Monday through Friday, Patty Ecker is your basic television reporter, chasing down brush fires, drive-by shootings and court arraignments for KCBS-TV Channel 2. Every Sunday, however, she turns into the Cal Worthington of the adoption business.
She rides ponies, plays soccer, goes to the zoo--anything to give the orphaned and unwanted children she profiles on the station's Sunday evening newscast a special day to remember--anything to encourage some loving viewer to call the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services and offer to adopt the child.
"When we started this, my only reservation was that I didn't want to exploit the children for myself or for Channel 2," Ecker said of her feature, "Sunday's Child," which has been profiling "the children that nobody wants" weekly since 1981.
"But the truth is, I did want to exploit them for themselves. So when somebody says, 'You're just like Cal Worthington--you say, "Here's the child of the week," ' well, that's terrific. Because that child of the week has a better chance of finding a real home than it does sitting in some anonymous foster home or, worse yet, in some big album down at the department."
Since Children's Services asked her to begin offering children for adoption as a feature on the news more than seven years ago, Ecker, 47, has profiled nearly 400 children, ranging in age from 6 months to 13 years.
" 'Sunday's Child' is just an invaluable service for the children of Los Angeles County," said Sarah Berman, director of the adoptions division of the Department of Children's Services. "These children would have a much more difficult chance of finding a home if she didn't put them on television. The ability to see the child makes it a much more personal message. It makes it much easier for parents to picture the child as a part of their own family."
Originally aired as "Wednesday's Child" and born after a Children's Services employee saw a similar segment on a newscast in Phoenix, Ariz., Ecker's feature was only the third such segment in the country at the time, she said. Now she estimates that more than 60 markets have someone doing the same thing.
Ecker said that the agency uses her as a last resort, hoping that a television piece might work where all else has failed.
"They don't need me to place blond-haired, blue-eyed, healthy baby girls," Ecker said. "They come to me with what they call 'special-needs kids'--minorities, handicapped kids, kids with spina bifida, Down's syndrome, drug babies, lots of babies that were born addicted to drugs, kids who have been abandoned and shuffled from foster home to foster home. Almost all of my kids have been abused."
For the first five years, Ecker said, three out of four of the children she put on TV were adopted. In the past two years, however, Berman said the success rate has dropped to just over 50%.
Ecker said that part of reason for her declining success rate is that the Department of Children's Services is overwhelmed by the number of abandoned children who need homes. More than 100 new children fall into the department each month, Ecker said, and where once each social worker oversaw 50 cases, each now deals with twice as many.
Scientific advancements in enhancing fertility have also encouraged some childless couples to hold off on adoption in hopes of conceiving their own baby, and, Ecker said, there are many more adoption options available today.
"If you want that blond little baby, you can go to someone who can find you a birth mother in six weeks," Ecker said. "It costs you $30,000, though. We're sort of the affordable option.
"But I do worry that I'm running out of families," Ecker said. "There are a lot more kids, but I'm afraid there aren't a lot more families. This is a real commitment.
"When I first started, we had someone on the air called the Green Grocer and at the end of his segment he would say, 'Send in a self-addressed stamp envelope and I'll send you a recipe for guacamole.' My news director used to say to me, 'Patty, you're not asking folks to try your recipe for guacamole, you're asking them to make a 20-year commitment. You think anyone is going to call?' Well, obviously they have, but I've done kids who didn't get matched with a family and have literally gone off into the ether of foster care until they're 18. And that drives me crazy."
Reporters are trained not to get personally involved in their stories. But Ecker is not ashamed to say that she takes this story personally. She fights to hold back tears as she remembers some of the success stories.
Earlier this year, she profiled an infant with Down's syndrome, the type of child who is usually difficult to place because "they look odd," she said. A family from Wisconsin, here on vacation, happened to see the piece and wound up adopting him. "I don't ever get tired of that," Ecker said.