Adoption, the Underclass and America : Five Myths That Keep Us From Placing Abandoned, Unwanted and Abused Children With Families Who Want Them, and How We Can Turn The System Around Before It’s Too Late--for the Kids and for the Country.

Nina J. Easton, who is based in Washington, is the magazine's staff writer. Her last article was on the Cato Institute, the Libertarian think tank. <i> Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to the research for this story</i>

* Because of confidentiality laws, the names of most of the children in this story have been changed .

Delicate rhythms of breath wheeze through 4-month-old Shana Newman’s* lips as her lungs labor against a summer cold and the circumstances of her birth. Her navy blue dress is all frills and fuss, the sort of stuffy infant-wear that overly doting parents might insist on for their first baby girl. In fact, the tiny body staring up at a mobile of musical teddy bears is an “abandoned infant,” the government classification for the thousands of babies left behind each year in maternity wards, with neighbors, on street corners--just a step above the family pet dumped by its owners when it starts scratching the living room furniture.

In 1991, the most recent year data is available, mothers abandoned 12,000 babies in hospitals alone. That same year, another 10,000 newborns, so-called boarder babies, were being warehoused in hospitals because they lacked a functioning parent at home. Authorities found Shana on a Washington street after her mother wandered off on a drug binge. Once her head cleared, the 36-year-old woman noticed that her daughter was missing and called the social services agency.

She must have had the government number handy. Her neglect of her three oldest children had already prompted social workers to move them into foster care. Still, the mother’s phone call was fortunate for the nurses and caretakers at St. Anne’s Infant and Maternity Home. Now, at least, they know the name and age of the brown-eyed baby they diaper, feed and rock to sleep each night.


Few of the 57 young children housed at St. Anne’s, a government-licensed emergency shelter, receive any visitors. A crowd of 10 for Wednesday evening visits is considered a good turnout. Elisabeth Boyle, St. Anne’s social services director, holds Shana’s thin file on her lap. The children who drift through temporary shelters like this and into the nation’s complex, litigious no-man’s-land of child welfare bureaucracies can’t claim much in the way of parents or belongings, but they do have files, which bulge and yellow as their days as “system kids” stretch into years. Boyle’s face brightens as she peers into the white legal-sized envelope stapled to the inside of Shana’s folder and spots a slip of paper. These envelopes, set aside for visitation records, are usually pockets of air. “Oh yes,” Boyle says, “she’s had one visitor.” Then her face falls. “The social worker.”

Shana’s file begins with a record of her life at this complex of nurseries, children’s bunks and blacktop playgrounds in Hyattsville, Md., just over the border from the nation’s capital. Officially, children sent to this Catholic-run shelter are supposed to stay no longer than 30 days. No one knows better than Sister Josephine, the passionate and blunt nun who runs the place, that infants need the care of parents to thrive. But like every policy connected with the child welfare bureaucracy, one month typically stretches into many. Shana came in May and stayed the summer, cared for during four of the most critical months of her life by three daily shifts of workers and volunteers.

This year, as Shana begins to wind her way through the child welfare system, more than 8,000 American couples and singles will travel overseas, willing to succumb to frustrating and time-consuming whims of foreign adoption agencies, sometimes willing to step into civil wars, often willing to take home a child of a different race or with a troubled health history or both. They’ve been told there are no babies available here, one of the many myths nourished by the nation’s child welfare bureaucracy.

There are few vantage points better than emergency shelters like St. Anne’s from which to watch how the nation’s underclass is perpetuated and expanded. The nation spends an estimated $10 billion a year on child welfare, on a maze of agencies charged with protecting and rescuing children. What that money buys is a system that promotes homelessness, unemployment, welfare dependency and crime.


Adoption would save the lives of tens of thousands of children now consigned to state custody. That, however, would mean turning the political agendas of most state child welfare bureaucracies on their heads. Fewer than 8% of system kids can look forward to adoptive homes. Liberals who forged today’s child welfare policies stubbornly cling to an outdated belief that even the most neglectful and abusive biological parents can be rehabilitated. From the Right, critics in Congress mindlessly slash child welfare funding without assessing how to direct resources to adoptive families that need help raising kids with emotional and medical troubles.

