As a city cop, Jill Taylor is accustomed to becoming involved in situations that most folks would rather ignore. That's her job. So when she was called to an apartment in North St. Louis where two young children had been left home alone, in many respects it was just another day, just another call. The two boys, one less than a year old and the other a 2-year-old, greeted Taylor and her partner at the door that morning. Someone in a neighboring apartment had reported them abandoned. Taylor took them to the city's Juvenile Court on Vandeventer Avenue and went on with her shift. Later that day, Taylor was at the Tandy Community Center in the Ville neighborhood when someone suggested she stop by Faith House, which at that time, in 1993, was located in a converted two-story brick home across the street on Kennerly Avenue."We walked over there and saw the two kids we had dealt with earlier. So it started from there -- I went over there and just fell in love with the place," Taylor says. In social-service jargon, Faith House is a "residential-care facility," which means it is a type of group home for abused or neglected infants and young children who are in the care of the state's Division of Family Services (DFS). Taylor began to visit Faith House regularly, and her mother, Sandra Loftin, retired and decided to volunteer. Among the 40 or so 7-and-under children at Faith House, Taylor and her mother eventually grew attached to an infant named Michael.
Though Michael stayed at Faith House, Taylor took him home for visits on weekends and holidays. Then Faith House's director, Mildred Jamison, told Taylor that Michael was going to be placed in a foster home. Taylor didn't grasp what that meant. "I said, "OK, as long as I can still get him for weekend visits,'" Taylor says. "She said he was going to be transported far away, like in the boonies. Mildred was the one who said, "Have you ever thought about being a foster parent?' I was like, "I can't be a foster parent -- I'm a police officer, my hours are crazy, I don't know anything about it.'"
Like many of the 2,951 children in the city of St. Louis who have overwhelmed DFS's insufficient resources, Michael was headed outstate, to Cape Girardeau, Fort Leonard Wood or anyplace else a family had been certified to take in foster children. Once Taylor learned that single parents could be foster parents and that the state would pay for daycare, as well as a monthly stipend to help cover expenses, becoming a foster parent seemed feasible. "I asked "What will I be out of?'" Taylor recalls. "Mildred said, "Time.' I said, "Really?' She said, "That's it.'"
What Jamison was talking about was the amount of time Taylor would have to spend taking care of Michael. What Taylor never anticipated was the amount of time -- years -- that she would be a parent for Michael before the system would make a decision about Michael's fate.
The scramble by the state to care for these children, who are the collateral damage of drugs, poverty and crime, has been less than successful. And it seems that when the state does attempt to address this societal mess, it routinely comes up short. Several years ago, for instance, when Jefferson City cleared the way for grandparents to become guardians for their grandchildren and receive state subsidies to care for them, they set the age for grandparents at 55 or over, clearly ruling out many troubled urban families where grandparents may be in their 40s. More recently, the state funded more than 60 social-worker positions in the city DFS office, but none of them have been filled because the state didn't address the issue of low starting pay ($22,248 per year), not to mention the average caseload of 20-30 families per caseworker. The St. Louis office of DFS currently has approximately 100 vacancies for caseworkers. Coming down the tracks, propelled by new federal rules, is a daunting statistic for the city DFS: a doubling of the number of children up for adoption by the end of 2000, with more than 400 children legally free for adoption within the year.
But those governmental machinations were just a backdrop for Taylor, who took Michael into her family, as a foster child, more than three years ago, when Michael was barely 3 years old. Michael lived with Taylor and, as her mother put it, "became part of our family," which includes Taylor's two sons, 14-year-old John and 2-year-old Jeremy. During those three years -- and, for that matter, for Michael's entire life -- his birth parents were in and out of jail and had infrequent contact with him. Michael's biological siblings included a younger brother, who had already been adopted; two other brothers, who are about to be adopted by their foster parents; and a sister, whose status is yet to be resolved.
Because this was Taylor's first foster-parent experience, she was unclear as to what her DFS worker was doing, or supposed to be doing. For three years, Taylor felt that not much was done to come to any conclusion in Michael's case or to deal with the father's claim to Michael. Taylor even thought Michael's father was out of the picture. "What the DFS worker did not do is terminate his rights. No -- everything was just left in limbo," says Taylor. "Everything was left in limbo. I thought all that had been done with the father."
