More than half a million children now live in foster homes in the United States. Most have been taken away from their birth parents because of abuse or neglect. They stay in foster care until authorities determine they can safely return to their families or be legally adopted. As Americans observe National Foster Care Month, VOA's Nancy Beardsley reports on how well the system is working.

Kathy Harrison decided to become a foster mother more than a decade ago, while still raising three sons of her own. She was teaching in a preschool when one of her students, a little boy in foster care, showed her a school library book he liked. "I said, 'Michael, I love this book too. Do you have it at home?' And he said, 'No, I don't have books. I'm only foster. But the real kids have the book and sometimes they let me look at it.' That was the moment when I started to think about what could you do differently, so that children who needed to live in foster care could feel a different sense of entitlement," she says.

Kathy Harrison and her husband would go on to care for almost 100 foster children, and adopt three of them. In 1996, they were named Massachusetts Foster Parents of the Year. She's written a book about their experience, called Another Place at the Table. She says a place at the table is just one of many things she tries to give her foster children. "I think I can give them a picture of what a family can look like. It's a picture of a man and a woman who live together and care about each other. We can get angry at each other, but we can still like each other," she says. "It's a different way to look at life. And I often think when I hold a child, or wrap them in a blanket at night and snuggle them in front of the fireplace, that when they have an opportunity to parent, it becomes something they want to give to their children as well."

Kathy Harrison also believes foster parents have suffered unfairly from a bad image over the years. Reports of uncaring, even cruel behavior have created the perception foster parents take in children only for the money they get in return. But Karen Jorgenson, who heads the National Foster Parent Association, says most foster parents view their work as a calling. "That's what people say'I feel a need to work with kids, to provide a home, to work with their families,' because foster parents are expected to work with birth parents in maintaining the family ties for the child. Foster parents are not even being reimbursed what it costs to raise these children. It's no longer a system where you can make money doing this," she says.

America's family foster care system dates back to the mid 19th century, when it was created to shelter New York's homeless immigrant children. Since that time, a growing number of regulations have been established to protect foster children and screen foster parents. But problems remain. A shortage of foster parents means many children live in homes that are too crowded. And Kathy Harrison says caring for young victims of abuse and neglect can be overwhelming. "It can bring out the best in a person, or it can bring out the worst. But there is no question that there is a loss to this. Kids who are doing well get less, because the one who's in crisis gets everything," she says.

Kathy Harrison also believes even foster children who've been badly mistreated by their parents want most of all to go back home. Her adopted daughter, Angelica Harrison, remembers how she and her sister felt when they were put in foster care. "My thoughts were, we're going back in a little while to live with my mom, and things will be fine. And when I actually realized we had to go visit our mom, that was probably the time when I put up the biggest fight. I didn't want to go visit her. I wanted to live with our mom," she says.

Angelica says her first foster parents were harsh disciplinarians, who seemed to care little about her. They in turn complained she was a troublemaker. Now eighteen and a college freshman, she says her outlook changed when she was adopted by the Harrisons. "When we were foster children, I'd always use it as an excuse to be a bad kid, like I can do this because I'm just living here for the time being. And when we finally got adopted it felt like my parents were into it 110 percent, and it was my job to make myself part of the family instead of an outcast."

Not all stories have such happy endings. Kathy Harrison writes in her book about the difficulties of finding a permanent home for a foster child named Danny, who was mentally disabled and abused younger foster children. She believes cases like his point up the need for more group homes. "We have lengthy waiting lists for all of the ones that do exist, and very few that are specialized and can give that level of care," she says. "The reality is who wants to adopt this kid? Nobody. Who wants to send him home to a parent who cannot care for him? Nobody. And what foster home is equipped to deal with a child like this? Nobody. It's very hard."

But Karen Jorgenson of the National Foster Parents Association believes that if possible, children deserve to live with one family, in a home of their own. One of her top concerns is finding more qualified foster homes. Another is helping children who never leave the foster care system move into adulthood. "Which is why we put such effort to get the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 passed. That provides financial assistance for these youth till the age of 22 for education, medical care, housing, employment training to give them that extra support," she says.

Most foster care children do find permanent homes, with either their birth families or adoptive parents. And while it's a system with shortcomings, Kathy Harrison says she's also had many success stories over the years. "What a joy it is for us to get a hug from someone and have them say thanks for helping us over that hard time. Or to get a phone call from a kid who says, 'Hey, I just wanted to touch base. We've just moved and I wanted you to have my number.' They're wonderful moments."

And Kathy Harrison says she'll probably never give up foster parenting. Why retire from a job, she asks, where you can stay home every day and still change lives.