Lori Johnson was midway through her morning routine one day last month. She and husband Willie had gotten the first four of their 12 kids (there are three more who are grown) onto the 7:15 a.m. school bus. An hour later she got the next group off. By 8:30, she was alone with 7-month-old Zoe, starting a load of laundry.
That's when she received a call from an adoption placement service about a 9-year-old girl with spina bifida. As she scribbled down the details about the girl, Mrs. Johnson realized she knew her.
"This was a little girl we tried to adopt five years ago," says Mrs. Johnson, a 44-year-old transplant from Minnesota to Russellville, Ark. "We were turned down; we can't say for sure, but we feel the reasons were race-she's African-American-and the fact it was an out-of-state adoption. The practices of the social-service agencies kept this little girl from going home for five years."
Those practices are changing. National Adoption Month ended on Nov. 30, and there was good news out of Washington: President Clinton signed a new adoption law passed by Congress that improves the chances of foster children-especially special-needs kids-being adopted. Like the recent law that ended racial impediments to adoption, the new law says social-service agencies may not delay or deny adoptions just because the would-be parents live out of state.
Also, the new law provides financial incentives to states for placing special-needs children, and it limits the amount of time a child can languish in the foster-care system. There are currently 500,000 children in that system, 100,000 of them awaiting adoption. Nationally, only about 17,000 children a year are adopted, and the average child stays in foster care for three and a half to five and a half years.
Adoption advocates say the bill is "an astonishingly good beginning," though there was trouble in the ranks during the formation of the bill. Pat Fagan of the Heritage Foundation and Maureen Hogan of Adopt a Special Kid clashed publicly; Mr. Fagan authored a report critical of the Senate version of the bill, citing its price tag and endorsing the House version. "Beyond mere patching with more of the same old, failed policies, these communities need more than fuzzy, well-intentioned policies, even when they have an extra $ 3.9 billion of taxpayers' money to finance them," he contended.
Ms. Hogan shot back with an editorial critical of the House version. But behind the scenes, senators such as Larry Craig (R-Idaho), Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), and North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms (himself an adoptive father) worked out the differences in a "rolling markup" of the bills.
The final version, according to Bill Pierce of the National Council for Adoption, is a "good third step." He explains, "The first step was the adoption tax credit; the second was the transracial adoption provisions. We're happy with it; it could be better, but overall we're happy."
Mr. Pierce is enthusiastic about the provision in the new law that rewards states up to $6,000 per special-needs adoption as an incentive. "What we hope is that the states will choose to pass this incentive along to adoptive parents," he says. "That will make a difference."
The time limits for foster care are useful, too, he says. Because of a 1980 law that states make "reasonable efforts" to return children to their biological families, children have often spent years in foster care, unable to return home and unable to be adopted.
The new law says that states aren't required to bend over backwards to preserve families in cases of "aggravated circumstances," such as chronic physical abuse, abandonment, or sexual abuse. If a child spends 15 of the previous 22 months in foster care, the state must begin the process to terminate parental rights and find the child an adoptive home.
The new law also says that states must provide health care coverage for special-needs kids with adoption agreements, meaning the child's Medicaid benefits would travel more easily. Zoe Faith Johnson (she's been a Johnson since she was 10 days old) shows how important that second provision is; Zoe was born with Down syndrome and missing part of her skull. While her brain continues to grow, she wears a helmet. She's in therapy twice a week (one hour at a nearby school for special-needs kids, and another hour at home).
She came from Georgia, with no Medicaid benefits following her. Arkansas officials stepped in; had they not, she would have been too much for her adoptive family to handle. This may sound like a liberal call for more spending, but it's not. Kids in foster care cost the taxpayer, through social-service agencies, far more than children placed into adoptive homes. A year in foster care costs taxpayers about $17,500 per child, including per-child payments to foster families and administrative costs of child-welfare agencies. That does not include counseling and treatment programs for biological parents or foster parent recruitment and training. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that per-child costs for foster home or group home care have increased more than fourfold in the past decade.
Adopted kids, though still eligible for medical benefits through Medicaid and other programs, don't cost the foster care system a dime.
Budget-watchers also are pleased with the very small effects of Republican welfare-reform efforts on the foster-care system. Sen. William Roth (R-Del.) showed Finance Committee members a Maryland study indicating that of 1,810 children whose families left Maryland's welfare rolls, only three children, all from the same family, entered foster care. "This early news is good news," Mr. Roth says.
Early placement of adoptable children in adoptive homes is also good news. Lori Johnson says that Michael, now 8, spent more than four years in foster care, and she sees the effects.
"Michael is really struggling now," she says of her son. "They call it attachment disorder; he really has trouble bonding with people. He's already on anti-depressants. He was very close to his foster brother and his foster mother, but that wasn't permanent and it's hard for a child to understand that."
Tiffany, 9, also spent years bouncing around foster homes. She was in a total of five (she was removed from two for abuse). Again, Mrs. Johnson says, the effects are obvious.
"The kids I've gotten as babies-at least before the age of 3-have such an advantage," she explains. "They don't remember the transitions and the fear. Their self-esteem is so much better that really, it makes the disability, whatever it is, seem like a minor issue. They're so much better off than kids who have spent formative years in foster care."
She notes there are good foster homes, but by definition they're temporary, and that's the problem. "Speeding up the adoption process is vital for the kids," she says. "If there's no hope of reuniting the family, then they should terminate parental rights and find that child a family."
Many of the changes will have to take place at the state level.
Alissa Curtis is slated to be the next addition to the ever-expanding Johnson family, but not through adoption. She's engaged to eldest son, Micah, 24, and they'll be married in May, after Micah graduates from the University of Central Arkansas. Alissa, also 24, has been part of the family for five years, it seems. She's the family's "respite worker," an in-home care worker, paid by the taxpayers of Arkansas, who comes in two or three times per week to help with everything from baths to bottles. Tonight, she's giving Lori and her husband, Willie, a night off (they've gone to see a movie).
It's 7:30 p.m., and the sprawling, seven-bedroom, 100-year-old house is quiet. Or nearly so. Tiffany and two of the older boys aren't back from church yet, and most of the little ones are down. But Elijah, 3, is doing his best to con his way out of going to bed. "I'm sad," he tells Alissa. "Why are you sad?" "Because I don't want to go to bed."
She represses a laugh and directs him to his room. He starts off that direction, but he's not giving up. He'll be back, with a dramatic, heartfelt story about desperate thirst.
"If you want to know what will really increase adoptions, it's families like the Johnsons," says this occupational therapy student at UCA. "Micah and I have talked about it, and we'll adopt. Maybe not 12, but a few. And friends I've brought over have seen how well it can work, and how happy the kids are, and they've told me they're thinking about it."
In fact, a study released this month shows that knowing an adoptive family changes the way people see adoption. The poll, commissioned by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, found that about 50 percent of those asked said adopting a child "is not quite as good" as building a family in the usual way. And about 23 percent said they believed it is "sometimes harder" to love an adopted child.
But those six out of 10 people who know someone who had adopted a child (or been adopted themselves) were much more likely to view adoption favorably. "You might think it's overwhelming, but it's not," Alissa explains. "People have to see it to believe me, but when you have some support, and a lot of love, it can be done."