Taylor had made it clear that she wanted to adopt Michael and had even submitted paperwork to that effect. But this September, she started receiving ominous signs. Michael's caseworker through Faith House was in favor of terminating the parental rights of the birth parents, freeing Michael for adoption. But the deputy juvenile officer for the Juvenile Court was recommending that Michael be reunited with his birth father. With a meeting in the Juvenile Court scheduled for Oct. 5 and the state's two official overseers in conflict, Taylor was afraid she might lose Michael after having had him in her home, full-time, for more than three years.
NEXT YEAR PROBABLY WON'T HOLD MANY surprises for Helen Reichmann, the adoption supervisor for the city DFS office. Her workload, and that of her workers, will double. Reasonable expectations are that a new judge taking over the Juvenile Court, Tom Frawley, will be moving the city court into quicker compliance with recent federal directives about shortening the time children spend in foster care.
When that happens, Taylor's tale of uncertainty and anxiety will become less common. What Taylor faced in that hearing on that October Tuesday -- and, to some degree, still faces -- is the worst fear of a foster parent. Recent history has shown that the foster parent, after agreeing to care for a child knowing that there are no guarantees about what will happen, may care for the child for years and years before there is a resolution of the case. And that resolution may very well mean a child's return to birth parents who the foster parents don't think have their acts together.
In the city, that is all about to change. In the county and, to some degree, throughout the state, it already has started to change. Spurred by the federal Adoption and Safe Family Act of 1997, states have been given a directive, and financial incentives, to shrink the amount of time foster children remain wards of the state. Under ASFA guidelines, state child-welfare agencies must make a recommendation for "permanency" after the child has been in the state's care for 12 months. This means either reuniting the child with the birth parents or terminating the parental rights of those birth parents and putting the child up for adoption. That plan is expected to be carried out within three months of the "permanency" decision, so that within 15 months of a child's coming into the state's care, the state will have decided what to do and will have started to do it.
It's seen by many as a good law, but, as with a lot of good laws, implementing it is quite another thing.
The change triggered by ASFA will mean that more foster children will be up for adoption. Reichmann says her office is actively recruiting families for about 200 children, most of whom have not yet had the parental rights of their birth parents ended. The state DFS office lists 826 children "with the goal of adoption" in city DFS custody. Once the terminations become more common and occur more quickly, the pace will pick up, doubling the current numbers of foster children free for adoption. "This is just the beginning of the ASFA load," says Reichmann. "We're anticipating probably at least another 200 children who will be coming through the adoption unit in the next six-12 months."
As much of the rest of the nation quickly followed, or even anticipated, the federal lead in '97 toward shortening stays in foster care and increasing adoption rates, Missouri has not been on the cutting edge of this movement, though it has begun to lurch in that direction. Of the 35 states that improved their rates of adoption in 1998, Missouri was rated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, on the basis of percentage increase, as 31st, with an 11 percent increase in 1998. On the basis of federal incentives for increases of $4,000 per adoption ($6,000 per adoption for special-needs children), that meant Missouri was entitled to $110,999 from the federal government for its increased number of adoptions. According to federal statistics, Missouri's Department of Social Services was involved in 616 adoptions in '98, up from 557, the average adoption rate in 1995-97.
Across the Mississippi River, Illinois made out much better. Leading the nation with 2,456 more adoptions in 1998 than the average in 1995-97, Illinois was entitled to a bonus of $6.8 million from the federal government. That reflected a 112 percent increase in adoptions, jumping from 2,200 to 4,656 adoptions. If Missouri had increased its numbers at the same rate Illinois did, it might have been entitled to a bonus of more than $2 million. But even in a comparison of Missouri with a state similar in demographics and size, Missouri fares poorly: Indiana showed a 56 percent increase in adoptions, a boost of 279 adoptions, which computes as a $842,843 bonus.
