For Marlyn and Robert Moses it seemed natural to become foster parents. They were just following in her parents' footsteps. But for Laylla and Reginald Strand it was different. They answered an ad for a program that would train them to become paraprofessional foster parents here. Throughout the United States foster parents are in demand; foster care agencies are always pleased to sign caring couples, like the Moseses and Strands.
The Moseses have cared for ``about 27 children'' in the past four years. Mrs. Moses says she has been able ``to help other people'' while caring for her own three children, now grown, at home.
The Strands are part of a new direction in foster parenting, in which Maryland is taking a leading role. It's an effort to change the nature of foster parenting: from volunteers reimbursed for what is only part of the cost of caring for children to couples provided a sizable amount of training and paid modest salaries to care for more difficult foster children.
Behind the change is the fact that around the US far more children today are either handicapped or older when they enter foster care. Typically older children have suffered years of abuse or neglect, while living with their natural family. By the time they enter a foster home they require personal assistance of all kinds.
Ruth Massinga, secretary of Maryland's Department of Human Resources, says this move toward paraprofessionals is the most important development in foster care today.
The Strands are paraprofessionals. Before they received 15-year-old Johnny, they attended classes twice a week for four weeks. They say things are going well. ``We have our ups and downs,'' Mrs. Strand says, ``but overall it's been really successful.'' Johnny had been in two other foster homes and a group home. If the Strands had not taken him in, he would have been sent to a highly restrictive foster care institution.
A decade ago some 500,000 children, like Johnny and the infant the Moseses are caring for, were in foster care. Most were in individual homes. No one knows how many foster children there are now: It was about 275,000 in 1984, the latest year for which figures exist. Most experts believe it has risen modestly since.
No one is certain, either, how many foster homes exist in America today, except that there are enough to take in nearly all of the current foster children. But because there are not quite enough, the rest - especially in New York City and California - live in temporary situations that everyone laments.
One reason for the decline in the number of foster homes is intentional. A key 1980 child welfare law requires that agencies make a reasonable effort to aid troubled families so that their children can remain at home, before considering removing the youngsters to foster care. Experts widely agree that this is an excellent concept, although there is disagreement on how well it is being carried out.
But other reasons for the decline are unintentional. The majority of American women with school-age children now work outside the home: They are no longer available to stay home with foster children. Further, their families generally cannot do without their income.
Then, too, the kinds of children in foster care are changing radically. There are more older children, most of whom have experienced years of parental abuse or neglect. Especially in large cities, an increasing number of babies requiring foster care are assessed as having serious medical problems.
There's one other reason - demographics - that the number of children in foster care seems to have been slowly rising since 1983, when it hit a low of some 269,000. Foster care is ``the most sensitive of all [human service] programs to demographic changes,'' says Barbara Blum, president of the Foundation for Child Development. Referring to the mini baby boom of the last few years, she notes that ``it really shouldn't be a surprise to us that we have more infants requiring foster care.''
Gordon Johnson, director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, knows the challenge of finding enough foster families. ``On June 30, 1984,'' he said in congressional testimony this week, ``my department had 3,597 licensed foster homes.'' Two years later, ``we had 2,790 foster homes.'' The stresses of everyday life and foster parenthood, especially with today's more troubled children, are causing many families to leave the rolls.
``Clearly,'' says Mr. Johnson, speaking for many social service administrators, ``major changes must be implemented if we are to stem the tide and foster care is to remain a viable alternative for children in substitute care.''
He spoke at a hearing held by the House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families, chaired by Rep. George Miller (D) of California, who is acknowledged as Congress's leader on children's issues.
William Grinker, New York City's human resources administrator, also testified. He illustrated one of the problems for big-city organizations. In the last seven months, he said, ``we have doubled our placements into foster homes'' of infants with previous medical problems, ``but the number of infants awaiting placement has continued to increase, because the number of children referred for placement on a monthly basis outpaces the number of beds available.''
In an effort to increase the number of foster parents, Mr. Grinker says he began a major advertising effort two months ago, including a poster that says: ``Women in their 60s can still have babies.'' The first result is promising: The city has received about 6,000 inquiries.
Grinker recommends that the US government sponsor a major foster parent recruitment campaign, and a top federal official says she thinks that it is ``a very interesting idea.'' She is Dodie Livingston, commissioner of the Administration for Children, Youth, and Families of the Department of Health and Human Services. ``We would be very interested in working with the states'' to develop such a program.
Beyond the question of quantity of foster homes is the issue of quality. ``We've always been able to place a child,'' says Peggy Higgins, the supervisor of Child Protective Services of Charles County, Md. But it may not be the best placement: ``That is a luxury I don't think the agency will ever have.''
Two years ago a judge in the Northeast, now retired, told a foster parent whom he had come to trust about his personal agony when circumstances required him to remand a child to a foster home. ``You wouldn't believe some of the places I have to put children,'' he said sadly, describing homes that are dirty and unkempt, and where he strongly suspected the child's welfare is low on the family priority list.
Why didn't he put children in better places? Too often there were none, he said, that had room for another child. Homes where troubled children could receive the love and nurturing they so desperately needed were ``few and far between.''
Everyone who has been a foster parent says it is challenging; those who are parents of children with difficult personal or physical problems face particular challenges.
But more Americans might volunteer if they knew more about the satisfactions and the challenges that foster parents like the Moseses and Strands are having.
``We saw the most change,'' says Marlyn Moses, in ``the little girl that stayed for three years.'' It was suspected that the little girl had been sexually abused. ``When she came [at age 2], she wouldn't relate to men at all, not even my husband.''
By the time her foster daughter left, ``my husband had become her favorite. She just loved him dearly. You would never have known that this was the same little girl that didn't want any part of dealing with men.''
Laylla Strand's story is more complicated. ``Eighty percent of Johnny is the normal kid,'' she says, but ``20 percent of him is difficult to control.''
But there have been special rewards. One occurred the day after Johnny arrived: ``It told us a lot about Johnny,'' she says. That day the couple's two-year-old suddenly became ill. ``I'd expected to be home a lot cooking for Johnny,'' she says, ``and all of a sudden I was running back and forth. ... And Johnny was cooking for me, cleaning the house, and taking messages.
``I was so surprised. I was kissing him and hugging him and told him I needed him ... and he understood that.''
Third in a series. First two articles ran Wednesday and Thursday. Next: ``Aging out'' - when youngsters become too old for foster care and are wholly on their own.