“Toby just learned how to swim, and would gladly take your hand and ask you to play with him,” reads one description on the site linked from the Indiana Department of Child Services website. “Toby has made great strides with communication skills and activities of daily living. Toby needs an experienced family that can provide structure, routine and close supervision at all times.”
Once abused or neglected children have been permanently removed from their caregivers, they are eligible to be adopted. About half of foster parents who have cared for these children will eagerly make permanent spots in their homes, even knowing the lingering psychological and medical issues.
But since January 2009, DCS has told adoptive parents that no state money exists to support their efforts to raise these special-needs children — even as the agency has made a point of returning millions of unspent dollars to state coffers for three years in a row.
Twenty-one years later, Patti Higginbotham remembers the first of 50 babies she fostered over two decades.
The Michigan City mother, who raised two biological children and has adopted eight others over the years, had been called to a local hospital to pick up an 8-day-old baby who had already been abused.
“That was my first emotional exposure to standing over a baby in his crib and crying,” Higginbotham says now. “I was so scared for what could happen if he was returned back home.”
But it wasn’t the last time she’d bond with the children she fostered, most of them babies who were exposed to drugs or alcohol in the womb.
She learned that even as infants, the children she and her husband took in over the years were permanently affected by their earliest experiences.
“I no longer feel that nurture wins over genetics,” she says of being a foster parent. “If you’re not emotionally strong, you can’t do it.”
One of her adopted daughters, now a teenager, has behavioral issues so severe that two years ago, the Higginbothams searched for appropriate residential treatment. Later, they were pointed toward a group home in Elkhart where she could thrive.
The girl is destructive; the Higginbothams documented more than $20,000 worth of damage to their home in their eventually successful plea for state approval to keep their daughter in special programs rather than move her to a cheaper, Medicaid-funded program that DCS endorsed.
DCS had even threatened to charge the Higginbothams with neglect and terminate their parental rights if they fought sending the girl back home or to a cheaper facility, Higginbotham says.
“We had adopted her when she was 2, because we loved her,” Higginbotham says. As the difficulties grew, despite ongoing programs and therapy, even case managers said, “You need to get her out of your house.”
The girl is thriving in the group home, Higginbotham says, and returns home for weekends and holidays with her family. The 17-year-old still needs therapy and the specially trained, 24-hour supervision.
But “she’s happy. She has friends,” her adoptive mother says. “She has some hope for a productive, adult life.”
‘About the kids’