A home of their own

African-American leaders in Florida push adoption for children in foster care.

They don't creep out of their bedrooms to flip on TV cartoons on the weekends, even though their parents tell them it's perfectly fine to do so. They never open the refrigerator to get a glass of milk when they are thirsty. They dare not complain when they are cold. They say "Thank you" incessantly.

"We explain: 'This is your fridge. Your food. Your TV. Your home,' " says James Parrish, a maintenance supervisor in Broward County, Fla., who, with his wife, Felicia, adopted three young siblings who had been foster children for years. "We work to make it clear this is not a stopover. But trust takes time to build. And they have had bad experiences."

Seven-year-old Marri and her two brothers, Mario, who's 8, and Shaquan, 6, were taken away from their abusive biological parents by the state of Florida when Marri was barely 1.

The children shuttled between bleak emergency shelters and temporary foster homes, sharing clothes, eating poorly, and falling behind in school. One foster mother would lock them in the garage when they asked to play, recounts Shaquan, stammering as he speaks. And sometimes she put them in a closet and pushed up a dresser against it.

"I would not want to go back," says the boy, his eyes widening.

These siblings were plucked out of the foster-care system, brought into a loving home, and will never have to "go back." But some 130,000 other young Americans seeking to be adopted are not as fortunate, and may go through their childhood years - feeling lonely, frustrated, angry, unwanted, even unsafe - without ever being invited into a permanent home.

The problem is most acute when it comes to black children. In Miami and Dade County, for example, African- Americans make up about 20 percent of the general population but close to 67 percent of the children seeking adoption. Furthermore, even accounting for that imbalance, black families are less likely to adopt than nonblacks, according to studies.

The reasons for this situation may be economic, social (many African-American families unofficially take in relatives and thus have less room or desire for strangers), or, as some claim, racial (there are those who think the authorities take black children out of a problematic family environment more quickly than they do nonblacks).

But the fact is that the statistics repeat themselves across the country. In Chicago, for example, 95 percent of children in foster care waiting to be adopted are black.

Increasingly, however, black activists are saying, "Enough is enough." Propelled by the shocking story of Rilya Wilson - the Miami girl in foster care who literally disappeared within the social-service system two years ago - three black Florida lawmakers have begun a grass-roots campaign to recruit more and better qualified black adoptive parents.

The project, which they hope to roll out nationwide in a year's time, is called the Rilya Wilson Legacy Project, in honor of the missing child, who would be 7 this year.

"When Rilya went missing, I could not sleep at night," says state Sen. Frederica Wilson. "I could not understand how this could happen to a little girl. I took it personally. I was offended. And I decided to do something.

"Her disappearance has heightened, in the mind of many blacks, the obligation we have to our children languishing in foster care," she adds. "And we are going to capitalize on that sense of obligation."

Senator Wilson was instrumental in pushing through legislation earlier this year requiring the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) to place all children in their custody in preschool - and for those schools to report any children absent. It's a move that will help alert authorities to trouble, and had it been in place two years ago, might have helped Rilya.

"But this is not enough," says Wilson. "Government cannot and should not take care of our children alone. We have to do better. And to do that, we have to know better."

The project is pulling together organizations involved in adoption, and helping them coordinate and reach out more aggressively to the larger community.

These include well-established groups such as One Church One Child, which encourages churches to financially and emotionally support one family from the community in adopting a child.

Also participating are newer organizations such as the Rilya Wilson Advocacy Project, which aims to raise community awareness of the incidents of missing and abused children.

Representatives from these groups and many others are being sent out to all sorts of organizations that will have them - churches, sororities, professional organizations - with the goal of providing information and appealing to potential adoptive parents.

"Rilya is going to be our spark. Her tragedy is going to help others," promises Wilson.

Meanwhile, in conjunction with these efforts, the local NBC television station in Miami has started a weekly program called "Forever Family," in which children seeking adoption are featured and adoption procedures are explained.

"I like to think people are not involved because they don't know what's going on," says Gia Tutalo-Mote, who initiated and now produces the program. "Every night you turn on the TV and see horrible stories, but no one ever tells you how you can help."

Since the TV show began running last year, 13 children have found adoptive families through the program - including Marri, Mario, and Shaquan.

Ms. Tutalo-Mote says she soon plans to take the program national.

* * *

It's a rainy Sunday in Miami, and Helen Williams, founder of the Rilya Wilson Advocacy Project, is sitting in the back pews of the Brownsville Church of Christ, together with representatives from One Church One Child and the DCF.

At the end of a long morning of services, the three women file to the front of the small room, stand under the faded red curtains, and turn to the fidgety congregation.

"I know many here have children of their own. But I want you to listen," begins Williams. "In times of slavery we might not have been able to organize ourselves to help out children. But those times are long gone, and we need to go in and save our children."

Toni White from the DCF has a frayed red album filled with pastel sheets of paper. "Waiting Children" is emblazoned on the front cover, and each page has on it a pasted photo of a different child: Lakesisha, James, Sammie, Kendra, Inez, Cynthia, George, Joe, Martin, Jerusetta ... one child after another grinning for the camera.

"Come look through," implores Ms. White. "Maybe there is a child here that interests you."

Little blurbs beside the photographs try to present each child in the best possible light.

"Travis is a cute tyke with big brown eyes who is sure to steal your heart," begins one. "Diamond and his adorable sister, Stacy, are very optimistic," reads another. "Charming Johanesia is noted for willingness to help with chores," promises a third.

"[Adopting a child is] a lot of responsibility," admits White. "But the longer a kid stays in the system, the more they die - and they need your help."

Spread the love, she urges, "and it will come back to you... Who will bring you that cool drink of cold water when you are old?"

Then, changing tactics, White continues, "You will get financial incentives from the state."

Prospective parents don't have to be married or rich to adopt a child. The main thing is that they have to care, she tells them.

As the congregation files out, people are asked to sign a sheet of paper and note their interest in volunteering. After the sheet goes back to Wilson's office, follow-up calls will be made.

It doesn't look encouraging.

"I already have my own kids," murmurs one lady.

"Trouble, trouble," says another.

In the column headed "interest" all but one congregant has written "none."

But Wilson doesn't allow herself to be discouraged.

"Look, people stayed after church to listen to us, and [they] signed our sheets," she says optimistically.

"And you don't know yet. Maybe something will come out of it," she insists. "Maybe that one person who indicated interest will come through. Even one more person is good ... we never said [it would be] quick or easy."

* * *

James and Felicia were neighbors when they were growing up and played together in the streets right around where they live today. After college, they fell in love, married, and decided to start a family, but were unable to have children.

James coached Little League. Felicia baby-sat for her nieces all the time. But it wasn't enough. They wanted to nurture children of their own.

In church, on television, and at work they began hearing about foster children in need, and they began discussing the possibility of adopting one.

But not all their friends thought it was a good idea.

"People said to us: 'Are you sure you want to bring in foster children? Those kids are scarred. They will be a problem,' " remembers Felicia. "And we thought about it a lot and decided ... we have something to share. We can show them a brighter way. And we have faith they will be all right."

Shaquan, listening intently, puts his head down on her lap. She drapes her arm casually around him, and he smiles.

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