While the number of children in foster care nationwide has risen for two decades, in Maryland, the numbers are dropping.
The progress here relies on volunteer citizens, some 400 teachers, housewives, doctors, and lawyers who serve as child advocates on independent review boards.
As a result, Maryland children are spending much less time in foster care. They are either returned to their parents, placed permanently with relatives, or adopted.
"We're really an independent voice for the children," says Charlie Cooper, administrator of the state's 63 local boards.
Although 20 years old, Maryland's system is getting renewed attention as the length of time children spend in foster-care systems has become a nationwide concern. The Clinton administration has launched an initiative to double the number of adoptions by 2002. A new federal law provides cash incentives to states that quickly transfer children from foster care to permanent families.
Children enter foster care because of substantial abuse or neglect. Although the foster-care system is designed to provide temporary care, often many children remain in custody for years. This was the case before the foster care review boards in Maryland. Today, the number of children in foster care has declined from 10,000 to 8,000. The number adopted out of the foster-care system has risen from 260 in 1986 to nearly 500 in 1997. The amount of time children spend in the system before adoption has dropped from 69 months to 42 months.