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Blacks Open Homes to Foster Children

Million Man March spurs more families to consider adopting kids stuck in state system

By Ann Scott TysonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 29, 1995



CHICAGO

IN a roomful of red and green balloons, five-year-old Joshua Shepard clutches a bag of popcorn and restlessly awaits his turn on Santa's lap. "I want a motorcycle," says the kindergartner in shiny black shoes and a green pin-stripe suit.

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But the gift needed most by Joshua and the 200 other African-American children at the recent holiday party here is neither a toy nor a teddy bear but a loving, permanent home. The youngsters are among the roughly 75,000 of the 450,000 children in the burgeoning US foster-care system who are unable to return to their birth parents and seek to be adopted.

Buoyed in part by the Million Man March by black men in Washington on Oct. 16, efforts to find homes for children like Joshua are intensifying. Social workers, adoption counselors, and child-welfare experts interviewed in several US cities report anecdotal evidence of a surge in interest in adoption by African-American families.

For example, more than 4,600 people so far have responded by telephone to A Fistful of Families, an adoption campaign promoted at the march.

"Without a doubt, the response since the march has been the biggest we've had," says Leonard Dunston, president of the National Association of Black Social Workers, which is running the campaign. "Everywhere I go, there are groups developing projects. Within six to seven months, you'll see some profound gains."

More people are also volunteering to recruit families for adoption or to act as mentors to waiting children. "After the march, I stepped up to see if I could make a difference," says Stan McKinney, a businessman and mentor to black boys in the new, Chicago-area Village Investment adoption project.

Enormous need

Still, the number of children in need is daunting. Tens of thousands of youngsters like Joshua pour into the foster-care system every year, while far fewer leave.

As one of the estimated 20,000 to 30,000 children - half of them black - already lawfully freed for adoption, Joshua has escaped legal limbo. But Joshua's age, sex, race, and birth to a drug-addicted mother count against him. As an older African-American boy, he is likely to remain in the system longer than most children, whose average stay is at least two years, according to the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse (NAIC) in Rockville, Md.

Since the mid-1980s, the ranks of foster-care children have expanded more than 50 percent as the crack-cocaine epidemic produced record numbers of drug-addicted babies and child-abuse cases. Some 375,000 drug-exposed children are born each year, a tripling over the past three years, reports the NAIC.

"The numbers grow from year to year, mainly from older children and minorities who stay in the system," says Carole Thompson, a program analyst at the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Reducing the large number of black children flowing into the system requires alleviating the chronic poverty and lack of opportunity that foster drug abuse and child neglect, says Oliver Williams, associate professor of social work at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Meanwhile, however, efforts are under way to reduce obstacles keeping children in the system from finding homes.

One priority is to reform inefficient child-welfare bureaucracies that critics contend needlessly keep children in the system. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued 10 state and local governments, including Illinois, to pressure them to serve children with greater speed and accountability.