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Leaving limbo

"Leaving limbo" Continued...

Issue: "Ashcroft: Under fire," Jan. 13, 2001

The law itself grew out of concern over America's mushrooming foster care system. Since the mid-1980s, the number of children in foster care has nearly doubled to an estimated 580,000 in 1998. More children entered foster care each year than exited; an increasing number of kids lingered there for five years or longer, an eternity in the life of a child. Years of such out-of-home displacement can result in lifelong feelings of insecurity, inability to form lasting relationships, and increased propensity for substance abuse.

Adoption advocates say some social workers have overlooked child safety and misapplied the federal mandate that states make "reasonable efforts" to prevent the removal of a child from home or to return a child home. The advocates say a "reunite families at all costs" ethos, along with flaws in the glutted foster care system, leads to children being returned to homes that are unfit or even dangerous.

Case in point: 23-month-old Brianna Blackmond, who died at the hands of her mentally retarded birth mother a year ago this month after Washington, D.C., social workers took her from a stable foster home. Brianna's mother's attorney had lobbied for Brianna and her eight brothers and sisters to be returned home, despite the mother's mental condition. The social worker handling Brianna's case didn't agree with the attorney, but missed a deadline to tell the judge why. The judge, who was aware of the birth mother's problems, didn't hold a hearing and sent Brianna home anyway. The social services agency in charge of Brianna's case didn't appeal the decision, even though the agency opposed it. Within two weeks of returning home, Brianna was beaten with a belt and died of blows to the head.

Tragic stories like Brianna's, coupled with TPR exemption statistics emerging from most states, may obscure progress in a handful of states. In Arizona, for example, nearly two-thirds of children who have been in foster care for at least 15 of the past 22 months have had TPR petitions filed. Those petitions, when complete, will free them for adoption.

Flora Sotomayor, program administrator for Arizona Child Protective Services, said her agency "really struggled with what would be reasonable in terms of a 'compelling reason' to keep a child in foster care instead of expediting adoption. Our philosophy was that every child is adoptable. We wanted to know how many kids had truly compelling reasons, and how many were cases that weren't being pursued because of a lack

of ... staff time or time to develop case plans. We wanted to know if everything that could be done for each child was being done."

Ms. Sotomayor said ASFA's faster schedule for TPR initiation and her state's team approach to case review is helping Arizona foster kids: "Having been in the field, I can tell you cases all start to run together. Sometimes as a caseworker, you're not sure what you should be doing and not be doing. The review process was a team approach that gave us an opportunity to take a closer look at cases, and gave case workers someone to help them decide what to do next."

Other states also seem to be making progress. Through its "Adoption Expediting Unit (AEU)," New York City Families for Kids of the Administration of Children's Services sought to decrease the time between freeing children for adoption and delivery of completed adoption packets to adoption attorneys. The AEU, which predated ASFA, streamlined case planning, added an additional worker to each case to expedite paperwork, and eliminated the interagency transfer of records that normally slows case processing. A study of the AEU's performance from February 1997 to January 1999 showed that about 90 percent of the 271 children handled by the expediting unit were adopted by their target date, while only 34 percent of children in a non-AEU group were adopted on schedule.

Which is more than can be said for Rebecca, Christian, and Johnny. Though a court terminated Ms. Arnold's parental rights in April 1998, clearing the way for the Stokeses to adopt the children, an appeals court overturned that termination in January 2000. Then, on Sept. 12, 2000, Tennessee DCS caseworkers went to the children's elementary school and, without prior notice to the children or the Stokeses, seized the kids and returned them to their biological mother. But the children still have no permanent home, because parties involved in their case still disagree as the children's best interests.

And six years later, the official DCS goal remains reunification.

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