The size of today’s lost generation is haunting. Since 1986, the number of system kids living in foster care, group homes or institutions has increased by nearly 60%. If brought together, the 445,000 children in state custody at the end of 1993 would fill up the stands for nearly seven NFL games at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. What’s more, the growth of foster care is fueled largely by the fact that fewer children, particularly African American, are leaving the system. In other words, a temporary stopover for families in trouble has become the anchor of childhood memories for tens of thousands of kids. Some 40,000 children spend more than five years in the system.

Of the 10,000 babies abandoned in American hospitals in 1991, only 6% were adopted. Shana Newman’s story is typical: She has a better chance of becoming homeless, getting pregnant as a teen, dropping out of school, even winding up in prison, than she does of getting adopted. A survey of older foster-care youth who left the system found that only 54% had finished high school, only 49% were employed and 40% were costing the government money by collecting welfare checks or prison meals. Sixty percent of the girls had given birth, and most of them were on welfare.

One national survey found that former foster children are three times more likely than others to become homeless, and major metropolitan areas report that as much as 30% to 40% of their shelter populations are system kids. Therapists Gregory C. Keck and Regina M. Kupecky, who co-authored the 1995 book, “Adopting the Hurt Child,” liken the abandoned or neglected child to a wild animal: “He learns to survive in ways that do not work within society.”

The nation’s hulking child welfare system defies an underlying precept of modern pediatric thought. Infants and small children require nurturing and love, consistency and permanency, and a reliable opportunity to bond with a parent or caretaker. Stressful disruptions in family life during these early years are like earthquakes that continue to send out aftershocks many years later. Children denied a chance to build deep human bonds early in life are likely to have trouble learning how to trust others and earning that trust back. They have trouble developing empathy for others and setting goals for themselves. They have trouble developing a conscience.

But prolonged transience is the defining feature of today’s child welfare system. After four months at St. Anne’s, caseworkers transferred Shana into a foster home that has no intention of adopting her. With luck, she’ll stay with that family, which is already raising her siblings, until adulthood. More likely, she’ll face additional transfers, either to a relative or to other foster families. The average child in foster care skips through three or four homes; infants remain in the system longer, so they’re likely to move around more than the average child. And because Shana is black, her stay in the foster-care system will be twice as long as that of a white child.

Fifteen years ago, a Congress unnerved by the growing number of youngsters consigned to foster care settled on a magnanimous solution: family preservation. Spend government money to “fix” the child’s biological family--offer housing, counseling, parenting classes, whatever was needed. Then send the child back home. A compassionate idea and a cheap one at that. Even today, the state and federal dollars spent on family preservation programs are a fraction of the $17,500 yearly cost of taking a child into state custody.

But in the mid-1980s two hitches arose: Crack and skyrocketing rates of out-of-wedlock births. Drugs, particularly the combination of crack cocaine and alcohol, are as lethal to the maternal instinct as they are to the fetus. As judges give parents first, second and third tries at getting off drugs and putting their lives back together, children waste their childhoods being shuttled from one foster home to another.


Most of the children coming into foster care today have drug-addicted parents; often these are single mothers whose relationship with the child’s biological father was fleeting. Academics are fond of saying that drug abuse “seriously compromises” a family’s chance of reunification. Sister Josephine puts it more bluntly: “For many of these kids, there is no family. There is a mother always living with a different man. The kids take care of mom while she stays stoned.”

The factors driving some 200,000 children into the system each year are so complex--sucking into a vortex the worst of America’s social pathologies--that even reformers are prone to throw up their hands, insisting that the solution has to start with welfare reform or more jobs or better drug-treatment programs. Adoption warrants little more than a nod.

Perceived as a cause of the anti-abortion movement, adoption isn’t an issue that generates much enthusiasm within the child welfare establishment. And the views of prospective parents about American adoption are shaped largely by TV’s fixation with horror stories of biological parents showing up at the doorstep to fetch their children; heart-wrenching as they are, the high-profile Baby Richard and Baby Jessica kinds of cases are rare.

An aggressive national push to find adoptive homes for system kids with little hope of returning home would mean challenging the nation’s most tormenting inner conflicts about race and the rights of biological parents. As a rule, public-agency adoptions do not begin as a voluntary process. The biological parents are mothers (usually) whose children were forcibly removed, who must sit in court while lawyers and social workers attempt to prove that they are bad parents, who may be forced to sign legal papers stating that they will never see their children again. There is an overriding compulsion in our society to view these parents, rather than their kids, as victims.

