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

Lou's House of Beauty is no ordinary hairdresser's. True, it blends right in at the corner of Imperial and Main in the Los Angeles ghetto of Watts. Its door is barred by an iron gate, as are many other doors in the neighborhood. The lettering on its sign looks homemade under the lemony California sky, and the walls inside are covered in ``jungle'' wallpaper -- zebra, leopard, tiger, yellow, black, and brown.

But for 18-month-old Crystal Thomas and three-year-old Craig Gray, Lou's House of Beauty is a sanctuary. Crystal's crib-cum-playpen sits on the floor next to a counter equipped with sink, hose, and hair dryer. Scattered around the floor are Craig's toy truck, some tiny cars, a ball, a worn-out teddy bear. This room is the first place in their short and bitter lives where Crystal and Craig have been hugged, rocked, played with -- tenderly talked to and cared for, and where they have had nothing to fear.

Louise Eubanks, hairdresser, licensed nurse, and foster mother, is sitting in one of the barber chairs, holding Crystal in her lap. Craig is playing on the floor at her feet, making truck noises.

``Crystal didn't weigh but 3 pounds 7 ounces at birth,'' says Louise in her quiet, gentle voice. ``They found cocaine in her bloodstream. She was born addicted. Her body was rigid -- stiff as a board. When I first got her she would shake all over and cry all night. She wore me out.''

Louise lays her cheek against the child's. The tiny face is smiling, and the large, dark eyes are bright. ``But now she's so fine!'' says Louise, more to the baby than to anyone else. Crystal looks up at her and giggles -- to all appearances a normal, healthy, happy child.

When Crystal was born, her mother gave a false name and address and disappeared from the hospital, leaving the baby behind. She was later located and is now in a drug rehabilitation program.

``Crystal's mother's never seen her and don't want to see her,'' says Louise. ``The grandparents don't want to see her. Her daddy denies her. But she's gonna to have a good life. She's not gonna suffer nothing. I plan to adopt Crystal myself.''

Craig was taken from his mother, also a drug addict, by the L.A. County Department of Children's Services.

``His mother used to put out cigarettes on his bottom,'' says Louise. ``And she broke both his arms. She's 25 and has three other kids, all from different fathers. She was on drugs, and sold it, too. Her mind was a mess.''

Craig, too, appears to be a normal child, and is very affectionate, even with strangers. But his speech is barely intelligible, and Louise plans to put him in a speech therapy class soon. ``When he came he was a year and something,'' she says. ``He thought it was a way of life to be hostile. For about a year he wouldn't even laugh -- and he's still a handful.''

Since 1975, Louise has cared for eight other foster children, all for periods of a year or less. ``I'm on contract as a short-term foster parent,'' she says. ``I keep them till the parent gets their life style together -- gets out of jail or off drugs.''

As a rule, the first priority of child welfare agencies is to reunite children with their natural parents. To this end, the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services is providing counseling and other rehabilitation services to Crystal's and Craig's families. Since Crystal's mother wants nothing to do with her, the way appears clear for Louise to adopt the child. Craig's mother, on the other hand, is trying to get her baby back, according to Louise.

``The county's working with her, and so am I,'' Louise says. ``I think she's going to stick with the rehabilitation program. She's trying. If she's willing to cooperate, she'll have a good life with her kids.''

Whatever happens, Louise plans to keep in touch with Craig, as she has with all the other children she has cared for. If his mother abuses him again, Louise explains, he will go back into foster care.

Some 32 percent, or 88,000 children in foster care in the US, are black. Why?

The primary reason is that the need for foster care and poverty are linked. And of all low-income families, 32 percent are black -- a figure that coincides with the 32 percent of black children in foster care.

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.

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.''

Dr. Ladner believes lack of understanding of the informal adoption patterns that have long existed in the black community has compounded the problem, giving white agencies the impression that black couples would not be likely to adopt.

Additional obstacles to the adoption of black children were the stereotypes concerning the ideal adoptive family. ``Agencies looked at a family's income,'' says Mary Lee Allen. ``They had to own a home. Many agencies have assumed that black families would have difficulty meeting these requirements, and this assumption has limited the pool for the adoption of black children.''

``While informal adoption in the black community has always taken place,'' says Allen, ``the formal adoption system grew up in a white setting. Agencies knew the white community. They didn't know the black community.

``In the last 10 years, however, people have been looking more carefully at the foster care system and they've seen this disproportionately large number of black children there. Recently there's been a movement to do something about them.''

One significant manifestation of that movement is a private adoption agency in Detroit, Homes for Black Children. This agency, founded in 1969 by Sydney Duncan, has placed more than 800 black children in adoptive homes. In its first year of operation, it placed 135 -- more than all the other adoption agencies in Detroit combined.

``At first,'' Ms. Duncan says, ``we didn't know we'd be successful in getting black families to adopt. But as black people we knew there was a history of black families taking in children not born to them.''

``During our first six months, we had more than 700 inquiries from black people who were interested in adoption,'' says Duncan. ``Many of them had always wanted children but had never thought of coming to an agency.''

``Black people did not perceive that the established agencies were there to serve them,'' she says, ``and in turn, these agencies were not aware that there were black families who wanted to adopt.''

The numbers of children placed by Homes for Black Children have decreased each year, and Duncan sees this as an indication of her agency's success.

``People are no longer saying it can't be done -- black families don't adopt,'' she says ``This has altered what the other agencies in Detroit are doing. They're placing black children themselves.''

Concern for children like Crystal and Craig has been mounting in the black community, and the crisis of unadopted black children is being reversed.

``The black community is doing a better job of adopting black children than the white community is of adopting white children,'' says Charles Gershenson of the Administration for Children, Youth, and Families of the US Department of Health and Human Services.''

A major force in this new trend is Robert L. Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which promotes networking among black self-help groups. The agency has devised a plan for raising money to establish regional adoption agencies for black children across the nation.

``There are a lot of middle-income blacks who would like to respond to this need,'' Mr. Woodson says. ``Most of them strongly support our churches. Through our churches, we can tell a million or 2 million black households that thousands of black children need homes.''

``We hope to raise enough money to set up five regional adoption centers, similar to the one in Detroit.'' he says. ``I believe we can bring these children home.'' HIGHLIGHTED STATISTICS: 1) On the basis of data from 40 states gathered in 1984, of the 276,000 children living either in foster homes or in supervised group homes, 88,000, or 32%, were black. This is more than twice the percentage of black people in the United States.1 SOURCE: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2) Black children are three times as likely to be in foster care as white children. Black children remain in foster care much longer than white children; 31% of black children in foster care remain there for more than five years, compared with 18.6% of white children.1 SOURCE: U.S. Department of Health and Human Serices. 3) As of 1984, data collected from 25 states indicate that 57% of the white children in the foster care system were adopted, compared with 26% of the black children.1 SOURCE: U.S. Department of Health and Human Serices.

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