Most states did so well in improving their adoptions rates that the federal Department of Health and Human Services ran out of money for the program, and President Bill Clinton has asked for more funds for the next cycle. HHS hasn't yet issued bonuses for figures from fiscal year 1999, though Missouri appears to have improved its performance in the fiscal year ending June 30, having completed 956 adoptions, up from 701 in 1998, according to DFS statistics. In the city, 191 children were adopted in the fiscal year ending in June, up from 138 in the previous year.
What this means at street level is that the Jill Taylors and Michaels of the future will be less likely to be stalled in the system, with no one making the decision whether a foster child will be put up for adoption or returned to his birth family. The timetable has changed. Per the federal directive that then filtered through state legislation, the 15-month schedule for a "permanency" plan to be in place for the child lays out that by that time, the main options are reunification with the birth family, placement with a relative as guardian or adoption. Long-term foster care is a choice that will be severely limited to special cases.
Since ASFA was passed by Congress in 1997 and the enabling state legislation went into effect in August 1998, most Missouri DFS jurisdictions have been following that plan. The city of St. Louis, however, has been resistant to this sweeping national change, a resistance that should disappear once Frawley, a longtime family-court judge, takes over the Juvenile Court in January. Unlike many of his predecessors, it is expected that Frawley will remain at the Juvenile Court for more than a two-year rotation.
Though St. Louis County has been on the 15-month timeline for at least a year, the city has lagged behind because of what some officials at the Juvenile Court term the concern over creating hundreds of "legal orphans" who aren't likely to be adopted quickly, if at all. Even though the county has more than three times the population of the city, the city DFS office oversees more than twice as many foster children. Because the number of children free to be adopted has already created a shortage of adoptive homes, the idea of increasing the glut of unclaimed children is the main reason for the city court's hesitancy. Race is another part; in 1997, about 95 percent of the children under city DFS care are African-American. Although federal law prohibits the prevention of an adoption purely on the basis of race, the truth is, white children are more in demand and some African-American caseworkers aren't keen about pursuing trans-racial adoptions.
So the ASFA directive, which would have led to the termination of parental rights for hundreds of children, met with a marked lack of enthusiasm in the city Juvenile Court. "For most of us, that's simply not a feasible option," one Juvenile Court official says. "The majority of the children that we service in St. Louis city are black youngsters who are not getting adopted. And the idea of creating a greater pool of black youngsters not getting adopted simply because a federal law says that "this matter is to be referred for termination' is just not acceptable. It's just not an option that many of us want to explore, want to consider."
THAT RESISTANCE, HOWEVER HISTORIC OR ingrained, will be tested both by a new juvenile judge and by the director of the St. Louis office of the DFS. Like it or not, that's where Judge Frawley is headed. When he takes the bench in the Juvenile Court, the ASFA directives will become the rule of the day.
"That's my school of thought," says Frawley, whose other goal is to work more closely with city DFS. "One of the things we're trying to do is get rid of this finger-pointing. From my observation, that has been going on historically between the court personnel and DFS people: "The reason it's screwed up is because you didn't do your job. No, you didn't do your job.' In the past I don't know if the judge and the head of the local DFS office have known one another to the point they might pick up the phone and say, "Hey, this is what happened.' We hope that is going to happen."
For her part, Tena Thompson, director for DFS in the city, thinks that the hesitation to terminate parental rights because no adoptive parents were waiting in the wings didn't actually avoid the "orphan" status for those children. Some long-term foster children "may not have had their parental rights legally terminated, but if there is no family involved with their lives and there hasn't been for four, five years, they're emotional orphans," says Thompson. "They don't have a family to go to; they don't have anyone who is permanently there for them. Whether or not we've done the termination, it's there."
From Thompson's perspective, now that Frawley will be on the bench, DFS and the Juvenile Court should have similar worldviews. The judge still will have the final say, but knowing that Frawley plans to be in tune with the 15-month timeframe for each child reminds caseworkers that the reality of ASFA has finally filtered down to the city's caseload. Once it has, it may take some time to make a dent. The average length of stay for city DFS children last year was 35.5 months, just a couple of weeks short of three years. The average stay for county DFS last year was 25.9 months, just over two years. With ASFA directives becoming the rule and incentive bonuses being offered for adoptions, those length-of-stay numbers should shrink.
