David first attempted suicide when he was 4 years old. One moment, he was playing with his Legos on the kitchen floor. The next, his fingers were wrapped around a paring knife as he went for his wrists.
He'd been a ward of Baltimore's foster-care system nearly his whole life, and its efforts had brought him to this point: sobbing at the kitchen sink, his small face red with anguish, his blond curls damp with sweat, insisting that he wanted to die.
He belonged to no one, and perhaps never would.
David had been well instructed in that lesson by a system that set out to protect him. He was a bruised baby when he was wrested from his mother's trash-strewn apartment. But the system that wouldn't let him live with his parents also wouldn't sever his ties to them. The system placed him in a loving foster home, but made clear the arrangement was temporary. It forever dangled before him the possibility of a family, and then denied him one.
David's reaction to his tenuous circumstances grew violent as the years passed. At 2 1/2 , he clung to his foster mother's skirt and begged her not to make him go. By 4, he was banging his head against walls each time he saw his parents. Before his 5th birthday, he tried to end his misery with a paring knife.
"What you see in the history is the steady destruction of a child, a steady process of destroying him emotionally," said Dr. Leon Rosenberg, a Johns Hopkins child psychologist who reviewed David's case.
"His behavior and his reactions were all totally predictable. He has become a significantly emotionally disturbed child as a result of flaws in the system that was trying to save him."
David is 8 now. He lives in a psychiatric treatment center in Baltimore County.
There are other Davids across the country, children who have been traumatized by long stays in foster care. They are a minority among the nation's more than 400,000 foster children, but researchers say they number in the thousands.
They endure years of uncertainty even though federal law recommends that children be kept in foster care no longer than 18 months. The primary goal is to preserve families by helping troubled parents reclaim their children.
But in Baltimore and elsewhere, child welfare officials and judges offer only half-hearted support of the law's second message -- to find a permanent home if a child cannot go back to his family. Too often, children languish in the system. While most Baltimore foster children go home within a year, for example, one-third will remain in care an average of five years.
Even supporters of speedy adop- tions understand the system's desire for caution. The idea of snatching youngsters from their parents conjures Orwellian fears. And there are worries that if children, particularly older children, are freed for adoption, there may not be families who want them.
But there is a price to indecision, and it is paid by children such as David.
"Emotionally, he could never decide who his parents were, where his home was and what his future would be," said Mitchell Mirviss, a former Legal Aid lawyer who once represented David. "Who's responsible for it? Probably everyone. The whole system. Some more than others, perhaps, but clearly the system failed this child miserably."
The Baltimore Department of Social Services declined to discuss David's case. His history is described in hundreds of pages that contain his family's record with the agency and the city's juvenile court. The documents by law are confidential, but copies were obtained by The Sun. Further information was provided by David's parents -- who categorically deny any abuse -- and by others familiar with his story. David's last name is withheld here. The last name of his foster parents has been changed.
Lawsuits across the country have revealed that sometimes, children such as David are victims of overwhelmed bureaucracies where workers responsible for too many youngsters literally lose track of them. There is some of that in David's case.
But most of the time, well-intentioned people made conscious decisions to continue his tenure as a ward of the state. In the process, they prolonged his agony.
A troubled start
A month before David's birth in May 1983, a social worker visited the girl who would be his mother.
Rose was a textbook example of the kind of parent who might wind up beating her kids. She was just 17 and a high school dropout. She already had one child. Rose had been raising the little girl with occasional help from her boyfriend, but there was no one else to offer support. Rose's father, who raised her, had died the year before. She didn't know where her mother was.
The social worker who dropped in on Rose occasionally was the system's effort to fill that void. But this day, the visit went no better than usual.
The roaches were gone, but Rose's cluttered apartment above an abandoned storefront in South Baltimore was still filthy. Newspapers on the floor held feces from the dog and a new kitten. Rose was unconcerned about the mess. Her daughter, then 1, could learn to walk in her crib, she snapped.
It was hard not to have some sympathy for Rose, a slightly stocky girl with sandy brown hair cut in a Farrah Fawcett shag. She'd become an orphan and a mother at about the same time. But her attitude was maddening.
"Rose is very hostile to the agency's intervention into her life," the worker wrote in the file. "Although she is 17, she feels that she is an adult and could take care of herself and children without anyone's help. She resents anyone trying to tell her what to do, and she becomes very defensive and argumentative."
