Children of a Lesser State

A contractual snafu keeps kids from their foster and adoptive parents

Jan 9, 2002 at 4:00 am
Neither Howard Denson nor Jamala Rogers is a rookie do-gooder. Neither has a prissy Pollyanna view of the way life is or the way life ought to be. Living in this city, living in this state is a hard way to go, harder still if you're African-American, poor and a ward of the state. But even Denson and Rogers are capable of becoming fed up and frustrated by the latest crap floating down the Missouri River from Jefferson City.

Rogers is the board chair of RESPOND, a small nonprofit agency that for more than 10 years has recruited and trained families to become foster or adoptive parents. The agency was founded by African-Americans who themselves had been adopted. They knew that most of the children in the custody of Missouri's Division of Family Services are African-American and that they have long waits before they are adopted. Some are never adopted and age out of the system when they turn 18.

The agency, which has only one full-time employee, had been reimbursed for each family that it recruited and trained to temporarily take in a foster child or to adopt one. That was true until Oct. 31, when a 90-day extension of the state contract with RESPOND and other agencies expired. The agencies had been warned they would not be paid for any training beyond that date, so some agencies stopped finding families even before the contract expired.

Rogers, who also writes a weekly column for the St. Louis American, sent a letter to Gov. Bob Holden on Friday. In it, she describes the absence of a current contract as a "fiasco" and says one child advocate joked that somebody "should hotline the state," turning state government in for child abuse. Yeah, but who you gonna call?

As in many child-welfare systems, a contractual snafu such as this is just one more economic emergency to be endured. Larger agencies that subcontract with DFS to manage the cases of foster children more easily absorb the stoppage of recruitment compensation, but smaller agencies such as RESPOND rely heavily on those fees.

"For smaller agencies, this is a humongous problem because the bulk of our revenue is based on these reimbursements," says Rogers. "The real travesty here is, you have children who are waiting for adoptive or foster parents and nothing is happening because there is no contract." Denson, a board member and co-founder, say it's a "nightmare that came true" threatening RESPOND's survival.

Melanie Scheetz, executive director of the Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition, says that because of the stoppage of funds and lack of a contract, 69 families on her waiting list cannot begin training to become foster or adoptive parents. "That will only relate to one thing -- more kids not having homes," says Scheetz.

As of November, 12,425 children were in the custody of the DFS system. Of the city's 2,389 children under DFS responsibility, 189 have had the parental rights of their birth parents terminated. Those children are legally free and are awaiting adoption now; roughly 522 more children are expected to be free for adoption soon. The city accounts for only 6 percent of the state's population but 19 percent of the children in DFS care.

The Jefferson City office of DFS assures Short Cuts that a new contract for recruitment and training reimbursement is in the pipeline, but no good reason is given for why it's taken so long and why the funding gap opened. What's worse is that with the new deal, the reimbursement for recruiting a family will drop from $600 per family to $150. Reimbursement for training will also decrease.

Denson thinks that's flat-out crazy. "Whenever you invest money in recruitment, the payoff is so huge, how can you not invest money in recruitment?" he asks. "How can you keep paying tons of money, month after month, year after year, to keep kids in the system when a lot of kids could escape the system for a fraction of the cost?"

With so many St. Louis children waiting for homes, it's always baffled Short Cuts that people spend $20,000 or so to head to Asia, Latin America or Eastern Europe to adopt. Denson blames the media, racism and the system, not necessarily in that order. The media obsess about a "superwacko case" such as that of the twins adopted over the Internet or Elián González, he says, and "people get paranoid about that.

"Racism certainly has a whole, whole lot to do with it," Denson continues. "Let's face it -- if these were blue-eyed, blond-haired white boys, the whole world would have stopped until we found a way to find homes for them. But they're black kids from essentially poor families, out of sight, out of mind. Nobody acts like they care about these kids. I'm not looking at what they say, I'm looking at what they do. America embraces diversity, but we don't embrace dark skin."

The days of obstacles to transracial adoption have passed. "Nobody's really stood in the way of that. Nobody's crazy or stupid," Denson says. "Most people know and recognize that a loving and nurturing home is far better than no home at all."

Denson, who is an adoptive father, has been at this struggle for a long time, and he's not quitting.

"People act like these kids don't matter. The proof of the pudding is that they're unwilling to invest money into finding homes for them," he says. "Instead, they allow people to believe that there are no children waiting for adoption, that for any child available there are 10 families scrambling to adopt them. The truth of the matter is just the opposite. The state is ridiculously wasting our tax dollars keeping kids in the system instead of finding homes for kids."