Thompson welcomes the "philosophical shift" that has occurred elsewhere with the ASFA federal directive, and she awaits that change for the city, which handles more DFS cases than any other jurisdiction in the state. She admits that the shift away from thinking in "adult time" is not one that will come easily for caseworkers.
"We really think in the time frame of the life of a child and what that means developmentally. A year in the life of a child is forever. We need to start focusing on that," says Thompson. "It is such a philosophical change -- even for our staff, it's monumental. Our staff is still struggling, trying to make that shift. They're so used to be working on the parents' timeline -- you know, "But this parent just got out of prison; I need to work with him.' The child has been in care for two years, folks; let's focus on that child's perspective. What has happened in those two years in the life of that child?"
In Taylor's case, when she took Michael into her home, he was barely out of diapers. Now she says he's in a city magnet school, "doing very, very well," and she worries what would happen if she had to give him up. "Are they going to take him out of school? Where is he going to go? Who is he going to be living with?" asks Taylor.
Such difficult questions can be avoided if DFS and the court act within the 15-month ASFA timeframe. That way, in just over a year the foster child could be back with the birth parents, placed in the custody of a relative or adopted. If the decision made by the court for the child is that adoption is the best route available, then ending parental rights on a tight schedule simplifies matters for adoption workers. Free of lingering legal entanglements, a child can be placed anywhere, including other states. Placing a child in an adoptive home before all the legalities are complete is sometimes done if it looks as though adoption will be the eventual outcome, but it's seldom done in out-of-state placements, because birth parents may retain visitation rights until adoption is final. With the numbers handled by city DFS -- numbers that are expected to grow geometrically -- the recruiting of adoptive homes is a nationwide endeavor.
Even critics of ASFA within the Juvenile Court recognize that a type of lose-lose scenario exists when it comes to the city court's resistance to the rush-to-permanency trend. Reunification for many of the families enmeshed in the tangled net of poverty, drugs and DFS custody is a dim hope, even dimmer than the hope of quick adoption for the children plucked from these situations. "In most cases we're not talking about children where the parents are going to get their act together," says one court official. "That's the unfortunate reality of the parents we deal with, where drugs become a problem, or alcohol or general neglect. It's not looking that if we put it off that they'll get things together and try to get their children back. That's not the thinking or the belief of anybody at this court. But it also is the reality for us knowing if you haven't had an adoptive placement when the child enters just foster care, you're not going to get one just because the parents' rights have been terminated."
In short, just ordering things to be does not make them so. Judge Susan Block, who will be the presiding judge of Juvenile Court in St. Louis County starting in January, is well aware of the limitations of edicts.
"Judges are always under the impression if they order something that it will just happen. Truthfully, the inability of social-service agencies sometimes to keep up with the caseload and the court orders really sort of impairs what we're able to do in our job," says Block. One example of this frustration, she says, is when she orders family-reunification services, an intensive social-work process in which a caseworker goes into the home 10 hours or more a week to help a family work through its problems. Often there is a long waiting list for this service, so a mere order wouldn't have any immediate real effect on the family's life. "What I came to find out is that none of us are all-powerful with regard to this. I, as a judge, may make an order ordering Division of Family Services to do something, but if they don't have the resources to do it, either the amount of personnel or voice mail to get messages from various clients of theirs, or they're having a lot of turnover, so their workers can't get the work done -- what I was finding was feeling sort of powerless in an odd sort of way."
AS A VETERAN SOCIAL WORKER AND CHILD advocate, Sara Barwinski knows that fixing, or even just improving, the plight of children in the care of the state involves more than just a plan -- it requires money, will and follow-through. Missouri is not a state known for its success in this area, if for no other reason than the situation in Kansas City, where, since being hit with a class-action suit in 1977, Jackson County DFS has been operating under a consent decree since 1983. Bearing the distinction of working under the longest-running consent decree on child welfare in the nation, the Kansas City office has been reorganized, provided more personnel and given its own Web site, but the results have been mixed. That the city of St. Louis escaped similar litigation may have been due more to happenstance than merit.
