Cover Story: Lights. Camera. Action?

Looking for an 'innovative approach' to placing children available for adoption, Hamilton County officials turn to self-marketing; will it work for 64 local kids?

Sep 9, 1999 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Helping to get the word out about local children available for adoption are (L-R) Val Larkin, Mindy Good and Jacqueline Poignard of the Hamilton County Depart-ment of Human Services.

The video crew is ready. But the subjects need some coaching. "I gotta get a still photo of you, too," the director says. "I'm going to ask you your age, your school, what else should I ask you? Your favorite food!"

Ten-year-old James says, "Pizza and tacos."

A few minutes later, 10-year-old Soniqua will look at the camera and say that broccoli is one of her favorite foods.

The children are being asked to sell themselves, and some are rising to the challenge better than others. Selling yourself is hard to do when you think nobody wants you.

Of about 300 children now in Hamilton County's permanent custody, 64 are waiting to be adopted.

Many of them are conscious of the fact that they no longer are the desirable, seemingly unaffected infants that adoptive parents often seek. Many of them have lived in multiple foster homes.

"They do not have permanency," says Tracy Cook, executive director of ProKids, a Walnut Hills agency that recruits volunteers to be court-appointed special advocates for these children. "They have a move for every year. It is unimaginable for anyone who has not gone through it. ... They aren't able to achieve a lot of normal development because everything becomes, 'Where am I going next?' "

Where these children are going next, their custodians say, will depend on how many eligible adults step forward to claim them. The $124,000 videotaping program is among several new efforts the Hamilton County Department of Human Services is making to boost the children's visibility and educate prospective parents.

The program, they say, qualifies as an "innovative approach" under the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act, which has been enacted in Ohio in the form of House Bill 484.

These laws are designed to speed the process of finding permanent homes for children whose parents' custodial rights have been terminated. They have come about in response to the pool — about 110,000 nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — of American children who are available for adoption through public agencies.

While their numbers have grown, so has the number of adoptive parents who travel to foreign countries where they can adopt babies.

"Certainly, too many children are victims of wars and other social and cultural problems in foreign nations," reads an April 21 statement from the county's human services department. "At the same time, a record number of American children are victims of our own drug epidemic and other domestic social problems — and they deserve equal attention."

Because many of these children are older, have suffered abuse or neglect at the hands of their parents and, in varying degrees, might have learning disabilities or other problems that require ongoing attention, they commonly are viewed as damaged goods, says Mindy Good, communications director for the Hamilton County Department of Human Services.

Most of the children qualify as having special needs, which can include being a member of a sibling group of two or more who need to stay together; 6 years of age or older; a member of a minority group; mentally disabled or having a medical or physical problem, developmental disability or emotional disturbance.

What the typical prospective adoptive parent does not see, Good says, is that when given stability, most of these children play and dream like other children. They also work on their problems, seek love and return it, she says.

The department hopes the videotapes will help people understand that when they see children like Soniqua playing putt-putt golf and talking about how she wants to become a fashion designer. Or 13-year-old Chris, who wants to be a firefighter so he can "save people's lives." Or Jimmy, 11, who wants to be a jet engineer because he likes to take engines apart. And 10-year-old James, who wants to tell everyone that the world needs to be a safe place.

What one thing would they change if they could?

"The world would have no caseworkers, and they wouldn't have to do anything because everyone would live with their parents," Soniqua says.

But these kids' parents have a problem.

County tries new approaches
According to statistics kept by Hamilton County Juvenile Court, 78 percent of parents whose children were in agency care or custody at the end of 1998 lacked parenting skills. In addition:

· Fifty-eight percent were alcohol and drug abusers, compared to 60 percent in 1997 and 49 percent in 1996.

· Fifty-eight percent were cocaine abusers, compared to 60 percent in 1997 and 49 percent in 1996.

· Thirty-six percent were crack cocaine abusers, compared to 36 percent in 1997 and 39 percent in 1996.

· Eleven percent were child abusers, compared to 20 percent in 1996, and 12 percent failed to protect their children from abuse.

