Wilkins family

Ronald Wilkins (right) and his wife Demetria Jackson-Wilkins with their three children, Janiyah Wilkins, 8, Jordan Wilkins, 15 and Devontay Hudson, 15, wearing tie. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun / November 20, 2012)

Devontay Hudson moved from one foster home to another for years, but last month he was adopted by a Millford Mill family — another symbol of a statewide initiative that has sharply reduced the number of children in foster care.

The Gilman School sophomore, an aspiring chemical engineer, can't remember how old he was when he entered foster care, and doesn't know much about his birth family. But ask him about his adopted family and the soft-spoken teen says he's glad to be home.

"It was a blessing for me to be a part of a family," said Devontay, 15, whose adoption increased the family of Ronald Wilkins and Demetria Jackson-Wilkins to nine members. While he doesn't exactly know the difference between his life and the lives of his friends, he said, "They live with their biological parents. I don't. But the feeling I have, I am pretty sure that's the feeling they have when they go home."

Adoption is just one of the methods the state Department of Human Resources has used to reduce the number of children in foster care by 35 percent since 2007 — from 10,330 to 6,709. In Maryland, 465 foster-care children were adopted last year.

Theodore Dallas, secretary of the agency that oversees children who are removed from their biological parents because of abuse or neglect, credits much of the reduction to an initiative called Place Matters.

The program seeks permanent homes for children through better data analysis, improved collaboration with courts and a focus on family-centered practices such as working with birth families long before a court date arrives to officially sever the rights of the biological parents.

"It was a dramatic sea change in the way we do things," Dallas said. "The idea was a simple one: Nothing matters more to a child than a place to call home."

Dallas said Baltimore led the state this year in reaching and exceeding goals set under the Place Matters initiative. The city reduced the number of children in out-of-home care from 4,005 to 3,276 during the last fiscal year, an 18 percent drop. The children were placed in permanent homes through adoption, reunification with their families and legal guardianship.

The number of children in foster care elsewhere in the Baltimore region remained mostly consistent from the start to the end of the 2012 fiscal year.

Molly McGrath Tierney, director of the Baltimore Department of Social Services, said under the Place Matters strategy, her 2,000 employees come to work knowing what precise task must be completed to move each foster child one step closer to a permanent home.

"The presence of a framework, Place Matters, sets a common purpose and mission that we all understand every day," McGrath Tierney said. "Caring alone isn't sufficient."

Children leave foster care one of four ways: They are adopted, assigned a legal guardian, reunified with their biological families, or they turn 18 and start their lives as adults.

The state's first goal is to reunite children with their birth families by working with the parents to correct problems that triggered the intervention by authorities, said Carnitra White, director of the state Social Services Administration for the Department of Human Resources. Meanwhile, the state creates a parallel adoption plan or strategy for legal guardianship, which most often grants custody of a child to a relative, she said. That allows the state to find a suitable permanent home for a child without terminating parental rights.

Next, the state focuses on avoiding adversarial relationships with birth parents, White said. One way is with attempts at court mediation leading up to any efforts to terminate parental rights, she said.

Additionally, the state is working with courts to execute adoption plans as soon as possible by reducing the potential for hearing delays, White said.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Robert B. Kershaw said the backlog of cases involving the termination of parental rights is at an all-time low in city juvenile court. Calling on retired judges to help cases move through the system more quickly and working on post-adoption agreements between foster-care providers and parents are two ways the courts are getting more children into permanent homes, he said.

Finalizing adoptions is a highlight for Kershaw. "It's easily the most rewarding experience in my 60 years of life, period."

Joan Little, chief attorney for the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau's child advocacy unit, applauded the state's recent successes, including its emphasis on reducing the number of foster children in group homes.

But in some cases, Little said, the state has been too quick to reunify families that aren't ready, especially because it's so important for the state to get the decision right when a child's safety is at stake.

"I think any time the state produces this kind of sweeping policy, there's a risk," Little said.

The situation could be improved if more resources, such as food vouchers or budget planning, were available to parents after they have been reunified with their children, Little said. "You've got parents who are truly struggling."

Little said the Baltimore City Family Recovery Program is an example of the type of investment that works. She said the program should be expanded.

The Family Recovery Program, founded in 2005, helps parents with drug and alcohol addictions regain custody of their children. It combines case management, referrals for substance abuse treatment and judicial oversight, said Jocelyn Gainers, the organization's director. Those enrolled have access to mental health counselors and group therapy, among other resources.

The program is funded primarily by the Human Resources Department through an "opportunity compact" that provides money based on the organization's ability to lessen the time children stay in foster care, Gainers said. A program in San Diego provided the model.

Research commissioned by the organization shows that parents in the program were reunited with their children 70 percent of the time, compared to 45 percent for other families. The study was conducted by Oregon-based NPC Research using data from August 2005 to December 2006.

Children of parents in the program spent 252 days in foster care, 94 days fewer than non-participating families, the study found. The result was a savings of more than $1 million for the city, or $5,022 per family.

Gainers attributes her program's success to the family atmosphere in the office, where food and movies are available for clients who, she said, are loved and held to high expectations.

But the state makes the final decision on whether to reunite parents and children, she said. Reunification isn't always the best option.

"We give parents the tools to be clean and sober and meet all of the qualifications [the Department of Social Services] wants, " Gainers said. "We want children in permanent families. We would love for them to be with their parents, but not all parents are ready for their children, and sometimes they have to go to another forever family so they can flourish."

For Lasondra Shields-Morton it worked. The 37-year-old said being reunited with her daughter, Davione, after completing the Family Recovery Program was the greatest achievement of her life.

Shields-Morton, of Edmondson Village, was referred to the program by the court when she lost custody of Davione, who tested positive for drugs when she was born. Shields-Morton said she tried Narcotics Anonymous occasionally, but the program never worked for her.

"I never thought after getting high for 19 years I would accomplish anything," Shields-Morton said. She plans to celebrate four years of being clean on Jan. 16, and ticks off all the ways she's reinvented herself in recent years. She is raising her five children, ages 1 to 19, got married in September and works at the Family Recovery Program as a peer recovery advocate.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown said the state needs to continue to build on its success, because children who live in a family setting tend to be more successful in life, including performing better in schools. Brown is also an adoptive father. His son, Jonathan, joined the family 12 years ago.

"I am really pleased with the gains that we've made," Brown said. "I am pleased with the number of children who are now placed in loving and supportive foster homes, and fewer and fewer are in institutional settings. That is certainly no reason to let up.

"We still have hundreds of children in Maryland who are ready to be adopted, and it's a matter of finding the family that's willing to open their homes."

ywenger@baltsun.com

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Children in foster care

(Start of fiscal year 2012/End of year)

•Anne Arundel County: 151/158

•Baltimore: 4,005/3,276

Baltimore County: 578/604

Carroll County: 41/43

Harford County: 257/247

Howard County: 66/62

Source: Maryland Department of Human Resources