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Foster care is 'what's best' for ill baby


For Christmas, Derick Jones will give his 18-month-old son building blocks, Tonka toys, clothes and a Sega Genesis video system.

But perhaps his greatest gift to Justin will come a month later, when Mr. Jones will watch him leave Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital to live with a foster family.

"I'm doing what's best for him," said Mr. Jones. "That's hard, that's still hard."

Born with an array of medical problems, Justin needs constant care. But his father has a full-time job as a maintenance worker with the Baltimore Housing Authority. Justin's mother died of an asthma attack two months after he was born in June 1992.

So the only way Justin can leave the costly hospital setting, his home since he was admitted at 6 weeks of age, is through foster care. He will go with his father's blessing, which has earned Mr. Jones nothing but praise and respect from the hospital staff.

"He's putting his son's welfare uppermost," said Donna Woltzen, the hospital social worker assigned to Justin's case. "I think he's really very selfless."

"Dad is very dedicated, but he knows he cannot care for Justin," said Dr. Irene Oung, the baby's pediatrician. "And a hospital is not the best environment for a baby. A hospital is for a child who's not feeling well."

It's also not cost-effective to keep Justin at Mount Washington. The average daily cost for a patient there is $353. In foster care, Justin's care will cost the state less than one-tenth of that. Yet, even when everyone agrees foster care is best, it's unusual to find a father like Mr. Jones, who volunteers to give his child up. And it's hard to find a family willing to care for a child like Justin. Other children at Mount Washington are still waiting for families.

Still, Mr. Jones asked the hospital to turn down the first couple who agreed to be Justin's foster parents. They lived in Columbia, a tough commute for someone dependent on city bus lines. The hospital and the Department of Social Services agreed, finding a Catonsville family more convenient to Mr. Jones' Northwest Baltimore apartment.

Mr. Jones had only one other condition: He wanted to take Justin home on Christmas Day, for a celebration with the boy's half-brother, half-sister and cousins. To do that, Mr. Jones just this week completed the training he needs to be alone with Justin, even for a few hours.

Justin was born with arthogryposis, a rare condition that makes joints rigid and inflexible. He also has no swallowing or gag reflex, making it impossible for him to eat normally. Mr. Jones has learned how to handle the feeding tube and a small suction device that keeps the baby's mouth free of fluid. He also had to take a course in cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

But it's not all technology, caring for Justin. Throughout an interview, Mr. Jones sat dressed in a pale yellow hospital gown, a napkin at the ready to wipe his son's mouth. Because Justin cannot swallow, fluid pools constantly in his mouth. It's just another task, Mr. Jones said, like diapering or bathing a baby.

He wasn't always so comfortable, the soft-spoken 33-year-old acknowledges. "I'd say, 'Lord, I really can't deal with this.' I used to come here every day and break down in tears, wondering why. It all seems pretty easy now."

He knew, from the first time he saw Justin, that he wasn't like other children. "I was there in the recovery room. I knew something was wrong. I could see his leg wasn't right," he recalled. "I knew, too, then and there, that I was going to love him no matter what."

Over the past year, Justin has made huge strides, gaining weight and learning to sit up in just the past week. He is recovering from surgery for a displaced hip, another congenital problem. But developmentally he is where a 5-month-old would be. Dr. Oung is cautious about predicting how far he can go. His father's optimism knows no limits.

"He's come a long way," Mr. Jones said. "I'm just waiting on that day he walks on his own. He's going to, I know he's going to."

Mr. Jones also believes that Justin will be able to live with him some day, perhaps as soon as next Christmas. But for now, he's content to have just three hours with Justin and to dream of the day when the three hours stretch to 24, day in and day out.

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