· Fifteen percent were experiencing severe emotional dysfunction, and 5 percent were incarcerated or charged with crimes.

"A lot of kids have lingered in the system, waiting for their families to address the issues," says Val Larkin, foster care and adoption recruitment supervisor for the county's children's services department.

With the new legislation, lawmakers want to stop that.

The Hamilton County Department of Human Services is under investigation by the federal Office of Civil Rights as a result of a lawsuit filed in August that claimed the department was hindering adoptions by not placing black children with white families.

But many who work within the children's services system say Hamilton County embraced the principles of new mandates aimed at swifter action before new laws went into effect and is taking swifter action now. It is visibility for the children and public knowledge of their plight that's been lacking, they say.

H.B. 484, passed in March 1998, dictates circumstances under which a court must decide that reasonable efforts to reunite families are unnecessary. Those circumstances include a parent's convictions on or guilty pleas to certain criminal charges, a parent placing a child at risk due to alcohol or drug abuse and refusing treatment two or more times and a parent abandoning a child.

The law also contains provisions aimed at shortening the time frame for making permanent plans for a child — whether that be returning home, being put up for adoption or placed in other care — in an effort to keep children from being raised in foster home after foster home.

"We've been implementing some of the mandates from H.B. 484 for years ...," says Carla Guenthner, lead magistrate in the Hamilton County Juvenile Court's dependency division. "I don't see any radical changes coming related to the implementation of H.B. 484, because the tenets of this legislation have already been incorporated in our handling of abuse, neglect and dependency cases."

While the difficulty of finding homes increases with a child's age, when to terminate a parent's custodial rights has to be decided on a case-by-case basis, and the bulk of the cases will involve taking temporary custody of children and working with their parents on reunification plans, Guenthner says.

That is, as long as the parent cooperates.

For those with substance abuse problems, Hamilton County has taken an "innovative approach," Guenthner says.

Treatment services the county contracts for with the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services board (ADAS) allow a parent to go straight from the courtroom into treatment. If the parent is unsuccessful or leaves treatment, a plan for permanent placement of the child will be hastened, Guenthner says.

Even when treatment is completed, she says, sobriety is difficult to maintain over time and relapse is part of the disease, so each parent's efforts or lack thereof have to be evaluated individually.

"We have parents who express a desire to work on a reunification plan," she says. "However, the parents' actions are sometimes different than the stated intentions. Some parents are unable, incapable or unwilling to successfully comply."

Some happy endings
Termination of a parent's custodial rights, as the county's children's services workers know too well, is the beginning of another process.

Cook — who recruits volunteers at ProKids to be trained to serve in court as a child's advocate who makes recommendations — cites the case of a child who stayed in five different homes during a two-month period to illustrate the need to get children "out of the system" into a permanent homes faster.

She also recalls cases in which children acted out. Among other reasons, it often is because the children expect rejection, she says. For some, she says, this behavior becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. She recalls a boy who had been physically and sexually abused. Acts of vandalism and verbal aggression led to his removal from a foster home and his placement back in residential treatment. An altercation there earned the boy a trip to the children's prison he resides in now, Cook says.

But there also are stories with happier endings, such as the one about the boy who was physically abused by his mother and, as a result, distrusted women, except for his foster mother. One of her relatives wanted to adopt the boy. Because of a glitch that occurred in the adoption process, the county, in an effort find a new match, tried to move the boy elsewhere, causing him great distress, Cook says. But ProKids launched a successful effort to undo the match and the boy eventually was adopted by the family he trusted, she says.

Foster parents, human service's Good says, are the county's top source of adoptive homes because, through being foster parents, they get to know the children and become attached.

Larkin says more of the children's relatives also are stepping forward to take care of them.

But efforts to attract more parents — such as steps being taken by the Tristate Adoption Coalition, of which the Department of Human Services is a member — are needed, Cook and others say.

The county also has begun to work with Children's Home of Cincinnati, which traditionally has handled infant adoptions, to find homes for older children, Good says.