Compounding that discomfiting moral equation is the equally sensitive issue of race. In 1990, for the first time in history, blacks represented the largest portion of children (40%) coming into the system. While firm estimates for more recent years are not yet available, Toshio Tatara, research director at the American Public Welfare Assn., believes that the figure today may be closer to 50%. Any national policy promoting adoption would necessarily result in thousands of black children being placed in white homes--a vision that offends the influential National Association of Black Social Workers, which once likened transracial adoption to cultural “genocide.”

The thinking of these social workers--who today bless transracial adoption only as a last resort--may reflect a legitimate concern over the class bias of a system with finances that are based on removing poor children from their homes, notes Eloise Anderson, California’s Department of Social Services. The federal government offers states matching foster dollars only for low-income youngsters. “One of the reasons that black organizations are so scared of interracial adoption is that they believe in their hearts that the state aims to get their children to give them to white people,” says Anderson, who is nevertheless a critic of race-matching.

But the African American children now trapped in the system are being denied the same principle of equal opportunity that underscores every other aspect of American society. “In no other area of policy do state and state-licensed decision makers use race so systematically as the basis for action,” notes Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard-based civil rights attorney who has spent years investigating American adoption practices. Bartholet found that not only are children routinely separated into black and white pools but that the black pools are then broken down by the child’s skin tone--light, medium, dark--so that a like match can be made with parents.

Even though academic studies conclude that interracial adoptees fare just as well as their counterparts, race-matching proponents claim they are acting in the best interests of black children. As with the family preservation ideologues, their rhetoric has been rendered obsolete by changing times. Black families already adopt at three times the rate of whites; they would need to adopt at 12 times the rate to keep pace with the growing demand for homes. “American white folks go all over the world getting babies,” Anderson says . “Why don’t we take care of our own at home?”



Adoption is a back-burner goal of child welfare agencies largely because of five myths perpetuated by defenders of the status quo:

* Myth No. 1: Two-thirds of the children in foster care will return home.

What defenders of the system fail to add is that as many as half of those children end up back in the system. They were physically or sexually abused again, a drug-addict parent left them alone for days at a time, or a parent couldn’t cope and essentially checked their kids into foster care. The federal government’s own studies have concluded that 30% to 50% of the children in the foster-care system need permanent homes. As of 1990, 69,000 children had “permanency plans"--meaning that even their caseworkers, who are trained to assume that children will return to their parents, had given up all hope of sending them back to their biological families.

While it’s important to be vigilant against overzealous social workers, the numbers suggest that only serious cases of abuse and neglect land a child in foster care. Only 14% of the children involved in the 1 million substantiated child-abuse reports last year ended up in foster care, “contradict[ing] the prevailing notion. . .that child welfare workers commonly remove children from their parents,” according to a recent child-abuse survey.

* Myth No. 2: There are no babies available for adoption .

Defenders of the system repeatedly note that of the 50,000 children now legally available for adoption, only 4% are infants--the children most likely to be snapped up quickly by adoptive parents. In fact, a central reason for the infant shortage is that babies such as Shana typically languish in the system for two to three years before caseworkers take the time and trouble to ask a court to terminate parental rights, paving the legal way for adoption. A federal Health and Human Services study found that even children slated for adoption stay in foster care for 3.5 to 5.5 years. Jann Heffner, director of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, stresses that these time periods, so often viewed from an adult perspective, should be understood as “kid days"--eating up precious time from finite childhoods.

Last year, researchers at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall Center for Children concluded an exhaustive study of the foster-care systems of five major states, including California. The most striking change in the foster-care populations of those states between 1983 and 1992, the researchers found, has been the number of infants admitted to placement. “Children under the age of 1 are now three times more likely to enter foster care than children in the next year of life.” In California, 25% of first admissions to foster care were under age 1; that’s nearly 7,300 babies. In New York it was 29%.

The report also found that the median-length stay in foster care was usually much longer for infants--as long as 3 1/2 years in New York. The longer a child stays, the researchers found, the less likely he is to ever leave. In a separate study, Richard P. Barth, director of the Child Welfare Research Center at UC Berkeley, examined the records of infants who entered California’s system in 1988. After four years, nearly a third of the children were still in state custody.