The social workers soon had real reason to worry. At 4 months of age, David was discovered to be malnourished and had to be hospitalized. A few weeks later, he was found with troubling bruises. When he was 6 months old, the call came that would change his life.
Someone reported that Rose had beaten David with a belt and knocked his sister to the street. A doctor confirmed that David had "numerous" fresh bruises on his head, legs and back. His sister had a welt on her forehead. They were placed in foster care.
Rose was furious. Her boyfriend, a laborer for a heating firm and father of both children, was even angrier. They made the arguments they would make again and again in David's life:
Malicious neighbors had told cruel lies. No one had beaten the children. The injuries were accidental. Doctors and social workers were overly suspicious.
Over the next eight months, David passed the milestones of his age living with a foster family. Curls grew where baby fuzz had been. He learned to crawl. He celebrated his first birthday and took his first steps.
His parents, meanwhile, were grudgingly meeting various conditions the system had set for them. They went to parenting classes and counseling, though they sat sullenly through some sessions.
After weighing the record, a juvenile court master concluded that the young couple had benefited from the help they had been given. He sent David and his sister home with a hope they would spend the rest of their childhood with their parents.
Five months later, David was covered with bruises and back in foster care.
It seemed like paradise
Carl and Catherine Lynch had been taking in foster children for 15 years when David arrived in December 1984. He was a postal worker, she a former nurse who had stayed home to raise a family. When their kids were grown, they decided they couldn't stand the quiet.
Mr. Lynch was 68 and his wife 59, old enough to be David's grandparents. The couple liked to say that having children around kept them young.
Their home in North Linthicum must have seemed a paradise to a child from city slums. They lived on a tree-lined street of neat frame houses. A toddler could romp in the yard out back. Mr. Lynch made wooden toys and a rocking horse. His wife had plenty of time for telling stories and playing games.
David and his sister had stayed with them during their earlier stint in foster care. This time, a court decided that his sister could safely remain at home, so David had come alone.
He flourished in the Lynches' care. By spring, the pediatrician was reporting that concerns about his speech development were unfounded. David knew lots of words now. He was no longer so lethargic. His eyes were brighter.
A psychologist who watched one of David's weekly visits with Rose noticed something else. There was no "positive affect" -- no brightening, no warmth -- in either mother or son upon meeting. In contrast, David reached happily for his foster mother when she came to pick him up. He was starting to see the Lynches as his family.
After David turned 2 that spring, he moved with the Lynches to a small town in York County, Pa. Because of the longer drive, he saw his parents just once a month. He was beginning to understand what those visits meant -- and he didn't like them.
He would cling to Mrs. Lynch when his social worker arrived to pick him up. When they got to the apartment in Baltimore, David always ran after her and had to be told to stay.
"It can be clearly seen that there is no bonding between David and his mother," David's social worker, Sandra Buda, wrote in his file. He seemed only a little more comfortable with his father. "When I take David back to [Mr. and Mrs. Lynch] he is so excited to be home."
When David had been with the Lynches nearly a year, a decision had to be made.
Now 2 1/2 , he had been raised by them for most of his life. He should stay with the Lynches, Ms. Buda concluded, and she would see if they could adopt him. Her superiors agreed with the plan. All they needed was the approval of a judge.
Presiding over Baltimore's juvenile court, Judge David Mitchell was a pivotal point in the foster care system. Before him paraded parents, social workers and lawyers, all making their different arguments. After listening to their complaints and considering their promises, he had to decide a child's fate.
It was a role for which he was well-suited. He had grown up with foster children raised in his family's home. He had represented delinquent youngsters as a public defender. Judge Mitchell was earning a reputation as a man who really cared about children.
He also had decided views about the rights of parents.
Judge Mitchell declined to discuss his ruling about David. But he offered a hypothetical example to illustrate the considerations he believes any judge must take into account when making such decisions.
"Suppose you have beaten your child severely because you're an alcoholic, and your child goes away at 3 years old. And now, after many attempts, you're finally successful and you have cured your alcohol problem. You have gotten yourself stabilized, and you want your daughter home. You want your Kimberly back. That's your daughter.
"Now Kimberly is over there in a foster home, and she likes it where she is. She's got her Barbies. She's got a life over there. But are you going to say, 'I don't want my Kimberly back?' And are you really going to say, 'I shouldn't have my Kimberly back?'
"The rubric is that you make these decisions 'in the best interest of the child.' But that does not mean you focus only on the child. There are other interests here -- including the rights of the parents."
