Davion Only and the foster care conundrum

Born to a mother in prison, 15-year-old Davion Only has been in foster care all his life. Last month he walked into a church in St. Petersburg, Fla., and pleaded for a family of his own.

"I'll take anyone," Davion said. "Old or young, dad or mom, black, white, purple. I don't care."

He had the congregation in tears. He also caught the attention of a Tampa Bay Times reporter, who told his story so compellingly, it became national news. On Monday, the boy appeared on multiple talk shows, including "The View," where his caseworker said there had been more than 10,000 calls from prospective parents.

Davion spoke earnestly if haltingly about wanting a family and having no criteria other than being loved. He explained that his renewed interest in being adopted began last summer after he learned that his mother, whom he'd held out hope of reuniting with despite her longtime drug abuse and multiple arrests, had died.

By age 9, the chances of a child being adopted diminish significantly and grow worse every year. But even though Davion is a big, slightly awkward kid well past the cute stage, the public response was nothing short of effusive. "I just love him already," "I would be proud to have you as a son," and "If he'd like to visit NJ he can come live with us" were typical comments on Internet news sites.

Jenny McCarthy, co-host of "The View," was similarly moved, though she expressed her enthusiasm in terms more appropriate to the acquisition of a Birkin handbag than the adoption of a child. "I'll adopt him!" she shouted on Monday's broadcast. "My girlfriend said, 'I'll adopt him, too!'"

McCarthyism aside, the response is heartwarming. It says a lot about American compassion and charity. But it also says a lot about American hypocrisy. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show that there are 400,000 children in foster care in this country, more than 100,000 of whom are available for adoption. There aren't throngs — and there never have been — stepping up to take them in.

Sincere as the would-be parents in Davion's case seem, unless the 9,999 that don't adopt him wind up taking other kids out of foster care, they're not all that serious. And maybe they shouldn't be.

Most foster kids have some combination of chronic medical problems, developmental delays and emotional disturbance. Parenting them requires tremendous patience, resourcefulness, an ability to set boundaries and, often, tirelessness and even fearlessness in the face of the kind of extreme acting out that can result from extreme trauma — in other words, a very specific skill set; one that most people simply don't have.

Davion Only may be an exceptional young man in many ways, but he's not immune to the effects of early abandonment and a lifetime of discontinuity. On "The View," he apologized for being a "butthead," a description that only scrapes the surface of some of the behavior mentioned in the Tampa Bay Times article. A successful adoption for him would depend on finding a family that could provide him not just love but could break through layers of (justifiable) anger and defensiveness with the right combination of tough-mindedness and empathy.

I don't want to discourage fostering or adopting. I volunteer as a court-appointed special advocate in the foster care system in L.A. As a CASA, I want to see a cultural shift in which more adoptions happen and in which the system's problems — children abused, cases mismanaged, children abandoned again at age 18 — no longer produce scandals.

But I know it doesn't help that our approach to helping strangers is largely romantic. We eat up movies like "The Blind Side" because they suggest that troubled youths can be reached with a few teachable moments and heart-to-heart talks. We like the idea of not just saving someone but of being a civilizing influence, of raising a child who will be truly grateful. But that's far from guaranteed with any child, much less a foster child.

That said, callers inquiring about Davion are now being directed toward other available children. If even a few of these connections result in successful matches, Davion should be considered a hero. As for his own search, the number of callers alone means his odds for adoption are improved. Let's hope his future family is one that would have materialized even without all those television appearances.


Twitter: @meghan_daum

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