The state was seeking a way to publicize the need for families to adopt children residing in foster homes and emergency shelters.
Bob Burton and the Sacramento television station where he worked were seeking a way to humanize the news, and thus the "Waiting Child" feature was born. Fifteen years and 800 adoptions later, the segments go on, now produced by a Santa Barbara television station. The most recent spots featuring Orange County children will be shown through mid-June.
Burton and cameraman Richard Goudeau travel the state filming children wherever social services agencies say they have ones available for adoption.
For Burton, the project has assumed the proportions of a mission. He emphasizes in the spots each child's endearing qualities but does not hide their flaws. So personal has the program become that once, during an 18-month period when neither the state nor the television stations airing the spots would pick up the cost of the program, he and his wife funded it themselves.
Now, the state funds it with a budget of $69,000 a year, and on-air time is donated by the three stations--in Santa Barbara, Monterey and Redding--currently carrying the program.
The state is now negotiating with several other television stations to pick up the segment, which has not been shown in Orange County because OCN dropped it two years ago after private funding for the air time collapsed.
In spite of its limited distribution, the program is one of the state's most effective adoption tools, state officials say. It benefits not only the children shown on the air but others as well because people who see it often decide to adopt children not featured, officials say.
It is not, however, a program that would work for all children who need homes, said James Brown, chief of adoptions for the state Department of Social Services. Children selected for the feature must be able to make a positive impression on viewers in a short amount of time--something not every child can do.
Still, officials hope the program can attract people to adoption, even if they are not interested in the children featured. And many children are available for adoption.
The pool of adoptable children in Orange County is made up of the 3,139 in foster care. Of those, 250 are ready for adoption because their parents have lost custody rights; the others may become available if their parents fail to meet court-ordered plans designed to reunify the family and if adoptive families can be found for them.
Last year, 40% of the children in the foster care system were reunified with their families and the remaining 60% went to long-term guardianship, remained in foster care or were adopted, according to Mike McMichael, director of adoptions for the county Social Services Agency.
Further complicating the issue are race, ethnicity and age.
Most often, adoptive parents in the county are white and they are seeking a baby of their race, while most of the children available for adoption are Latino and over age 2.
"Already there is a limited number of people in society that have an interest in developing or expanding a family through adoption and moreover that group tends to be Caucasian," Brown said. "Basically there is a demographic disconnect between the children in foster care and in need of adoptive homes and the broader populace."
Of the children placed last year, 49% were white, 36% were Latino, 11% were African American and 4% were of another ethnicity. Statewide, about 70% of the children awaiting adoption are African American.
The cost of public adoption is about $500 per family, Brown said. Fees may be waived or reduced depending on a adoptive family's financial circumstances.
Adults interested in adoption may call (714) 704-8704 to reach the County of Orange Foster Care and Adoption Services Hotline or (800) Kids-4-Us for the state "Waiting Child" hotline.