"I will never believe that it was because the system in Kansas City was any more egregious than here. In fact, in the number of kids, we have more," says Barwinski, a local social worker who does consulting work for DFS and volunteers with Vision for Children at Risk, an advocacy group for local children. "What we were always told here, because sometimes they think that a lot of us have been a little envious of the kind of resources that went into to respond to Kansas City, was that those things would trickle over here eventually."
More than a trickle has begun to flow from Jefferson City, at least in terms of new social-work positions created, but there is little evidence of much real help. The city office received 63.5 new social-service-worker positions and 11 supervisor positions. That sounds good, but city DFS can't hire enough college graduates to fill its existing vacancies, much less hire 63.5 new people. The county has been funded for 76.5 new positions. The main problem is that the state added the positions but did not increase pay levels. Salary for the social worker I position starts at $22,248 a year. The caseload per city DFS worker varies but can range from 20-30 cases. In a competitive job market with the unemployment rate at a near-record low, convincing young college graduates to work with troubled families for a state agency is a hard sell. City DFS director Thompson knows it.
If all the current vacancies and the new positions were filled, Thompson says, the city would have 300 social workers, about 100 more than are currently working. "It is very busy. We're honest with people. We are very busy in our community. This is the caseload," says Thompson, describing the hiring effort as "definitely a struggle." Barwinski concurs, conceding that finally the state seems to have made a commitment, though that doesn't guarantee results. Upgrading the idea of public child welfare as a viable career option would be a big help, she says.
"I've been doing advocacy in Missouri for 18 years, and I never felt there was an adequate number of full-time employees appropriated in the legislative process. That's not the problem right now," says Barwinski. "For the first time, the Legislature has absolutely given the green light and created the positions to get the caseload down to where it could be a successful system. But there is a lot of problem hiring, training and retaining good workers. Right now the increase in employees coincided with a low, low unemployment rate and battling with some people's perspective about DFS's not being an attractive place to work."
Beyond more workers, such basic business tools as computers and voice mail are missing at many DFS desks. "If only everyone had voice mail and everyone had a computer on their desk," says one worker. "We waste so much time in paperwork that could be expedited more quickly and with getting back to folks." If such updates were in place, "we probably wouldn't need as many workers as they think they do."
State DFS isn't exactly in the fast lane on the infobahn, either. DFS places photographs and brief depictions of children available for adoption on its Web site, but anyone interested would have trouble e-mailing the city DFS adoption unit directly. If they are interested, the more conventional means of writing a letter or calling will have to do.
"The adoption staff would be delighted to have e-mail capacity so that if they get a call from a prospective family from somewhere they can start e-mailing back and forth in a quick way. We don't have the capacity to do that right now," says Reichmann. Thompson says a "couple" of computers can take e-mail in the downtown office, though the real problem is the age of the historic, renovated -- and apparently antiquated -- Wainwright Building that houses the city DFS's main offices. "This building, because of its age and the electrical wiring and that, is a little bit of a struggle right now," says Thompson. "We're really trying to work through it."
The absence of voice mail for caseworkers is a constant source of frustration for foster parents, caseworkers and court officials. If a caseworker is away from the office on a home visit or in court, handwritten messages taken by whomever answers the phone back at the office are often the only means of communication. Barwinski is aware that DFS workers have a tough job and that they aren't always equipped with sufficient means to help them accomplish their jobs. "Things that other businesses take for granted could really revolutionize the practice of DFS," says Barwinski. "As a child advocate, I have oftentimes been critical over the years of how the department functions. I really have been impressed with the intent of management to deal creatively with these kind of initiatives and be responsive, but, my gosh, if we don't give them the tools that any business would have, we shouldn't expect better outcomes."
THE CITY JUVENILE COURT IS HEADED places where the county has been. Circuit Judge Susan Block takes over the Juvenile Court in the county in January, but her predecessor, Melvin Weisman, was already following federal directives to terminate parental rights or plan to reunify the family after one year. The challenge is for the system to give the birth parents a fighting chance to meet that one-year deadline. To do that, resources are needed, as well as a newfound sense of urgency by caseworker, court worker and parent. In years past, an adult with children in the system might reasonably expect several years to sort his or her life out before there was any real danger of losing a child. If Frawley or Block are to be believed, those days are long gone and a different message needs to be sent out. But is one year a long-enough time to give a drug-impaired or criminally involved parent to remedy his or her situation?
