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Raising Kids With 'Hope'


(Page 2 of 2)

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

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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!' "