Raising Kids With 'Hope'

FOSTER-CARE CONCEPT

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

FOR months, whenever the drug-addicted infant showed alarming signs of withdrawal, foster parent Debbie Calhoun would cradle the baby nobody else wanted.

Today, the robust nine-month-old smiles and chortles in the lap of Mrs. Calhoun's adopted teenage son. Free from the symptoms of drugs, he is developing normally. And, thanks to a unique Illinois foster community, he has hope of never being unwanted again.

The Calhouns live at Hope Meadows, a quiet clustering of 1950s-era homes converted from military housing at the abandoned Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Ill. With neat lawns and rows of black curbside mailboxes, the 22-acre subdivision has the feel of an ordinary, middle-class American neighborhood.

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Amid mounting concern that America's foster-care system is failing the children it was designed to protect, Hope Meadows represents a fresh approach to raising young victims of abuse or neglect. While it's too soon to know if the community will become a model, Illinois officials praise the program's cost effectiveness and "strong, community-based approach."

Hope Meadows, situated about 130 miles south of Chicago, is a racially diverse community of about 100 people - nine families with a mixture of 33 biological, adopted, and foster children, as well as 56 senior citizens. Devoted to providing a stable, family-like upbringing for troubled children, it targets groups of siblings in state care who are unlikely to return home or be adopted elsewhere. Hope offers its families immediate, day-to-day support often lacking at standard foster homes.

Child is 'whole focus'

"We have tried to create a community where the whole focus is the child," says Brenda Eheart, a child-care expert and professor at the University of Illinois in nearby Champaign, who founded Hope Meadows in 1994.

Launched with a $1 million state grant, $235,000 of which went to buy the air-base parcel, Hope receives about $500,000 in state funding each year. The cost of care for each child at Hope is now about $20,000 to $25,000 a year, less than half of the average $63,000 at state-run institutions and group homes, but substantially more than the $8,760 a year for standard foster care.

The Illinois Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) acknowledges the program's strengths. But the DCFS has no plans to duplicate Hope, notes regional administrator Don Vacca, saying it is too early to gauge Hope's success.

Hope offers six-bedroom homes rent-free to all families and pays one parent in each household $18,000 a year to stay home with the kids. In return, it asks for a long-term commitment from foster parents to care for, and preferably adopt when possible, up to four children placed by Hope.

Senior citizens pay only $325 to $350 a month for three- or four-bedroom apartments in exchange for six hours a week volunteering as tutors, in-school monitors, crossing guards, or baby sitters. They also act as surrogate grandparents for the children.

Each school day, retired accountant Joe Stang dons an orange bib and greets the children by name as they walk a few blocks past stubbly cornfields to Pleasant Acres elementary. "This is an old-fashioned community where you know everyone," says the spry Mr. Stang. He says he was touched by the children's compassion after his wife passed away last month.

George and Effie King, surrogate grandparents for a trouble-prone 10-year-old boy, say they offer plenty of time, a bicycle in the garage, and "lots of praise and lots of hugs."

Ms. Eheart created the vision for Hope after a decade of research into the Illinois foster-care system left her deeply concerned.

Since 1984, the number of children reported abused or neglected in the state has more than doubled from 67,000 to nearly 140,000 last year, according to DCFS. Meanwhile, since 1991 the number of children in state custody has ballooned from 22,000 to more than 50,000.

Nationally, the trends are similar. The United States had 450,000 children in foster care in 1993, a two-thirds increase from a decade earlier, government statistics show.

While an average of nearly 1,000 youths flood into the overburdened Illinois foster-care system each month, roughly a third of them are never adopted or returned home, Eheart says. Often born to drug-addicted teenage mothers who were themselves wards of the state, these youths spend years shunted in and out of foster homes.

Still, Hope's defining goal of permanency for children remains clouded by uncertainty. Due to the hesitation of courts to terminate parental rights, more than half of the 22 children placed at Hope so far are still officially designated for return to their biological families.

"We can't say 100 percent that the children won't go home, but there is a very high probability they won't," Eheart says.

Some Hope parents, moreover, are unsure they want to adopt their foster children. One family has already left Hope for what amounted to financial reasons, forcing a child placed there to move to another community home.

The challenges of raising Hope children can be daunting. Many arrive deeply hurt and angered by repeated separation and loss, physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence, or severe neglect, says resident therapist Gladys Hunt.

One unruly five-year-old boy habitually gorged himself with food, particularly before visits from his biological parents. "It came out that he thought he wasn't with his biological parents because they didn't have enough food for him," says Ms. Hunt, who each week counsels all Hope children aged 4 and up.

From her living room sofa, Jeanette Laws describes how she has worked to overcome the nightmares and fears of her two foster children, a brother and sister now aged 6 and 8 who arrived at Hope eight months ago.

Doing 'whatever it took'

"I would walk into the closets or crawl under the beds - whatever it took to show them things were OK," says Mrs. Laws, a childless widow and high-school counselor who hopes to adopt the children.

At first, whenever Laws reprimanded the children they threw their hands in front of their faces to block a slap or blow. "They were surprised when I didn't beat them," she says.

Critics charge that recent media attention for Hope Meadows illustrates a public proclivity to focus on small, symbolic, "rescue efforts" rather than the underlying problems of US foster care.

"The principal symptom of the disfunctioning system is kids languishing," says Benjamin Wolf, a child advocate and lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union in Chicago. "So an institution created to help kids who are languishing may do a good job, but it does not address fundamental problems."

Yet for Irene Bohn, a tidy, gray-haired Hope tutor, progress is defined by the pride of Laws's foster son after he struggled to learn the alphabet. "The other day he patted me on the back and said, 'We've come a long way, baby!' "

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