In December 1985, Judge Mitchell heard the social workers argue that David's parents had problems. Though the father worked fairly steadily, the couple could never seem to keep an apartment. They had moved three times in the past year. Rose had become pregnant again, and the baby was just 3 months old when he suffered a broken arm. It was an accident, officials concluded, but worrisome nonetheless.
But before him, the judge saw a mother and father who were living together, in itself a rarity for this kind of case. They had custody of two of their three children, and were arguing for the return of the third. They had met most of the conditions set for them by the department.
Apparently, the decision wasn't even close. Shortly before Christmas, David said good-bye to Mr. and Mrs. Lynch and went to live with his parents.
A stunning rage
Eight months later, two police officers carried David and his little brother out of their parents' home. Called because of an abuse allegation, the officers found David with a swollen lip. It could have been an accident, the officers thought. The condition of the house was not. There were bugs, trash and dog feces everywhere. A dead bird rotted on a bedroom floor.
David's brother was sent to a family in Northeast in Cecil County -- about an hour's drive from Baltimore, just like the Lynches' home in Pennsylvania. But the regulations frowned on out-of-state placements, and foster care officials would not let David return to the family he loved. Instead, he was placed in the city with an elderly woman described in the file as "having little patience."
Social workers know how children behave when they are moved from one care-giver to another. They often see each transfer as a rejection, a statement that they are somehow bad. And they often act out, subconsciously throwing out a challenge. Do you love me? Do you love me enough to put up with this?
The answer to David was no.
The elderly woman said she just couldn't handle him. David had tried to climb out a second-story window.
In his next home, the foster parents tried for three months before they, too, asked the system to take him back. He kept trying to put a piece a metal from a Hot Wheels toy into the electrical outlets. He kept opening the door to the family car as they were driving on the highway.
The supervisors relented. When David returned to the Lynches in January 1987, they could see that he had changed. He had a nervous energy that bordered on wild. But Mrs. Lynch was optimistic.
As David turned 4 that spring, he was taking pride in the accomplishments of his age. He learned how to brush his teeth by himself and to make his own bed. He learned to make peanut butter sandwiches. He liked playing Army with neighborhood youngsters and swimming in the pool out back.
But if it seemed at times that David was settling down, he was another child after each monthly visit with his natural mother and father. Despite orders from the social worker, they kept telling their son he would be coming "home" soon. David returned from the visits displaying a rage stunning in one so small.
"David becomes very angry after visits," Ms. Buda wrote that fall. "He bangs his head on the floor, bites himself and pulls his hair out. He has even thrown himself down the steps."
He frequently said he was stupid and that he hated himself. He grew increasingly depressed.
As a December court hearing approached, Ms. Buda drafted a letter asking Judge Mitchell to stop further visits between David and his parents. And as she had two years earlier, she helped prepare the case that planning for his adoption should begin.
Once again, Judge Mitchell disagreed. It was still possible, the judge said, that David would eventually return to his parents. In the meantime, he needed to know them. The visits were to continue.
Three months later, David was a psychiatric patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He had tried to kill himself with a kitchen knife while Mrs. Lynch was peeling potatoes at the kitchen sink.
Even that would not persuade the system to end his torment. Though Judge Mitchell finally agreed not to block the department's efforts to free him for adoption, a social services supervisor intervened. Known for her belief that children belong with their "real" family, she grabbed the case file and wrote new instructions.
David's parents would be given one more chance.
Ready to believe
"If I wasn't such a bad person, I bet my mom would come."
David was living at St. Vincent's, a center for children with behavioral problems. He had learned there to call his mother mom, not Rosie. He also had learned that he was, in his words, "a piece of trash." Why else would she leave him all alone in an institution?
There had been so much hope when he arrived at St. Vincent's in the fall of 1988. His parents, who had gotten married, had promised to come for weekly visits and family therapy.
The staff carefully explained the plan to David. He was not to refer to Mr. and Mrs. Lynch as Mommy and Daddy anymore. As soon as he got better, he was going home to his parents.
Despite all he'd been through, David was ready to believe. In this plan, his parents were not a threat to his happy life with a family. They were the route to such a life.
But the father never returned. Rose came sporadically for a couple of weeks, then she quit coming, too.
"On the few occasions that his mother did attend a family therapy session, she seemed genuinely interested in David," a therapist wrote. "Likewise, David seemed to be excited and happy when his mother arrived and conversely, when she did not show, he would act out his disappointment."