Among the 85,000 in California’s system, the average age of a child at placement has dropped from 10 in 1984 to 6 1/2 in 1991. As in other parts of the country, the main reason that these young children enter the system is no longer physical and sexual abuse but rather neglect by a drug-addicted parent.

* Myth No. 3: No families want to adopt foster-care children.

The child welfare system is built on the proposition that most of its youngsters are “unadoptable"--a euphemism for unwanted--children. The diamond-and-arrow diagram on Page 5 of an otherwise bloodless federal report, issued by the Health and Human Services inspector’s general office in 1993, manages to spell out a typical child’s fate in spine-chilling detail: At three separate points along the way of the interminable, years-long legal process of freeing a child for placement, the caseworker addresses the question: “Is the child adoptable?”

Most state agencies are so convinced that families aren’t available for school age or nonwhite children, or groups of siblings, that they lump these youngsters into a category called “special needs"--along with those children who have serious medical conditions. A state-federal subsidy, averaging $350 a month per child, is then offered as an enticement to prospective families.

It’s unclear how many prospective parents for system kids are out there because state agencies have demonstrated little imagination in reaching out to them. But when they do--as Massachusetts did when it initiated a recruitment campaign at the urging of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Institute for Children--adoption rates increase dramatically. Twenty-five years ago, about 89,000 American children were adopted each year; now that figure is closer to 50,000, even though an estimated 1 million infertile couples want children.

The National Committee for Adoption estimates that there are 20 prospective adoptive couples per adoptable child in this country. Obviously, most of these parents want healthy babies. But Conna Craig, director of the Institute for Children, has tracked down a number of waiting lists around the country for children with disabilities, to prove her point that adoptive families are available. “I’ve never seen an unwanted human being,” she says. “It just doesn’t register with me.”

* Myth No. 4: Adoptive parents can’t handle the children who come out of the system.

It’s true that more than 60% of foster-care preschoolers were exposed to drugs before birth, according to a congressional General Accounting Office study. Those with the most lethal combination--crack and alcohol--in their systems move through a rocky infancy of severe crying bouts and tremors; in elementary school they suffer from short attention spans, impulsiveness and often have trouble following directions. Children who have been physically or sexually abused--26% of foster-care children--can have a range of emotional problems.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that when UC Berkeley’s Barth conducted a four-year study of California parents who adopted drug-exposed children, he found this surprising outcome: These parents were just as pleased with their experience as other adoptive parents and actually reported feeling closer to their kids than their counterparts. In Keck and Kupecky’s book of advice on adopting the “hurt child,” they write that while early abuse and neglect and multiple foster homes “interfere with healthy attachments . . . . [These] children can learn to love and trust adults in a family setting . . . it is rarely too late for a child to change.”

* Myth No. 5: Strict deadlines govern a child’s stay in foster care.

The older the child, the more likelihood of damage--for broken commitments and lost hopes and abuse in every form. The primary concern of the clients who go overseas through services like the Washington-based Adoption Services Information Agency, says director Mary Durr, is less race than age. They want babies.

If that’s the case, the claim of state child welfare bureaucracies that most of their children are unadoptable has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The schedule for releasing a child for adoption is a leisurely one. Under federal law, a permanency plan must be in place for a child within 18 months of entering the system; some states have an even tighter rule. Typically, though, such rules merely provide a starting point for action. If a child is to be placed for adoption, a prolonged process of terminating parents’ rights often begins then. The court process drags on with no-shows by attorneys or social workers, schedule changes by judges, lost files and a tangle of other legal details.

To make a child legally available for adoption, agency workers must track down both the birth mother and birth father and make every “reasonable effort” to reunify the family by getting the parents off drugs, into counseling and adequate housing--whatever they need. In a recent government survey, 75% of child welfare workers cited their inability to meet this “reasonable effort” test before a court as the chief obstacle to freeing children. If, after several months or even years, the parents still look like poor prospects, the social worker typically searches for extended family.

Timetables aren’t the only problem. California’s Anderson echoes other reformers when says she is “appalled” at the quality of field work she’s seen in both her state and, earlier, in Wisconsin. “No other industry would would bring an employee in and not train them to do business their way,” she says. A national survey found that more than 50% of caseworkers had no previous experience working with children and families or in human-service agencies.

