After rising steadily for years, the number of Maryland children entering foster care is declining, prompting state officials to claim success in their efforts to keep troubled families from splintering.
More foster children also are being adopted, earning the state a bonus of $317,947 in federal funds last month.
State Department of Human Resources officials take credit for both trends, saying their efforts to keep families together -- and to find homes for children who cannot stay with their parents -- have begun to pay off.
But the state's efforts have not been able to shrink the number of children remaining in foster care. As of June, Maryland's caseload of children in out-of-home placement, including relatives not licensed by the state as foster parents, stood at 13,119, compared with 12,788 in 1998.
The growth was more pronounced when just traditional foster care is considered, which grew by about 8 percent statewide.
Officials attribute that increase to the median length of stay in foster care: two years and two months when last measured in 1998, slightly longer than the rest of the country.
"It's clearly a situation where, [while] the number of children coming in has gone down, the number of children on the caseload continues to grow," said Lynda G. Fox, Maryland secretary of human resources. "We are required in most cases and we want in most cases to make a good-faith effort to reunify the family, and that takes time."
From July 1998 to July 1999, an average of 366 children entered the state's foster care system each month. As of July 1998, that average monthly figure was 415, and the year before that 429.
That's the first steady drop in incoming cases since 1992, said Charles R. Cooper, administrator of the Maryland Citizens' Review Board for Children, which reviews long-term foster care cases.
The biggest drop appeared among children ages 2 to 4, whose entries into the state system fell by 44 percent between 1997 and 1999, Cooper said.
The number of children entering foster care in Baltimore City has declined as well, from an average of 256 a month as of July 1998 to 218 a month as of July 1999.
Fox said the favorable economy might be contributing to the drop. But she said caseworkers have been working more intensely with families at the first signs of trouble, going into their homes to demonstrate proper ways to discipline children and to defuse conflicts.
"I think probably one of the key factors here is the success of our prevention efforts, and rising community awareness of abuse and neglect," Fox said.
The state's trends are reflected nationwide. Adoptions of Maryland foster children in 1998 were 23 percent higher than the average number of adoptions in the state between 1995 and 1997, outpacing a 22 percent increase nationwide.
But about 540,000 children in the United States remain in foster care. Nearly 70 percent are older than age 6, and they are less likely to be adopted than younger children.
"For those kids who do come into care, we are still facing the problem of how to provide adequately for them, and either reunite them with their families in a timely manner or move them to an alternate permanent home," said Peter Gibbs, director of the Center for Adoption Research and Policy at the University of Massachusetts.
The Clinton administration in 1996 set a goal of doubling the number of children adopted from foster care to 56,000 by 2002, promising to give states that improved their records more money for adoption services.
The 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act, passed as part of that effort, requires states to move more quickly -- within 15 to 22 months after a child arrives in foster care -- to determine whether the child should be taken permanently from his or her birth parents.
But advocates say courts are approving that separation, called "termination of parental rights," long before many children have permanent homes.
"We're glad that adoptions have gone up, and we think that everyone has worked together to make that happen, including the department here and the locals [departments] and the courts and the reviewers and the legislature," said Cooper, of the Maryland Citizens' Review Board.
But Cooper said the number of people willing to adopt doesn't nearly keep pace with the number of children who will never go back to their parents. "Terminations are up more than adoptions," he said. "Now we have a concern that children will have terminations and become permanent orphans."
Fox said that means the state must intensify its efforts to recruit adoptive families, particularly for older children with emotional and physical disabilities. The Department of Human Resources has begun a federally funded program, "Project Bridge", to try to link families in Howard County, where few children are available for adoption, with children in Baltimore City, where many lack homes.
Pub Date: 10/11/99