He so wanted approval. The staff noticed how often he requested hugs. He was meticulous about brushing his teeth and hair. Without being asked, he made his bed each day and carefully folded his pajamas. And at times, he actually seemed happy. He loved taking walks so he could look for leaves. He was doing well in his first-grade class at Pot Spring Elementary.
But David suffered severe bouts of depression, and they were getting more frequent. He was biting himself, banging his head and talking of death again.
He had cause to be depressed. Week after week, he saw the other children visit with their families. Week after week, he saw the lucky ones go home for good. No one came to see David. He could be heard telling his stuffed animals how he felt. Sometimes he said he wanted to live with the Lynches. Sometimes he said he wished his mother would come.
Early in his stay, the staff at St. Vincent's had urged the Department of Social Services to give up on David's parents and to look for a family to adopt him. Department officials had agreed.
But David had been at St. Vincent's a year now, and the department seemed to be doing nothing. The staff tried repeatedly to find out what was going on, but David's new social worker never returned phone calls. Finally, they summoned her supervisor.
When would David have a family so they could start visiting him?
We're not looking yet, the supervisor replied. David was too sick to be adopted. The department couldn't be expected to find a family that would want him until he was much, much better.
The staff at St. Vincent's tried once more to make her understand. Without a family, David was not going to get any better. He was depressed precisely because he felt no one loved him.
When the supervisor left, unpersuaded, the staff decided they had to act. Rose was still David's mother, and she had expressly forbidden any visits from his former foster parents. But a child's life was at stake. They dug into the files for a phone number.
Her husband died several weeks ago, Mrs. Lynch told them, but she would be thrilled to visit David.
The reunion was "like Christmas," someone who saw it observed later. There were hugs and tears and laughter, and David opened a present from Mrs. Lynch, an Alf doll. Then he got straight to the matter most on his mind.
"I'm going to be locked up forever, aren't I, Mommy? I just can't seem to do anything right."
But as she came to see him week after week, it looked like David -- now 6 -- might finally be going home. By February 1990, a foster care official was writing that David had "improved greatly" as a result of the renewed relationship. The hope was that Mrs. Lynch could adopt him, though she was now 64. The staff at St. Vincent's felt David would be ready to go live with her in a month or two.
David's parents were vowing to fight any adoption, however, and they still had a right to see their son. They went to St. Vincent's to visit him in April, May, June and July.
There is no information in David's file about those visits, except for this:
In August 1990, as a new judge in the case agreed to suspend visits between David and his parents, David was being transported to a psychiatric ward at University Hospital. Doctors there concluded he was too disturbed to go back to St. Vincent's and would need long-term care in a psychiatric treatment center.
"In view of the severity of his problems," the doctors wrote, "we would not recommend adoption at this time."
On a Tuesday afternoon in January of this year, a law clerk on Calvert Street began making the necessary phone calls. The ruling that would determine David's future would be issued in the morning. Everyone should come to the courthouse.
David, now 8, had been making progress as a patient at Villa Maria, a psychiatric center for children. Mrs. Lynch was a regular visitor. But she was 66 now and her health uncertain. Though everyone agreed she should remain in David's life as a grandmother of sorts, officials felt a younger family should adopt him.
'That's my mother'
David had been sitting on Mrs. Lynch's lap when a social worker at Villa Maria first told him about that plan. David got to his feet, walked over to the social worker and looked her straight in the eye. "That's my mother, and that'll always be my mother," he insisted, pointing at Mrs. Lynch.
But he had gotten used to the idea eventually, and for months now had been asking when he could have a new family.
David couldn't be adopted by anyone, however, unless a Baltimore circuit judge agreed to sever all ties between him and his parents.
That legal process had begun early in David's stay at St. Vincent's. More than two years passed before all the papers were filed and time found in clogged court dockets for a hearing.
At that March 1991 hearing, lawyers for the department had argued that every effort had been made to help Rose and her husband. Those efforts had failed, they said.
Rose and her husband offered a much different picture.
They admitted shortcomings when David and his sister were babies, when they themselves were young. But they argued there was never any reason to take the kids away. There were spankings, the parents said, but never beatings. They cited exaggerated reports about housekeeping filed by holier-than-thou caseworkers, who then expected a struggling couple with no car to show up for appointments all over the place.
And if they were really such awful parents, they asked, how was it that the youngest two of their five children had never been in foster care?
Now, 10 months after the hearing ended, Baltimore Circuit Judge Mabel H. Hubbard was ready to issue her decision.