"Absolutely," says Block. "The focus isn't so much on the birth parents' getting their act together as it is finding a permanent and safe place for the child. We certainly want to do what we can to reunify the (family), but if in every case we waited until all parents were ready for their children to be returned to them, there would not be permanency in these children's lives."
The key, according to Frawley, is early and frequent meetings with the parents to present them with a reality check and a schedule of what must be done for them to get back with their children. Meetings or hearings are scheduled within three days of a child's going into protective custody and follow at intervals of 30, 60 or 90 days. Review hearings are planned every 90 days, a more frequent pace than the previous routine of once every six months. During those early meetings, Frawley plans to have representatives of the court and DFS sit down with parents and further explain what they need to do and what services are available. The final planning hearing is held 12 months after the child has been taken into protective custody.
The schedule seems like an improvement, but it's only as good as its execution, only as good as the money and people behind it. In the past, because reunification services were often insufficient or running behind schedule, parents might have been given more time to fulfill court orders. The question now becomes whether parents will be given enough assistance to meet the shorter deadline of one year. For longtime observers, it's a swing of the pendulum away from making family preservation the top priority to pulling the trigger on a plan for the child at 12 months -- no matter what. That decision could be reunification with the child, but the burden of making that happen lies with the parent.
"Part of it is the inherent tension between time for a child, (for whom) a year can be a long, long time in his life developmentally with a young child bonding to a caretaker, whereas (for) a mom who might be dealing with a substance-abuse issue, a year may not be anywhere near enough time for her to get her act together," says Barwinski. "Those two things oftentimes collide."
If there is a collision of priorities in these cases, it's clear from ASFA in general, and Block and Frawley in particular, that at the end of one year, time is up for the birth parent. If Mom, Dad or both have done what was required by the time of the permanency-planning hearing, there can be a reasonable expectation of family reunification. Those court-ordered requirements often include drug rehab, parenting classes, psychology testing and proof of income and housing. That may sound like a baseline goal, but for many parents who have lost their children to the system, those directives can be tall orders.
"In the past, there has been a tendency, both on the part of our staff agency and the court, to give the parents a lot of the benefit of the doubt. So if they were making some kind of effort, there was a tendency to try to give them as much room as possible," says Reichmann. "Sometimes that led to the children being stuck, because the parents would do some things but never quite enough to get them home."
Reichmann believes there is a need to be "much more honest to parents now up front," because giving them just 12 months to change their course doesn't allow them much leeway. "It's a long enough time for us to gauge the parents' sincere effort. It may not always be enough time for the parent to make the changes. We have a lot of parents with drug problems. That's a real challenge. Twelve months may not make it for them. We also see a lot of parents who keep coming back with drug problems. They have baby one, then they have baby two, then they have baby three. How much time do you keep giving them if they show you they're still doing drugs after the third baby?"
According to one aspect of ASFA, if a mother has exposed previous babies to cocaine or other illegal drugs, the exposure of the second child is cause enough for the judge to terminate parental rights, though that decision is up to the judge's discretion. Other red flags for parents that could hasten severance of parental rights include abandonment and conviction for a felony assault to a child.
AS FOR JILL TAYLOR, THE OCT. 5 HEARING about Michael went about as well as she could have hoped. Michael's birth father showed up with a lawyer and made his case. The father, who had been released from prison in June, said he was employed and had turned his life around. The deputy juvenile officer recommended that Michael be reunited with his father. The DFS worker disagreed and said that Taylor should be allowed to adopt Michael. After a lengthy hearing before a Juvenile Court commissioner, it was recommended that the parental rights be terminated. For the birth father, the decision by the commissioner fell under the category of too little, too late. With Michael in DFS custody for about four years, three years of that with Taylor, the court recommended that the way be made clear for Taylor to adopt Michael.
One last hearing will be made in February, with the final call being made by Judge Frawley. He could look at the evidence and decide against the recommendation of the commissioner, but that normally isn't done. With the current climate shift in favor of early permanency if not early termination, it would be surprising, though not impossible, that Michael would be returned to his father. So the odds are with Taylor that she will be allowed to adopt Michael.