Like many veterans in child welfare, Anderson totters between empathy for the drug-addicted mothers and concern for their children’s future. Like many, she has changed her mind about family preservation. “We’re not seeing a lot of parents get their acts together,” she says. “Meanwhile, children are losing their opportunity for permanent homes. Black boys, in particular. If you wait beyond infancy, he’s lost his chance for permanency. I’m not willing to risk that while mom gets her act together.”


Seven foster mothers squeeze around a too-small table at a Baker’s Square restaurant north of Chicago as a waitress ferries in iced tea, pecan pie and chef’s salad. This group of women has gathered tonight to share their stories because they broke the cardinal rule of fostering: They fell in love with their children. One by one, they began to adopt the children they had intended to say goodby to--the preschooler who bangs his head so hard and purposely that he needs a special crib top; the 11-year-old who still can’t remember to look both ways before he crosses the street; the 6-year-old asthmatic girl on regular medication for her mood swings.

Most of their children have learning and speech delays; some are emotionally disturbed, but others are doing fine. Among the scores of stories about the kids these women have fostered and adopted, there is only one mother who rejected one child: a 9-year-old who set fire to the basement. Judy Berman’s voice vibrates with pain as she tries to convince herself that she did the right thing in sending him to a therapeutic home. “I didn’t want to take the chance that this child was going to hurt the others,” she says. “I’m not sure I made the right decision.”

The women, solidly middle-class and ranging in age from their 30s to their 60s, introduce themselves with tag-lines that capture the polymerous families they have assembled: “Three biologicals, three adopted, one foster,” says Shirley Polk. “Six biologicals, five foster, four foster-adopted,” says Berman, whose oldest children are grown. About a third of foster parents are also adoptive parents; if anyone understands how the obstacles to adoption, these women on the front lines do.

Child welfare systems are under attack almost everywhere; in more than 20 states, agencies are under court order to reform their way of doing business. But in Chicago, like no other community, child welfare has been made a cause celebre . When 3-year-old Joseph Wallace was hung by his mentally ill mother after being returned to her care, the whole nation heard about it. When police walked into the Keystone housing project and found 19 unkempt children alone and uncared-for, network cameras were close behind.

The city’s media fixation with the plight of children has prompted some improvement, the women say. New judges who aren’t family-preservation ideologues preside over child welfare cases, and they have allocated more court time to clear up backlogs. But those steps amount to holding an umbrella against a hurricane. The quest to adopt children has turned these women’s lives into a hazy blur of court dates delayed, phone calls to caseworkers that go unanswered, lengthy legal battles against hastily made decisions to send children back to abusive parents or into shelters because their skin color doesn’t match that of their foster parents.

“You have a lawyer bill going all the time when you’re in this system,” says Berman, a guileless grandmother who pokes fun at her own naivete. “I never thought I’d be going to court and worrying about ACR’s [administrative case reviews]. I thought I was just going to be changing diapers and taking care of babies.”

Among the women gathered, Terri Voss’ adoption of Ricky, who came to her as an infant, was the faster than most: It took “only” 3 1/2 years, largely because Voss had the support of Ricky’s birth mother. Social workers sent Ricky into Voss’ foster home days after his birth because his mother’s live-in boyfriend had already confessed to beating his 8-month-old sister to death when she wouldn’t stop crying.

Voss’ only snag in adopting Ricky, who is African American, was a caseworker who wanted to remove him from their home and send him to a shelter until a black foster family could be located. That plan was squelched with the support of another caseworker and Ricky’s mother. Karen Schroeder took in a Latino baby girl as an infant who had tested positive for a list of 15 drugs. When she was 6 months old, the family was notified that she would be removed, because neither foster parent was Latino. The Schroeder’s appealed, and the decision was dropped.

Transracial adoptions are governed by a curious patchwork of state laws ranging from guidelines for collecting information on a child’s race to mandatory waiting periods to search for same-race families. But the system is less driven by the law than by the political agendas of individual social workers or county agencies--with absurd results. A white California couple adopted their black foster child but was told by a different social worker that adopting his sister was out of the question. Determined that their son should grow up with black siblings, they went to Ethiopia this summer and brought back three youngsters.