The judge's Wednesday morning courtroom was packed with fathers accused of failing to pay child support. She decided to use her office. The tight quarters meant that the cluster of chairs that could be pulled before her desk was promptly consumed by lawyers. Rose and her husband were relegated to a couch against the wall, their hands locked. The three children did not attend.
The judge began reciting a history of the case. She read for 15 minutes. Perhaps the lawyers could see it, but for someone untrained in the law, it was impossible to tell where she was going.
Then: "The natural parents' efforts to adjust their circumstances, conduct and conditions have been woefully insufficient. . . . The court finds no evidence that any additional service would be likely to bring about a lasting parental adjustment. . . ."
Rose shook her head in bitter disapproval. Her husband looked numb. It was over. They had lost three of their children.
Nearly 8 1/2 years after David was first placed in a foster home, a system that is supposed to spare children the trauma of uncertainty had finally rendered a decision. It had taken so long largely because of the great weight given to the rights of parents.
As for the rights of children:
David was happy, healthy and an excellent candidate for adoption when a social worker first urged that route for a bright-eyed boy of 2. He is almost 9 now.
At Villa Maria, David shares a beige room with another boy. He has a dinosaur bedspread and posters of Ninja turtles and a pony. Other walls are decorated with artwork and proud progress reports. It is a cheerful place, but it is not a home. David's clothes and toys and books are neatly put away, with none of the messy sprawl of childhood. He eats in a cafeteria. He washes his face at a sink labeled with his name, one in a gleaming row.
The boy who aches to belong to someone has short blond hair and a small thin body that can't quite contain its energy. His smile, when it's there, is endearing. He still loves to swim, still asks for hugs, still confides in his stuffed animals.
Now that he's legally free to be adopted, all the system has to do is find a family eager to claim a son who is nearing adolescence and has a history of psychiatric hospitalization.
"Tell the judge I want a strong family," he says, innocent of the difficulties in finding him a future. "With a strong house. Strong in every way."
May 1983: David is born to a 17-year-old single mother.
September 1983: At the age of 4 months, David is taken away from his home malnourished.
November 1983: David and his sister are removed after Rose is accused of lashing David with a belt and beating his sister. Both children are bruised.
November 1983-July 1984: The children remain in foster care, mostly with Mr. and Mrs. Lynch.
December 1984-April 1985: David is returned to the Lynches after he is found bruised again. In April, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge David Mitchell rules that David should remain in foster care for awhile.
April-December 1985: David remains with the Lynches as his parents undergo counseling. During that time, David comes to see the Lynches as his family and is distressed by visits with his parents. The Department of Social Services recommends that David stay with the Lynches and possibly be adopted by them, but Judge Mitchell orders that the toddler be sent back to his parents.
January-August 1986: While David, now turning 3, is with his parents, social workers are concerned about Rose's anger toward her three children. David's father is charged with child abuse after David's 4-year-old sister, with bruises and cuts on her face, said he had kicked her.
August 1986-January 1987: David and his baby brother are taken from Rose by police officers who found her house uninhabitable. The boys are sent to separate foster homes. David lasts two months at one home before being rejected as uncontrollable and three months at another. He is returned to the Lynches.
January-December 1987: David, now 4, is happy with the Lynches. His caseworker recommends that he not be sent back to his parents and instead placed for adoption. But David still must see his parents, and his rage about the visits is alarming. Judge Mitchell refuses to end them.
January or February 1988: David attempts suicide, grabbing a paring knife in Mrs. Lynch's kitchen and saying he wants to die.
March-May 1988: David is admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he is treated for depression.
June-August 1988: Judge Mitchell finally agrees not to interfere with adoption plans, but a Department of Social Services supervisor decides that David's parents be given yet another chance to get their children back.
October 1988-November 1989: David is admitted to St. Vincent's Center in Timonium, a residential facility for emotionally disturbed children. Officials there insist that he cannot go back to his parents and needs to be with a family. The department begins the long legal process to cut his ties to his parents.
November 1989-August 1990: David, now 6, improves after Mrs. Lynch begins visiting regularly. But his parents insist that they see him too. His condition deteriorates and he is admitted to a child psychiatric unit at University Hospital, and then moved to Villa Maria, a more intensive program for disturbed children.
March 1991: Circuit Court Judge Mabel Hubbard holds hearing on termination of David's parents' rights to their three oldest children.
January 1992: Judge Hubbard agrees to sever the bonds between the parents and the three children. They are freed for adoption.
April 1992: David's sister and brother remain in foster care. David is at Villa Maria.