkins (right) and his wife Demetria Jackson-Wilkins… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
Devontay Hudson moved from one foster home to another for years, but last month he was adopted by a Millford Mill family — another symbol of a statewide initiative that has sharply reduced the number of children in foster care.
The Gilman School sophomore, an aspiring chemical engineer, can't remember how old he was when he entered foster care, and doesn't know much about his birth family. But ask him about his adopted family and the soft-spoken teen says he's glad to be home.
"It was a blessing for me to be a part of a family," said Devontay, 15, whose adoption increased the family of Ronald Wilkins and Demetria Jackson-Wilkins to nine members. While he doesn't exactly know the difference between his life and the lives of his friends, he said, "They live with their biological parents. I don't. But the feeling I have, I am pretty sure that's the feeling they have when they go home."
Adoption is just one of the methods the state Department of Human Resources has used to reduce the number of children in foster care by 35 percent since 2007 — from 10,330 to 6,709. In Maryland, 465 foster-care children were adopted last year.
Theodore Dallas, secretary of the agency that oversees children who are removed from their biological parents because of abuse or neglect, credits much of the reduction to an initiative called Place Matters.
The program seeks permanent homes for children through better data analysis, improved collaboration with courts and a focus on family-centered practices such as working with birth families long before a court date arrives to officially sever the rights of the biological parents.
"It was a dramatic sea change in the way we do things," Dallas said. "The idea was a simple one: Nothing matters more to a child than a place to call home."
Dallas said Baltimore led the state this year in reaching and exceeding goals set under the Place Matters initiative. The city reduced the number of children in out-of-home care from 4,005 to 3,276 during the last fiscal year, an 18 percent drop. The children were placed in permanent homes through adoption, reunification with their families and legal guardianship.
The number of children in foster care elsewhere in the Baltimore region remained mostly consistent from the start to the end of the 2012 fiscal year.
Molly McGrath Tierney, director of the Baltimore Department of Social Services, said under the Place Matters strategy, her 2,000 employees come to work knowing what precise task must be completed to move each foster child one step closer to a permanent home.
"The presence of a framework, Place Matters, sets a common purpose and mission that we all understand every day," McGrath Tierney said. "Caring alone isn't sufficient."
Children leave foster care one of four ways: They are adopted, assigned a legal guardian, reunified with their biological families, or they turn 18 and start their lives as adults.
The state's first goal is to reunite children with their birth families by working with the parents to correct problems that triggered the intervention by authorities, said Carnitra White, director of the state Social Services Administration for the Department of Human Resources. Meanwhile, the state creates a parallel adoption plan or strategy for legal guardianship, which most often grants custody of a child to a relative, she said. That allows the state to find a suitable permanent home for a child without terminating parental rights.
Next, the state focuses on avoiding adversarial relationships with birth parents, White said. One way is with attempts at court mediation leading up to any efforts to terminate parental rights, she said.
Additionally, the state is working with courts to execute adoption plans as soon as possible by reducing the potential for hearing delays, White said.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Robert B. Kershaw said the backlog of cases involving the termination of parental rights is at an all-time low in city juvenile court. Calling on retired judges to help cases move through the system more quickly and working on post-adoption agreements between foster-care providers and parents are two ways the courts are getting more children into permanent homes, he said.
Finalizing adoptions is a highlight for Kershaw. "It's easily the most rewarding experience in my 60 years of life, period."
Joan Little, chief attorney for the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau's child advocacy unit, applauded the state's recent successes, including its emphasis on reducing the number of foster children in group homes.
But in some cases, Little said, the state has been too quick to reunify families that aren't ready, especially because it's so important for the state to get the decision right when a child's safety is at stake.
"I think any time the state produces this kind of sweeping policy, there's a risk," Little said.