Earlier this month, the director of the state of Florida's Child Protection and Welfare Agency resigned, after a highly publicized case, in which a girl who had been placed in foster care by the agency disappeared, and her disappearance wasn't noticed by authorities for 15 months. The child still hasn't been found.
More than 500,000 American children are in the foster care system, living in temporary homes or institutions. Most of them were removed from their biological families by state officials because of abuse and neglect. About a quarter of them are eligible for adoption but many won't ever be adopted. They'll spend their entire childhood moving from foster home to foster home never feeling rooted anywhere.
Recently, the Bush administration launched a campaign to encourage more Americans to adopt children from the foster care system.
The campaign consists first and foremost of a television ad, in which film star Bruce Willis joins First Lady Laura Bush in appealing to Americans to consider adoption.
Willis: "Sadly, there are over 134,000 kids in America who may never know that someone loves them. Great kids who've had it hard, but who would make anyone proud if they took a chance on them. So be a hero. Take the time to learn about adoption today."
Mrs. Bush: "America is a nation that cares. Time and again I've seen Americans share their love with others. If you can provide a stable, loving home, please consider adopting a child. Call this toll-free number. Or visit this website to learn how."
The children the Bush administration wants Americans to adopt are, themselves, American. The website Laura Bush mentions says it all: www.adoptuskids.org. Last year, nearly 20,000 children adopted by American parents came not from the United States, but from countries such as Guatemala, Cambodia, and Kazakhstan. More than 90 percent of them were under the age of five. And Ada White of the Washington, D.C.-based Child Welfare League says age is one of the biggest reasons many American children never get adopted.
"Once a child hits the age of eight, it's very hard to find a family, it's much harder to place them in adoption," she explained. "Many individuals want to parent a younger child. An older one, they're not so sure about. They're afraid of behavior problems, not realizing that these kids can give joy and love, just like any other child."
The concern about behavioral problems isn't an idle one. The overwhelming majority of American children in foster care come from abusive homes and the abuse can be horrifying. Little girls who suffer from venereal diseases because they've been molested by their fathers; little boys whose bodies are covered with cigarette burns, and who suffer from disease and malnutrition. Ada White says by the time the state takes the very serious step of removing a child from his or her biological family, the child is usually several years old, and the abuse has often had a permanent emotional impact.
"Children who come through serious times like that do carry scars from it," she said, "And that can effect their behavior, or their emotional well-being. Sometimes it effects them physically. But they still need that permanent home.
They need a permanent home, because studies show that without one, these children often grow up to be criminals and abusive parents themselves. In most states, when a child who hasn't been adopted reaches the age of 18, he's released from the foster care system and left to fend for himself. Thirty-seven percent end up in jail within the first 18 months of their release. Fifty percent are unemployed, and 40 percent don't have a high school diploma. Also, the longer a child stays in the foster care system without being adopted, the more likely it is that he or she will get lost in the bureaucracy, as evidenced by the recent case in Florida, which experts say is far from unusual.
What is unusual, adoption advocates say, is people like Patti and Robert Alston of Baltimore, Maryland, who have adopted more than a dozen children from the foster care system.
Kids: "Hi, Mama. Hi, Mama."
Patti:"Delron is upstairs. He's number one. He's down visiting. He's number two. Davey's not here. Neither is Jonathan. And Judith is number one daughter. And then Demeris, Joanna, Jessica, Debra, Jaqueline, Jordan, Joseph, Joelle, and Darius. And these are my grandsons."
Reporter: "So how many, not counting grandchildren, how many children are there that you have?"
Patti Alston says she and her husband adopted their first child in 1968, after it became clear that the couple was having problems getting pregnant. Ms. Alston is one of 12 children, and says she always knew she wanted a big family of her own. Today, her oldest son is 47. Her youngest is five. Every child the Alstons have adopted since 1968 came from an abusive home, and Patti Alston admits raising her children hasn't always been easy. She says kids who've been abused are often more rebellious than other children, and that being in the foster care system can actually make this worse. She says when a child starts causing problems for a foster parent, that parent often returns the child to state authorities. The boy or girl ends up being moved from home to home and school to school, never knowing the security of a stable family.
"As a foster parent, when the difficult times come, and because they're not really committed, they say, 'Hey, I'm not putting up with this.' And I knew from day one I wasn't giving back," she said. "You know, even when I've gone through the most difficult times with, you know, with [what] I consider my worst one. And I hung in there, because I wanted him to have some stability, which now he's 23, he's still not mature. But he does have that solid family background. He knows that always that he's loved. Even though we go through, you know, as they say, these power struggles sometimes, not one of them can say they're not loved."
And that is something the Bush administration would like every child in the United States to know that he or she is loved. In addition to the television ad campaign, the administration has also created the first ever federal adoption web site, that will feature pictures and profiles of several thousand American children who are up for adoption. The hope is that the web site will make it easier for potential parents to find and fall in love with, children who don't have permanent homes.
Earlier this year, President Bush also signed a tax credit measure that's designed to make it easier for potential parents to assume the financial responsibilities of adopting a child. The measure has an added tax credit for people who adopt what are known as "special needs" children, kids who've been identified as having physical, behavioral, or emotional problems.