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Children in limbo - some wait years for a stable, loving home

(Page 2 of 3)

Child abuse and neglect occur at all social levels, but wealthier families often handle these problems by private means such as psychiatric counseling. And low-income families are more likely to be already under the supervision of public welfare agencies. Hence, problems in low-income homes come to the attention of public agencies more often than do problems in wealthier homes.

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Ironically, a child may suffer when he is removed from the very parents who have abused or neglected him. No matter how badly they have been treated, children are rarely happy to be separated from their parents. Furthermore, the uncertainties of life in foster homes often add their own set of anxieties.

``Some kids who grow up in the foster care system are really damaged,'' says Annie Brown, clinical director of City Lights, a day treatment center for ``unteachable'' adolescents in Washington, where some 65 percent of the students live in foster homes.

``Sometimes they fantasize that their natural parents are going to come and get them,'' Ms. Brown says. ``When they're disappointed, they act up. They may get so hard to handle that they'll be sent from foster home to foster home. A lot of foster parents get rid of teen-agers -- they're too difficult, and, since they're someone else's children, they're expendable. For the youngster, the idea that he can be sent away at any time is always there. Impermanence becomes a way of life. It's not abuse, exactly, but it definitely takes away from a child's sense of stability. It's a form of emotional neglect.''

Not everyone has such a negative view of foster care, however. Louise says she has seen children grow up happy and secure in foster homes. ``Kids develop well in foster care,'' she maintains. ``They have a good life style when the foster parents love them and want to see them have a place in society.''

But most observers agree it is the ``limbo'' quality of foster care that is especially harmful to a child. A child remains in the custody of the state and is assigned to foster homes pending the decision either to terminate his natural parents' rights of custody or to return him to their care. If a decision to terminate parental rights is made, the child is placed up for adoption but remains in foster care until a suitable adoptive home is found. For the waiting child, days can seem like weeks and weeks like months -- yet the adoption process can stretch into years. The older the child, the less likely he is to be placed. Many experts feel strongly that, in the interests of the children, the entire process needs to be accelerated.

``Many children end up staying in foster care because parental rights are never terminated,'' says Mary Lee Allen of the Children's Defense Fund. ``This is a major problem. A child could languish in foster care for 18 years with no one checking on his family's progress. Fortunately, a new procedure has come in the last four years to try to make sure that children don't linger in foster care.''

Even when children are free for adoption, adoption agencies have traditionally been much quicker to place white children than black children. According to many experts, the result is that black children have often been ``warehoused'' in the foster care system -- sometimes for all of their childhood years.

``Children were removed from their own family and no effort was made to place them again,'' Ms. Allen says. ``They were adrift in the welfare system, and a disproportionately large percentage of them were black. In many instances black children were left to grow up in the foster care system.'' Allen indicates that, while these patterns are changing today, their effects are still being felt in the lives of adults who grew up in the foster care system, and reforms are still ongoing.

Joyce Ladner, a professor of social work at Howard University, is especially concerned about the traditional handling of black children by adoption agencies.

``The phrase `hard to place' was coined for black children because agencies didn't have a market for them -- didn't go after black parents. They viewed the only eligible clientele as white and middle class. Black couples, who were frequently working class, were not considered.''