IN a roomful of red and green balloons, five-year-old Joshua Shepard clutches a bag of popcorn and restlessly awaits his turn on Santa's lap. "I want a motorcycle," says the kindergartner in shiny black shoes and a green pin-stripe suit.
But the gift needed most by Joshua and the 200 other African-American children at the recent holiday party here is neither a toy nor a teddy bear but a loving, permanent home. The youngsters are among the roughly 75,000 of the 450,000 children in the burgeoning US foster-care system who are unable to return to their birth parents and seek to be adopted.
Buoyed in part by the Million Man March by black men in Washington on Oct. 16, efforts to find homes for children like Joshua are intensifying. Social workers, adoption counselors, and child-welfare experts interviewed in several US cities report anecdotal evidence of a surge in interest in adoption by African-American families.
For example, more than 4,600 people so far have responded by telephone to A Fistful of Families, an adoption campaign promoted at the march.
"Without a doubt, the response since the march has been the biggest we've had," says Leonard Dunston, president of the National Association of Black Social Workers, which is running the campaign. "Everywhere I go, there are groups developing projects. Within six to seven months, you'll see some profound gains."
More people are also volunteering to recruit families for adoption or to act as mentors to waiting children. "After the march, I stepped up to see if I could make a difference," says Stan McKinney, a businessman and mentor to black boys in the new, Chicago-area Village Investment adoption project.
Still, the number of children in need is daunting. Tens of thousands of youngsters like Joshua pour into the foster-care system every year, while far fewer leave.
As one of the estimated 20,000 to 30,000 children - half of them black - already lawfully freed for adoption, Joshua has escaped legal limbo. But Joshua's age, sex, race, and birth to a drug-addicted mother count against him. As an older African-American boy, he is likely to remain in the system longer than most children, whose average stay is at least two years, according to the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse (NAIC) in Rockville, Md.
Since the mid-1980s, the ranks of foster-care children have expanded more than 50 percent as the crack-cocaine epidemic produced record numbers of drug-addicted babies and child-abuse cases. Some 375,000 drug-exposed children are born each year, a tripling over the past three years, reports the NAIC.
"The numbers grow from year to year, mainly from older children and minorities who stay in the system," says Carole Thompson, a program analyst at the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Reducing the large number of black children flowing into the system requires alleviating the chronic poverty and lack of opportunity that foster drug abuse and child neglect, says Oliver Williams, associate professor of social work at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Meanwhile, however, efforts are under way to reduce obstacles keeping children in the system from finding homes.
One priority is to reform inefficient child-welfare bureaucracies that critics contend needlessly keep children in the system. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued 10 state and local governments, including Illinois, to pressure them to serve children with greater speed and accountability.
"Very few states do this competently and some do a terrible job," says Benjamin Wolf, an ACLU lawyer in Chicago. In Illinois, where the number of children in state care has leapt from 12,500 to 48,650 in the past decade, Mr. Wolf contends half the children stay in the system because overly cautious case workers refuse to move them out. He says that if there is a valid concern with returning children to their families, case workers should move more quickly to locate substitute families.
Joshua, for example, was taken from his drug-addicted mother in Joliet, Ill., when he was one year old. For four years, he has bounced among foster homes and grown aggressive and hyperactive, says case worker Prentiss Rhodes. Eight months ago, a court finally ended his mother's parental rights and freed Joshua for adoption.
Another goal is to recruit more minority families for adoption and reverse what some critics charge has been a "selecting out" of minority families by culturally insensitive child-welfare workers.
Take the story of Lisa Lynette Riggs of Galesburg, Ill. In August last year, Mrs. Riggs and her husband, who are black and childless, applied to become foster parents and possibly adopt.
After waiting five months, they were devastated when the Illinois child-welfare department sent them a letter stating that their request had been rejected. The department had mistakenly identified Mr. Riggs as a felon convicted of murder.
"It was very upsetting," says Mrs. Riggs. "No one called us to check, they just sent us the letter."
After the error was corrected, the Riggses waited several more months to become licensed as foster parents. Still, no call came to offer them a child.
"I couldn't believe there were no kids who needed homes. Where we live there are some blacks, but not a whole bunch. I thought maybe people didn't know how to take us," Riggs says.
Many African-Americans share the Riggses' alienation from official adoption agencies. Of 100 black families surveyed this year in the Minneapolis/St. Paul region, the majority found the cities' predominantly white adoption agencies inhospitable. "The families felt it was essential to have an advocate within the system," says Greg Owen, co-author of the survey.
To address this need, more than a dozen US cities, including Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Minneapolis, have launched federally funded programs aimed at recruiting blacks and other minorities as adoptive parents.
Yet recruitment drives, while successful, have fallen short of demand. The Minneapolis project, for instance, led to a 64 percent increase in African-American adoptions between 1992 and 1995. Meanwhile, the number of black children in need of adoption grew 173 percent, Mr. Owen says.
"[Blacks] have to adopt at a much higher rate. It's an incredible burden," says Laura Pleasants of the Adoption Information Center of Illinois. In Illinois, 70 percent of the children placed out of their families are African-American, while only 12 percent of the population is black, she says.
A controversial law on transracial adoption, the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act signed by President Clinton in October 1994, could facilitate adoption by adults from different racial and ethnic groups.
Such efforts may prove too late for Joshua and many older African-American boys. "His chances for adoption are fair to poor," says Ms. Rhodes.
At the party, Joshua merely shrugs when asked where he lives. A case worker takes him home early, before he gets his turn to see Santa or collect a gift.
Across the room, things are working out for Mrs. Riggs. She holds a sleeping seven-month-old girl in a green velvet dress. Riggs holds back tears as she retells how the baby, Sherilyn, took to her instantly on their first meeting at a foster home the day before. She hopes to adopt the baby as quickly as possible.
"It's a miracle," she says.