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Adopting Reforms for Children's Sake

Families: Foster care is a $10-billion-a-year industry that has its priorities wrong--or so says Conna Craig, an adoptee who's devoted to making adoption the emphasis.

May 23, 1996|GREGG ZOROYA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — Conna Craig still has the willowy look of the abandoned child, slender and pale even as an adult, years from a childhood in California foster care, one of those "system kids" who survived.

On this night, the illusion seems fitting as she humbly accepts adulation from 400 conservative intellectuals before upbraiding the nation's foster care system and offering a vision of dramatic reform.

"I give thanks and praise first to God, creator of all things," she said last week upon accepting a $25,000 stipend for her work from this Heritage Foundation crowd, the money an endowment by Los Angeles industrialist and onetime Reagan advisor Henry Salvatori.

Then Craig proceeds, in a gentle tone, to indict the system that produced her, weaving a series of moving vignettes of children who suffered at the hands of terminally unfit parents and misguided social workers: the cigarette-burned Catrina, the disfigured Halie, the welfare-bound Katie. Taxpayers spend $10 billion annually on a foster care system in which children languish, Craig complains, rather than be moved rapidly into private adoption.

"Foster care is bigger than baseball," Craig, 33, declares as neatly groomed heads cross the room nod approvingly. "The problem isn't money, but how that money is spent." A cum laude graduate of Harvard who runs a think tank for adoption reform in Massachusetts, Craig is preaching to the converted and they love it.

Adoption is a hot topic for conservatives this year, so seductive that President Clinton has moved to co-opt it, much as he did welfare reform, a balanced budget and the concept of smaller government. When the House overwhelmingly passed a reform package earlier this month that included a "contract with America" promise of a $5,000 tax credit for adopting families earning less than $75,000 per year, the president quickly endorsed it.

Craig is electrifying East Coast conservatives with a debate that is already raging in Los Angeles after incidents such as the beating death last year of 2-year-old Lance Helms: Is the foster care system too intent on reuniting children with biological parents at the risk of losing children like Lance? (The North Hollywood boy was under the supervision of county social workers when he was beaten to death by his father's girlfriend, who is serving a 10-year prison term in connection with the death.)

"The same social worker who will turn down an adoptive family because they think that spanking is OK, is legally required to send children back to parents who have fractured their skulls," Craig says.

She knows nothing about her biological parents, and except for a brief interest about her ethnic origins while at Harvard, has never pressed her adoptive parents about her background. Raised in Santa Clara County, she was adopted at age 8 by Joe and Muriel Craig, the foster parents with whom she had been placed years before. She is single but dreams one day of marriage and says she may well adopt children of her own.

Over four decades, the Craig family took in 110 foster children. Conna Craig says she has been forever left with the memory of these temporary siblings, some arriving with marks and bruises suffered at the hands of biological parents, only to eventually be returned to them.

Her interest in the field of adoption developed at Harvard, where Craig wrote an honors thesis on child abuse, and during graduate work in Japan. She obtained a small grant to form the Institute for Children in 1993.

Within months, she was invited by Massachusetts Republican Gov. William F. Weld to help shape adoption reform in that state. The changes included aggressive recruitment of adoptive parents through individual community programs, public-service announcements and media alerts. Her most frequent refrain is what she calls the "dirty little secret" of public adoption: that every child--regardless of health, age, race or emotional state--is adoptable. The oft-quoted results in Massachusetts were a near-doubling of foster-child adoptions in that state from 1992 to 1995, from about 600 per year to more than 1,100.

Craig says that nationwide, there are 50,000 foster children who are free to be adopted but languish because of a bloated social service bureaucracy so wedded to federal funding streams that it fails to aggressively recruit adoptive parents.

Conservatives appreciate her call for reducing the cost and regulatory complexity of the system, and for incorporating a little less patience with abusive parents. The system is too forgiving, Craig says, too willing to see transgressing parents as victims.

"We have devised a foster care system that puts a vogue pop psychology ahead of the well-being of children," Craig wrote in a lengthy article last year for the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review magazine. A shorter version was later published in Reader's Digest.

It argued, among other things, for:

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