A new federal law prohibits such practices as waiting periods to seek a same-race family and requiring caseworkers to justify transracial adoptions. But it does allow caseworkers to use race as a consideration in some cases, prompting critics to charge that the law still gives caseworkers too much leeway to exercise their own biases.

Racial agendas aren’t the only obstacle. Biological families, regardless of their abuse or neglect records or tentative connections to their children, still hold the upper hand. Berman raised one little boy for five years with no contact from the birth family and was trying to adopt him. Six months ago, a grandfather showed up to claim custody. Heartbroken, Berman is determined to fight the elderly man, who also wants to take in several other grandchildren, some of whom suffer from behavioral disorders. “It just doesn’t seem right that they would move a child who is really happy and adjusted and doing well, whose only hang-up is that every time we go to court he wants to know if today is the day he’s going to be adopted,” Berman says.”

Joe came to Lisa Hannum’s home when he was 6 months old; he had untreated burns on his hand, and his thigh bone had been fractured. Someone--the parents claim it was a baby-sitter--had shaken him so hard that doctors had to open his skull to relieve swelling on his brain. “The way the blood was coagulated on the brain, it was clear this was more than one shaking,” says Hannum.

But the court ordered Joe back home just before his second birthday. Shortly after that return, the father abandoned the toddler in the back seat of a car late at night as he was fleeing police. Within months, the little boy was back at Hannum’s house--a changed child. “Nine months later, I didn’t even know him,” Hannum says. “He’d sleep outside my door, he’d crawl in bed with me, he was up eight times a night. He’s very insecure. Even tonight--he comes to the door and says to me, ‘When are you coming home? Is this a short meeting? Is this a long meeting? Are you coming home?’ Like I’m going to leave him.”

Running through these women’s stories is bafflement and amazement toward the chaotic lives and drug-induced disinterest of the mothers who lose their children to the system.

“When I first started, I thought children were taken [from their families] too readily. Now I feel exactly the opposite,” says Karen Guidarelli, a foster parent for five years. “You don’t see caring parents as much as you’d like to.”

“You’d like to see a parent, even in court,” interjects Hannum.

“You’d like to see anybody who cares about the kids like crazy,” adds Guidarelli.

“You’d like to hear someone say: ‘What do I have to do to get this kid back? I’ll do anything,’ ” Polk says. “And then go do it.”


Do we blame the parents? Or the forces of poverty that shape their bleak, drug-ridden lives? Those two questions paralyze today’s reformers, breaking policy-makers into opposing camps.

If you’re Patrick Murphy, Cook County’s raw-talking public guardian, a man who attacks family-preservation programs with the same vigor he once embraced them, you point fingers at the homes that produce these children. Murphy grabs attention for his cause by reaching for the stories that he knows will set his listener’s hair on end: the child returned to abusive parents only to be thrown up against a wall and killed; the 15-year-old “father” who locked himself in a closet with his two infant children so he could perform oral sex on them.

“Just because two people [have sex] and nine months later a baby is born, that doesn’t make it a family,” Murphy says. “And it doesn’t make those kids a mom and dad either. . . . In some cases you should cut that parent’s tie the minute the kids walk in the door, and we don’t. If some case comes in here where the father or paramour has screwed the kid and the mom has looked the other way, why are we playing around? What are we doing talking about rehabilitation?”

If you’re Thomas Wells, a lead reformer of the District of Columbia’s system, you point fingers at inept government programs that leave troubled parents in the lurch. “It’s easy to hate these families,” says Wells, executive director of the district’s Consortium for Child Welfare.. “But as soon as you do, all the laws will be based on taking their kids away from them.”

Both sides of this political debate miss the point. Most of the children pouring into the system suffer from severe neglect, not abuse. And you don’t have to “hate” these parents to recognize that, in many cases, there is no chance of rehabilitation; recent history suggests that no amount of government spending is going to solve that. Even in cases where the parents can’t be saved, their children can.

Here’s where to start:

* Sexual abusers and physical tormentors don’t deserve a second chance. Less abusive and neglectful parents do, but that second should be finite.

If pressed, courts could immediately terminate parental rights in thousands of cases of severe abuse and neglect without coming near the ones that aren’t so clear-cut, where some hope remains that a parent will rehabilitate. In these gray cases, more of the legal burden should shift from social workers trying to meet the “reasonable efforts” standard to parents, who should demonstrate that they can rear their children without harming them.

