THE current what's-wrong-with-the-American-family debate should lead to changes in how we respond to the needs of our children. The foster-care program, for example, is well on its way to becoming a substitute parent for children from broken families. Yet, foster care is neither an adequate substitute parent nor an effective advocate for the children caught in its web.
As early as the third grade, children who have lost their parents one way or another already have much against them: First, many are not adoptable due to legal Catch-22s. Second, many of these alienated youngsters are destined to strike out in life after spending the next decade in a foster-care system barely able to feed and clothe them.
Today, about 150,000 children aged 8 to 18 are drifting in this twilight zone. Denied the learning experiences normally received in a family setting, they will be ill-prepared for the day when they are cast into the real world.
What they need, and quickly, is a strong voice in Washington, a sense of belonging to small, community-level groups, and basic life-skills training.
In 1983 there were 275,000 young persons in the foster-care system. Now, there are 450,000 - about the population of Atlanta or Denver - and of these, only 7 percent will actually be adopted. There are two reasons for that:
First, a child is not eligible for adoption until legal ties to his or her biological parents are severed - something our rigid judicial system is very reluctant to do. Second, the foster-care program is not held accountable for finding permanent homes for its clients. In practice, the program is focused more on caring for the physical needs of its children than on aggressively placing them with adoptive parents.
Hillary Rodham Clinton's well-publicized ``politics of meaning'' speech given last April addressed the need to strengthen the American family. She seems determined to substitute human caring, concern, and love for regulations and bureaucracy in our human-services programs.
I wish her well, but the payoff is too distant. Older orphans already in foster care can't wait for the reinvention of the family. For them, time is running out. What can be done for these kids today?
A good place to start is the 1991 National Commission on Children's report. The commission, chaired by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia, provided in the study a blueprint for improving the foster-care system. In addition to that study, here are three practical steps that can be taken now:
Give orphans a voice on Capitol Hill. On April 30, 1993 - less than a month after Mrs. Clinton's speech - the only organized body in Congress with ``children'' in its title, the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, closed down. Shortly thereafter, Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado prefaced her call for the creation of a new children's committee with this observation: ``While there is a place in heaven for those who help children, there is apparently none in Congress.''
She is right. It makes no sense to spend $1 billion on another Seawolf submarine that the Pentagon says is not needed while denying 450,000 children an effective home on Capitol Hill.
Encourage nongovernmental initiatives. If older orphans feel alienated from family and community, their urge to belong to a small, intimate group remains strong. This is evident from the rise in teen gang membership. To counter this trend, local community and incorporated organizations have already stepped in and established a good track record. Many church-bred programs are creating a sense of community ties in orphan children by channeling their energy into sports, academics, and neighborhood good works. Federal and state programs and funding policies should support these private initiatives.
Focus on life skills. Since federal funding guidelines encourage state-run foster-care programs to emphasize short-term, crisis-management services, nongovernment players must concentrate on longer-range, skill-development programs. Youngsters leaving foster care ill-equipped for life on their own often end up homeless or permanently dependent on welfare services.
To be effective, life-skill training must be continuously offered. Career training cannot be a once-a-year event. These kids need daily exposure to the choices open to them. This awareness and goal-building process will then generate the desire to acquire the skills needed to be successful.
The foster-care system feeds, clothes, and shelters the older orphans but fails to take the next logical step - implementing a uniform, no-nonsense instructional program in basic life skills.
We can start preparing older orphans for life by putting into practice what we know will work. If we want these children to grow into responsible adults, we need to first become responsible adults toward them. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.