Finding homes for older children becomes even more difficult when the children come in sibling groups that need to stay together, Larkin says. And she says that the suffering many of the children have endured because their parents are incarcerated, have substance abuse problems, have been abusive physically or emotionally or have mental health issues is not easily overcome.

But it can be done, she says.

"One of the things we try to emphasize (to adoptive parents) is that they are going to need support services (which the department helps them obtain)," Larkin says. "Many of the kids require ongoing counseling, special education and psychological counseling."

They also require adoptive parents to take a certain attitude when the children act out, often in an effort to test the parents' limits, says Wanda Brown of Harrisburg, Penn., who adopted three sisters from Hamilton County in December 1998. That attitude, she says, is: Act up all you want, but you're still going to be here.

The three girls, says county adoption unit supervisor Jacqueline Poignard, had gone through so much.

"It was a long, drawn-out process," Poignard recalls, saying a lengthy effort to match the girls with one family had failed. "The girls became very upset."

Then Brown became interested and began visiting the children.

She recalls meeting the eldest, who was 10 at the time, first. The girl seemed to talk uncontrollably, Brown says.

"I was having a fit about that," she says.

After much discussion, it was becoming obvious that the Browns might be more interested in having just the younger two, Poignard recalls.

"Our thing was, these girls have always been together," she says.

The Browns, counselors and the county department came up with a plan under which the eldest girl would go alone to live with the Browns on a trial basis. If things went well, the other two would follow.

"She came, and she was OK," Brown says. "She was able to be directed and redirected.

She — and eventually her sisters — also would show the Browns that they were able to learn and become productive citizens, Brown says.

At the time their adoption was finalized, the girls were 5, 8 and 11.

"The older children, they have less of a chance, the need is greater, and that's why I did it," Brown says.

Poignard beams when she recalls the changes she saw when the girls returned to Ohio for their finalization hearing. The eldest, who previously appeared constantly unhappy, had become very attractive — obviously the result of feeling good about herself, Poignard says.

"Her face was so bright," she says.

And the middle child chattered away about, "We go here, and my mom does this."

But there were some adjustments along the way. While the eldest did well in the preparatory school the Browns chose for her, the other two had problems in the private school environment. Brown again contacted Hamilton County, and it was decided that the two younger girls, who were used to an urban school system, should be moved to public school, where more resources existed for children with special needs, Brown says.

While those resources have helped, she says the girls' behaviors have brought challenges. An incident involving the youngest girl proved to be a defining moment.

After getting into a fight with one of Brown's other children that required Brown to pull the child off and use a "teeny piece of switch," the girl showed the scratch on her leg to a teacher, which prompted an investigation.

The complaint was determined to be unfounded, Brown recalls, but she was so upset with the child that she threatened to send her and her sisters back to Ohio.

It is that type of rejection, Brown says, that this child — and others she has seen in being a foster mother — often fears most.

And, she says, it becomes obvious "when their eyes just swell up with tears, and they don't say anything." ©

Speaking for Themselves
During a recent videotaping session, children in Hamilton County's custody awaiting adoption were asked the same question: If you were king or queen for the day, what would you change?

"My whole family could be together."

Antwan, 11

"I would make people stop killing other people."

LaVon, 8

"I would stop all the drugs."

David, 10

"If I were king, I would go to a foreign place."

Charlando, 11

"I would change all the animals to rabbits."

Charles, 7

"Would get my mom, brothers and sisters all together and have a big family."

Tangela, 13

"The world would not have caseworkers, and they wouldn't have to do anything because everyone would live with their parents."

Soniqua, 10

(pictured, from her videotaped interview)

"I would change my mom to get off drugs ... take care of her kids, my sister, so we would all be together again."

Tiara, 11

Children Looking for a Home

Hamilton County is seeking adoptive homes for 64 children. The group includes 36 males and 28 females, with 45 African-American children, seven Caucasion children and 12 children who are bi-racial or of other racial or ethnic heritages.

Information about some of the children can be accessed on Hamilton County's Web site (

Anyone interested in becoming a foster or adoptive parent should contact Hamilton County at 632-6366. Anyone interested in becoming a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) should contact ProKids at 281-2000.