Within hours after a child is removed from a home, family support services need to be offered. As veterans in the field note, this mind-clearing loss provides a short window of opportunity for rehabilitation that may not come around again. The chances of reunification fade the longer a parent and child are separated.

* Put babies on a fast track .

The first priority of the system should be to move out the infants and toddlers pouring in, thousands of whom have been abandoned. If the system’s defenders insist that their children are too old and too broken to be adopted, they should start by looking for homes for the little ones--for whom there is strong demand--without regard to race. The child welfare lobby worries that this would be unfair to older children in the system. But fairness is a steep price to pay for the lives of tens of thousands of kids who could otherwise be saved.

* The same sense of urgency that brings a child into the system should guide plans for his departure.

Policy-makers need to recognize that months lost in an infant’s life are critical; so is the year or two lost by a preschooler. A strict “one-year-and-out” policy should guide the nation’s child welfare system. Every effort should be made to find a permanent home for a child--with his biological parents or in an adoptive family--within 12 months of entering the system or risk losing federal funding.

* A less adversarial, less litigious process should underscore reform.

The process of freeing a child for adoption now rests on a courtroom drama staged to prove a parent is “unfit.” But Murphy estimates that 20% to 30% of the parents who lose their children to state custody would embrace adoption if it was presented, outside court, as a noble option in the best interests of the children. Adds Carol Williams, associate commissioner of the children’s bureau at HHS: “We are missing an opportunity by assuming it has to be an involuntary proceeding. For some of these moms, if you really sat down and had a conversation about what they can and cannot do, they would voluntarily surrender their kids.”

These mothers are not young; they are drug addicts on their third or fourth child who have lost all idealism about child-rearing and realize that they can’t cope. The mean age of women at risk of abandoning their infants, for example, is 27.

* The opportunity for unwed fathers and other relatives to seek custody should be restricted to that same one-year period.

Too often, when children are settling into foster homes and about to be adopted, relatives appear out of nowhere--often tracked down by social workers bent on pursuing family preservation. Children are not footballs to be handed off at adults’ whims.

Paternal registries, which a number of states are experimenting with, would shift the legal burden to the father so that he doesn’t have to be tracked down later on--or pose the threat of turning up after an adoption. Wells’ proposal that social workers be required to convene a meeting of a child’s relatives within 10 days is a good one. If a grandparent, aunt or uncle wants to assume responsibility for raising a child--a growing segment of the foster system called “kinship care"--then the time to make that offer is upfront, not several foster homes down the line. Even children in kinship care move through an average of three placements.

* Government aid to adoptive parents should be tailored to a child’s medical needs, not to his or her age or skin color .

Great strides have been made in treating drug-exposed children and those who have suffered abuse and neglect. But the Medicaid card that accompanies “special needs” children to their adoptive homes puts only a small dent in the physical therapy, speech therapy, special education and the like that they may require.

As House Republicans attempt to save money by block-granting and cutting adoption subsidy dollars, and as their leader, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, spews the attention-grabbing talk of orphanages, an important opportunity is being missed: The youngest children pouring into the system need homes, not institutions, and prospective parents of these troubled kids need financial help tailored to their medical and special educational needs. They require a far more elaborate system of counseling and therapy to help them through the potentially rough years--particularly adolescence.


Until policy-makers demonstrate the courage to embrace radical change, kid-days for those trapped in the system will continue to stretch into years. The children at St. Anne’s are clean and well-fed. There are plenty of toys to play with. The volunteers are sweet and warm. Physical therapists make weekly visits. But as one baby among dozens, a child’s cries might have to wait a turn. Some of the toddlers at St. Anne’s are so hungry for affection that even when a stranger picks them up, they cling tightly and resist being put down.

With Elisabeth Boyle at my side, I walk down the hall that separates the cribs for the babies from the bunks for the children. A 4-year-old girl comes skipping up between us, grabbing one hand from each so that we’ll swing her into the air. “Guess what?” she says. “Tomorrow my mom’s gonna visit. And my dad and my sister and my brother.”

“No they’re not,” interjects an older boy who skitters past. “Don’t listen to her,” he says of his friend. “She’s lyin’.”