From where Taylor sits, time has expired on anyone else's claim to Michael or his siblings: "The grandmother, all the relatives were aware that these kids were in foster homes. If they wanted these kids, why didn't they go get them five years ago? Six years ago? C'mon."
If ASFA is applied as its advocates plan, Jill-and-Michael stories will be historical footnotes. The child who stays in the system four, five years without being put up for adoption will be rare. By 15 months, a plan will be in place for the child to return to his birth family or be up for adoption. Though Taylor hadn't thought all this through when she decided to become a foster parent, she's baffled as to why some people don't comprehend what she's done.
"What gets me is a lot of people cannot understand how you can take somebody else's child in and accept them as your own and love them as your own. That messes with me," says Taylor. "People just don't understand how Michael has been in our lives for practically all of his life. And he is my son -- he is my family."
If the new direction taken by DFS is to work, there need to be more Jill Taylors. About 50 percent of the current adoptions involve foster parents adopting their foster children or relatives adopting foster children. In the city, about half the adoptions last year were transracial, with white adoptive parents adopting African-American children. "We certainly encourage families who have thought it through and feel that's something that would fit their family to contact us," says Reichmann.
If the increased number of children up for adoption are to get any timely attention, DFS and its associates must employ what is called "concurrent planning" -- that is, plans for reunification and termination of parental rights have to be simultaneously pursued before the child's case reaches the 12-month mark. Mildred Jamison, director of Faith House, accepts the new direction DFS and the Juvenile Court is taking but also is aware of the work involved. Faith House has expanded and moved to a new facility on Page Boulevard near Union since the days when Taylor visited the Kennerly location. "The idea is really good, that many of the children should have been up for adoption many years ago, but now since it's so fast, everything must move so fast now," says Jamison. "You're running both things -- reunification and, if that can't take place in 15 months, we have to have an adoptive parent that's willing to take this child. So you're running on two tracks."
That approach is exactly what will be happening, because Frawley doesn't want to make overly subjective judgments about which kids are adoptable and which ones aren't. "If there is somebody out there who wants to adopt this child, for whatever his or her reasons are and they're a fit and suitable home, then God bless 'em," says Frawley, an adoptive parent himself. "I shouldn't be making the decision that this kid isn't adoptable just because it's not the child I might take in my home."
When it comes to looking for reinforcements, at least from Jefferson City, Frawley thinks legislative "ride-alongs," in which state legislators come and spend a day in court watching the tragedies on parade, might be in order. "I don't know that they appreciate the magnitude of abuse and neglect in the city of St. Louis. I'm not sure they appreciate the number of children being born who have parents who are absolutely incapable of handling them," says Frawley.
"Let them see what we do. Let them go out and see what the DFS people have to do. The hope being is they go back to Jeff City and say, "You know what? We've got to do something. We have to figure out a way for DFS to pay these people the money that they need so they can do the work they need to do, to give them the equipment they need. Until the public or the Legislature sees what a crisis we've got, I don't think we're going to get very far."
Whatever the approach, veteran child advocates such as Barwinski realize that lambasting DFS is the equivalent of walking into an emergency room and yelling at the doctors and nurses to do a better job. "A lot of time people point the finger that the problem is with DFS -- really, the solution lies in realizing these are not DFS kids, these are our kids. There are roles for corporations, for community groups, for churches, for neighborhood associations and certainly for individual families if we're going to solve this. It's not just saying, "DFS, get your act together,' it's us all saying, "What do we need to do to respond to this?'"
For DFS's Thompson, the goal is to provide children in the system with a home, be it with their new and improved birth parents, with caring relatives or with adoptive parents. Too often, children turn 18 without ever having found a consistent home and "age out" of the system.
"I often think about the youth that we have who have aged out of foster care," says Thompson. "We have aftercare services for those youth. To go to a Christmas party and have young people who are now 26 and you fill their sense of family, or those other kids they might have been with at a residential center fill their sense of family, or that social worker, or the independent-living classmates, it really makes you think, we really need to make every effort that kids have families. We need it to be families."