LOSING WAIT

Thousands of St. Louis children are stuck for years in foster care before they get permanent homes.
The feds are demanding the wait be shorter. But for the city, that's easier said than done.

As a city cop, Jill Taylor is accustomed to becoming involved in situations that most folks would rather ignore. That's her job. So when she was called to an apartment in North St. Louis where two young children had been left home alone, in many respects it was just another day, just another call. The two boys, one less than a year old and the other a 2-year-old, greeted Taylor and her partner at the door that morning. Someone in a neighboring apartment had reported them abandoned. Taylor took them to the city's Juvenile Court on Vandeventer Avenue and went on with her shift. Later that day, Taylor was at the Tandy Community Center in the Ville neighborhood when someone suggested she stop by Faith House, which at that time, in 1993, was located in a converted two-story brick home across the street on Kennerly Avenue."We walked over there and saw the two kids we had dealt with earlier. So it started from there -- I went over there and just fell in love with the place," Taylor says. In social-service jargon, Faith House is a "residential-care facility," which means it is a type of group home for abused or neglected infants and young children who are in the care of the state's Division of Family Services (DFS). Taylor began to visit Faith House regularly, and her mother, Sandra Loftin, retired and decided to volunteer. Among the 40 or so 7-and-under children at Faith House, Taylor and her mother eventually grew attached to an infant named Michael.

Though Michael stayed at Faith House, Taylor took him home for visits on weekends and holidays. Then Faith House's director, Mildred Jamison, told Taylor that Michael was going to be placed in a foster home. Taylor didn't grasp what that meant. "I said, "OK, as long as I can still get him for weekend visits,'" Taylor says. "She said he was going to be transported far away, like in the boonies. Mildred was the one who said, "Have you ever thought about being a foster parent?' I was like, "I can't be a foster parent -- I'm a police officer, my hours are crazy, I don't know anything about it.'"

Like many of the 2,951 children in the city of St. Louis who have overwhelmed DFS's insufficient resources, Michael was headed outstate, to Cape Girardeau, Fort Leonard Wood or anyplace else a family had been certified to take in foster children. Once Taylor learned that single parents could be foster parents and that the state would pay for daycare, as well as a monthly stipend to help cover expenses, becoming a foster parent seemed feasible. "I asked "What will I be out of?'" Taylor recalls. "Mildred said, "Time.' I said, "Really?' She said, "That's it.'"

Officer Jill Taylor visits with children at Walbridge Elementary School.
Jennifer Silverberg
Officer Jill Taylor visits with children at Walbridge Elementary School.

What Jamison was talking about was the amount of time Taylor would have to spend taking care of Michael. What Taylor never anticipated was the amount of time -- years -- that she would be a parent for Michael before the system would make a decision about Michael's fate.

The scramble by the state to care for these children, who are the collateral damage of drugs, poverty and crime, has been less than successful. And it seems that when the state does attempt to address this societal mess, it routinely comes up short. Several years ago, for instance, when Jefferson City cleared the way for grandparents to become guardians for their grandchildren and receive state subsidies to care for them, they set the age for grandparents at 55 or over, clearly ruling out many troubled urban families where grandparents may be in their 40s. More recently, the state funded more than 60 social-worker positions in the city DFS office, but none of them have been filled because the state didn't address the issue of low starting pay ($22,248 per year), not to mention the average caseload of 20-30 families per caseworker. The St. Louis office of DFS currently has approximately 100 vacancies for caseworkers. Coming down the tracks, propelled by new federal rules, is a daunting statistic for the city DFS: a doubling of the number of children up for adoption by the end of 2000, with more than 400 children legally free for adoption within the year.

But those governmental machinations were just a backdrop for Taylor, who took Michael into her family, as a foster child, more than three years ago, when Michael was barely 3 years old. Michael lived with Taylor and, as her mother put it, "became part of our family," which includes Taylor's two sons, 14-year-old John and 2-year-old Jeremy. During those three years -- and, for that matter, for Michael's entire life -- his birth parents were in and out of jail and had infrequent contact with him. Michael's biological siblings included a younger brother, who had already been adopted; two other brothers, who are about to be adopted by their foster parents; and a sister, whose status is yet to be resolved.

Because this was Taylor's first foster-parent experience, she was unclear as to what her DFS worker was doing, or supposed to be doing. For three years, Taylor felt that not much was done to come to any conclusion in Michael's case or to deal with the father's claim to Michael. Taylor even thought Michael's father was out of the picture. "What the DFS worker did not do is terminate his rights. No -- everything was just left in limbo," says Taylor. "Everything was left in limbo. I thought all that had been done with the father."

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