Nine-year-old Nadja arrived at Lynette York's North Baltimore doorstep last May with the clothes on her back and fear on her face.
She'd been brought straight from school after social workers began to suspect that the lanky girl with the shy, hesitant smile was having problems in her foster home. A few of her belongings arrived the next day: a torn pair of sweat pants, a few old, pitiful toys and some underclothes.
It was Nadja's third foster home in less than three years and York's first time being a foster parent, but the chemistry between the two seems genuine.
"She gives me a run for my money," the 28-year-old York says after several months with Nadja. "She's afraid of being taken away. She tells me she's tired of being in foster care and says that she just wants to be adopted."
Now there is a greater chance that she will be. A program called Project Bridge is trying to tap the many middle-class black families in Howard County as prospective parents for the more than 600 African-American children in foster care in Baltimore.
Social services officials are betting that Howard -- which has less than 10 adoptable children in foster care -- will offer more families willing to adopt than Baltimore does.
Project Bridge officials say they would like to place the children with African-American parents but will consider any family that can provide a stable, loving home.
Placing minority children with white families could spark renewed debate about transracial homes. While some experts defend transracial adoptions, a number of national groups say they're not in the best interest of black children.
Even with $600,000 in federal funding, Project Bridge officials will likely find it difficult to place many of the children in adoptive homes.
According to adoption advocates, black children comprise 64 percent of the foster-care population -- in large cities, as many as 90 percent of children awaiting adoption are black -- and are more likely to remain in foster care longer than any other group.
Many are older than 6 and have siblings who also need to be adopted, preferably together.
There is precedent for a successful, targeted program: Two years ago, in Cecil County, Project Target placed 45 minority children, including Hispanics, in adoptive homes in five counties on the Eastern Shore.
Though the Cecil County program also was federally funded, Project Bridge is the first adoption program in Maryland to specifically target African-American children who are legally free to be adopted and live in temporary, government-subsidized foster care.
Project Bridge manager Vivian Walden says that though 55 Howard families have expressed interest since June, recruiting has been slow.
Hard to keep interest
"We've had a number of families who've expressed interest in the program but later reconsider," says Walden. "Once we give them details about what the actual process is like, it's sometimes hard to keep them interested."
Johnnie Smith, president of Baltimore chapter of the National Association of Black Social Workers, says African-American candidates are more responsive to adopting hard-to-place children if the adoption process is shorter, less formal and less intrusive into their family life.
Some African-American candidates also may be under the mistaken impression that "they have to make $50,000 or $60,000 in order to adopt a child," says Walden. "I don't want any family to rule themselves out."
The Rev. Robert Turner, pastor of St. John Baptist Church in Columbia, where Walden has tried to recruit families, says African-Americans living in Howard must "move beyond simply acknowledging the need these black kids have to be adopted to actually doing something about it.
Sending 'strong message'
"Most African-American families here -- just like everyone else -- have parents who both work," Turner adds. "I think it might be difficult for them to structure their lives to meet the needs of these children in terms of time.
"I think we have to send a real strong message out to the African-American community that they're going to have to sacrifice in order to do the right thing for these children," he adds.
York agrees and says the hardship of raising Nadja is made easier with the knowledge she is helping a black child who has suffered through a fractured and emotionally devastating life.
"Nadja has a whole set of issues," says York. "Nothing about this has been easy. Sometimes it's tough giving her all the attention she needs. She needs so much."
Finding the 'right homes'
So do many older African-American children who remain in foster care for years, going from one family to another while social workers try to find a match for them. Add this to the trauma of being orphaned, abandoned or abused by biological or foster parents and the need to get the children into a permanent -- and loving -- home intensifies.
Sue Fitzsimmons, a spokeswoman for the city Department of Social Services, says, "It'd be great to find African-American families for all of these kids. That would be ideal. But we're most concerned with finding the right homes for these kids, getting them into homes where they'll be comfortable and loved. That's our main responsibility."
Though a number of federal pro-adoption laws have made it illegal to deny or delay a child's adoption to find a family of the same race, groups like the National Association of Black Social Workers and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have said that transracial adoption is not in the best interest of African-American children.
Children "should be placed with families that most closely represent their culture and ethnicity," Smith says. "As people who are of a distinct ethnicity, you get your identity through your association with a family."
York knows firsthand how many African-American children without parents or homes there are in the foster-care system. A family-service worker for Baltimore's social services, York says she wanted to take in a black child. "I can show a child what it's like to be a part of a strong black family," she says.
But some experts say race-matching policies can harm some of the children.
Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard Law professor and an expert in adoption and civil rights issues, calls race-matching policies "a form of black nationalism. I'm not at all convinced that it's coming from a genuine sense that it's better for the children," she says. "What hurts kids the most is not being placed as soon as possible."
Evidence suggests that children who are placed in transracial adoptive homes will adapt well to their environments and are able to be comfortable with their racial identity, says Howard Altstein, a professor at the University of Maryland's School of Social Work, who co-authored a study of transracial adoptions.
"I think you really have to ask, 'What is in the best interest of the child?' " Altstein asks. "Children need to be placed in the least restrictive environment as possible. It's certainly better than keeping them in the limbo-like status of foster care or a group home."
Nadja's future is bright, says York. She might not have to wait for a Howard County family to adopt her.
"She asks me if I'm going to adopt her," York says. "I'm straight with her because I think that's important.
"I told her that she's got to get her behavior together before I know anything. But I'd love to adopt her. She'll be fine as long as she has a loving family there for her."
Pub Date: 9/15/98