How Illinois is moving kids out of foster-care limbo

The state's child-welfare system, long maligned, has become a model for reform by encouraging adoption.

Until recently, Carol and Melvin AuBuchon's home, in this middle-class town just east of St. Louis, epitomized much of what was wrong the Illinois foster-care system.

Over the course of 17 years, the couple has helped to raise 21 foster kids - and would have liked to keep a number of them. But the child-welfare system was so difficult that adoption or even guardianship seemed out of the question.

Now, though, their home is taking on a more permanent feel. The AuBuchons have managed to adopt one of the six children currently in their care, recently gained guardianship of four others, and are close to winning guardianship of the sixth child.

Their household, in many ways, is emblematic of a dramatic improvement in Illinois's once-troubled foster-care system. In moving wards of the state out of the uncertainty of foster care - and into more permanent situations - it has become something of a guide for other states looking to reform their own systems.

The transformation has come fairly quickly. Not long ago, Illinois had one of the worst adoption rates for foster children nationwide. In three years, the state has cut its foster-care caseload nearly in half and has seen a huge increase in the number of adoptions.

The change is largely thanks to an innovative effort that encourages adoption and guardianship, rewards private child-placement agencies for finding permanent homes for foster children, and returns greater numbers of children to the custody of a relative.

While almost everybody lauds the steps Illinois has taken, some do caution that the numbers appear so dramatic in part because Illinois had such a long way to come. Others are somewhat critical of the state's emphasis on adoption as a long-term solution to foster-care problems.

The main goal has been to get kids out of the limbo of foster care and into a more stable situation. "Permanency is so important," says Mrs. AuBuchon. "A child needs to know that even on their baddest day they're not going to lose their home. A foster child often feels that's held over them: If I mess up, I have to leave."

Recent foster-care success in Illinois stands in sharp contrast to the state's checkered past. In 1993 a child died after being returned to a mother now widely regarded as being mentally ill. Intense media coverage set off what has been described as one of the nation's worst foster-care panics. The pendulum swung dramatically in favor of removing kids from troubled homes.

The foster-care population in Illinois exploded from approximately 25,000 kids to the 1997 high of 52,700, and by all accounts the system turned nightmarish. Courts were clogged and caseworkers so overloaded that they were unable to make good decisions. Meanwhile, the ideal length of stay for a child in the system, 12 to 18 months, stretched out to five years.

Spurred by lawsuits, the existing system was jettisoned. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, private agencies, politicians, and the courts all joined in the effort. Success came especially at the "front end," where case workers teamed with investigators to better determine which children could safely remain at home and not enter the system.

Legislation also made adoption and guardianship easier. In 1994, there were 663 adoptions of foster kids in Illinois. In 1999, there were 5,765 adoptions in Cook County alone, and thousands more guardianships were granted. A greater emphasis was placed on finding relatives who could adopt or be guardians of foster children. And permanent homes were found for African-American youths, traditionally the hardest group to place.

Judges helped expedite the process. They gave parents clear goals they needed to achieve to win back custody of their children. If they proved unworthy, their rights were quickly terminated and adoptive or guardianship arrangements made. Children remained in limbo for a much shorter period of time.

The results have been dramatic. In Cook County alone, 9,991 children entered the foster-care system in 1994 and only 3,967 left. Last year, only 2,854 kids entered and 12,860 left.

The rapid increase in the number of

adoptions nationwide has garnered considerable media attention, but critics caution that it is outpaced by an even greater number of children entering the foster-care system, thus creating an urgent need for solutions, as in Illinois, that attack bulging caseloads on a variety of fronts.

According to Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a Washington-based group that advocates keeping families together, adoption is not a panacea.

He applauds Illinois's efforts, but points out that even with the national increase in adoptions - they have jumped from 28,000 in 1996 to 46,000 in 1999 - the number of kids in foster care in the US is over half a million and growing by 5 percent annually. "You cannot adopt your way out of a foster care crisis," Mr. Wexler says flatly.

Back home in Maryville, the AuBuchons say their lives are rewarding, but rarely easy. All of their six children have special needs. At one point they had six kids in five different schools. Both parents work fulltime, and in addition to the normal chauffeuring to activities, there are frequent trips to counselors and doctors.

"We don't have trouble sleeping at night," says Carol.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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