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Adoption, the Underclass and America : Five Myths That Keep Us From Placing Abandoned, Unwanted and Abused Children With Families Who Want Them, and How We Can Turn The System Around Before It's Too Late--for the Kids and for the Country.

October 01, 1995|NINA J. EASTON | Nina J. Easton, who is based in Washington, is the magazine's staff writer. Her last article was on the Cato Institute, the Libertarian think tank. Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to the research for this story

* Because of confidentiality laws, the names of most of the children in this story have been changed .

Delicate rhythms of breath wheeze through 4-month-old Shana Newman's* lips as her lungs labor against a summer cold and the circumstances of her birth. Her navy blue dress is all frills and fuss, the sort of stuffy infant-wear that overly doting parents might insist on for their first baby girl. In fact, the tiny body staring up at a mobile of musical teddy bears is an "abandoned infant," the government classification for the thousands of babies left behind each year in maternity wards, with neighbors, on street corners--just a step above the family pet dumped by its owners when it starts scratching the living room furniture.

In 1991, the most recent year data is available, mothers abandoned 12,000 babies in hospitals alone. That same year, another 10,000 newborns, so-called boarder babies, were being warehoused in hospitals because they lacked a functioning parent at home. Authorities found Shana on a Washington street after her mother wandered off on a drug binge. Once her head cleared, the 36-year-old woman noticed that her daughter was missing and called the social services agency.

She must have had the government number handy. Her neglect of her three oldest children had already prompted social workers to move them into foster care. Still, the mother's phone call was fortunate for the nurses and caretakers at St. Anne's Infant and Maternity Home. Now, at least, they know the name and age of the brown-eyed baby they diaper, feed and rock to sleep each night.

Few of the 57 young children housed at St. Anne's, a government-licensed emergency shelter, receive any visitors. A crowd of 10 for Wednesday evening visits is considered a good turnout. Elisabeth Boyle, St. Anne's social services director, holds Shana's thin file on her lap. The children who drift through temporary shelters like this and into the nation's complex, litigious no-man's-land of child welfare bureaucracies can't claim much in the way of parents or belongings, but they do have files, which bulge and yellow as their days as "system kids" stretch into years. Boyle's face brightens as she peers into the white legal-sized envelope stapled to the inside of Shana's folder and spots a slip of paper. These envelopes, set aside for visitation records, are usually pockets of air. "Oh yes," Boyle says, "she's had one visitor." Then her face falls. "The social worker."

Shana's file begins with a record of her life at this complex of nurseries, children's bunks and blacktop playgrounds in Hyattsville, Md., just over the border from the nation's capital. Officially, children sent to this Catholic-run shelter are supposed to stay no longer than 30 days. No one knows better than Sister Josephine, the passionate and blunt nun who runs the place, that infants need the care of parents to thrive. But like every policy connected with the child welfare bureaucracy, one month typically stretches into many. Shana came in May and stayed the summer, cared for during four of the most critical months of her life by three daily shifts of workers and volunteers.

This year, as Shana begins to wind her way through the child welfare system, more than 8,000 American couples and singles will travel overseas, willing to succumb to frustrating and time-consuming whims of foreign adoption agencies, sometimes willing to step into civil wars, often willing to take home a child of a different race or with a troubled health history or both. They've been told there are no babies available here, one of the many myths nourished by the nation's child welfare bureaucracy.

There are few vantage points better than emergency shelters like St. Anne's from which to watch how the nation's underclass is perpetuated and expanded. The nation spends an estimated $10 billion a year on child welfare, on a maze of agencies charged with protecting and rescuing children. What that money buys is a system that promotes homelessness, unemployment, welfare dependency and crime.

Adoption would save the lives of tens of thousands of children now consigned to state custody. That, however, would mean turning the political agendas of most state child welfare bureaucracies on their heads. Fewer than 8% of system kids can look forward to adoptive homes. Liberals who forged today's child welfare policies stubbornly cling to an outdated belief that even the most neglectful and abusive biological parents can be rehabilitated. From the Right, critics in Congress mindlessly slash child welfare funding without assessing how to direct resources to adoptive families that need help raising kids with emotional and medical troubles.

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