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Home Front

Wednesday, January 1, 1997

Liberalism, the self-styled defender of children's welfare, harbors a myth that dehumanizes and threatens countless children every day. It is a myth embodied in a bureacratic label: "unadoptable." It is the assumption that, because some children are not wanted by their biological parents, they are wanted by no one.

This myth fuels the tragedy of abortion. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, at least 13 percent of all women choosing abortion do so because they believe their unborn child suffers from some mental or physical disability. So who would want them?

This myth undermines an already troubled foster-care system, where thousands of children are officially classified "unadoptable" by their caseworkers. Children acquire this label for many reasons -- because of emotional problems, physical handicaps, or the color of their skin. In part because of this tag, 15,000 kids turn 18 each year while still in foster care.


While government bureaucrats give up on tough-to-place kids, private agencies are finding them permanent, loving homes.


Across the country, however, there are countless men and women disproving the unadoptable label every day. "There is a home for every child who is out there," says Brit Eaton, the executive director of an organization called Adopt a Special Kid (AASK) Midwest. Eaton's organization, which uses the Internet to match foster children with willing families, is one of a growing number of private organizations finding permanent homes for so-called special-needs kids -- older children, sibling groups, the severely disabled, the emotionally damaged, or those with life-threatening diseases.

They are kids like Michael. He has the impish smile of an 11-year-old who does not like spinach. A profile of him available on the group's Internet Web site says that he was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, that he is a fifth-grader with attention-deficit disorder who doesn't read terribly well, and that he lives in foster care and a family "to provide him with the reassurance that he is loved and needed."

Michael is followed by other faces and names -- Joe, Elliot, Rachel, Sherita -- all looking for a permanent home. Sherita, for example, loves to play dress-up and is wearing a party dress in her picture. Her little brother Antwan sports a bow tie. They clutch each other's hand tightly. Both were exposed prenatally to crack cocaine and then neglected after birth; Sherita was sexually abused.

Adopting the Net

Working with county social-service agencies across the country, AASK Midwest gathers information on foster children for whom the public agency hasn't found a home and enters the data into its database. Michael, Sherita, and the others are just a few of the kids listed on AASK's Web site (http://www.aask.org). Says Eaton, "Some of these kids know this is their only chance to find a family."

Conducting the search nationwide increases the chance of finding a suitable family. AASK recruits families from all across the country to match with waiting children: It now has 973 children and 1,032 families in its database. It averages 100 assisted placements a year; since its founding 12 years ago, it has matched more than 1,200 families.

The "Telemagic" software system AASK uses to match kids with families gives the group 21st-century tools, but its greatest strength is human, not technological: Twenty-two families in 14 states across the country serve as volunteer recruiters. All the AASK field representatives have adopted special-needs children, and many have adopted more than 10; 95 percent of them have adopted transracially.

This personal involvement accounts for the agency's success. Field representatives are passionate about adoption, and they know what it takes to adopt a special-needs child successfully. Working in the field with prospective adoptive families, these volunteers provide both screening before the adoption and support afterwards.

Such commitment permeates the organization. That's why AASK succeeds in finding homes for children when the public agencies fail, says Eaton. Many county workers still believe that special-needs children are unadoptable. Others are simply too swamped to spend the time looking for appropriate families for the children. "They are overloaded," says Eaton. "The social worker will tend to forget about the child if they are in an adequate foster-care situation."

It costs AASK $2,500 on average to find a match for each child. In addition to its computer database, AASK maintains a Web site with pictures and biographical sketches of 20 waiting children. The list of children is changed monthly. The site is interactive and interested families can fill out an application on-line. AASK charges no fees for its services to adoptive families.

AASK Midwest was established by Richard Ransom, the founder of Hickory Farms, a food company, after he met Bob and Dorothy DeBolt, who started the flagship organization in California. The DeBolts themselves have adopted 20 special-needs children.

"There are so many success stories; there's just a magic that happens in this business," Eaton says. "When a child wouldn't otherwise have any hope, finding them a placement is like scoring a home run."

Patrick is one of those out-of-the-ballpark hits. Born drug dependent, he was completely nonverbal when he was adopted at three years old. A picture arrived on Eaton's desk recently: Patrick, with his mom. He is nearly unrecognizable as the sad baby Eaton remembers. Now, he is a happy, charming, chattering five-year-old, ready to start school.

For more information, contact: Adopt A Special Kid (AASK) Midwest -- Beverly Moore, adoptions director, 1025 N. Reynolds Rd., Toledo, Ohio 43615. Tel.: 419-534-3350 or 800-246-1731; fax: 419-534-2995.

AASK has recently established an advocacy group that will represent the interests of special-needs children on Capitol Hill: Adopt A Special Kid (AASK) America -- Maureen Hogan, executive director, P.O. Box 77672, Washington, D.C. 20013. Tel.: 202-388-3888, fax: 202-396-0340.

A K.I.D.S. Exchange

As a child, Janet Marchese was scared to death of a man in her neighborhood -- a man known as "crazy Raymond" who, it turns out, had Down's syndrome.

The fear and ignorance she was taught as a child Marchese now confronts on a daily basis as the founder of A K.I.D.S. Exchange, which stands for "adoption, knowledge, and information on Down's syndrome."

Literally a kitchen-table operation, Marchese and her husband, Louis, a retired New York City policeman, work tirelessly to match Down's syndrome babies with families who are willing to adopt them. With no outside funding except for a now-expired six-year grant from the John F. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, the Marcheses have used all of their resources to combat the myths about Down's syndrome. "When you're motivated," Marchese says, "you find ways."

To support their efforts, Louis works as a plumber, while Janet has established herself as one of the top doll dealers in the United States. Everything they earn goes into their adoption work, especially monthly telephone bills that run into thousands of dollars, plus mailing and photocopying costs.

Their motivation comes from their own adopted son, T.J., who has Down's syndrome. Now 20 years old and a senior in high school, T.J. is a social butterfly and computer whiz who works part-time at a video rental store, writes for the school newspaper, and is going for his brown belt in karate. But when Janet and Louis first took him in as foster parents after he'd been abandoned at the age of three weeks, the social worker said he was unadoptable, incapable of walking or talking, and bound for an institution. "What a pitiful scenario," says Janet. "I was amazed at how bright he was and how wonderful he was."

The Marcheses fell in love with T.J. and quickly moved to adopt him. Ensuring that other Down's syndrome babies weren't labeled unadoptable soon became their life's mission. "If I didn't exist," says Janet, "there would be a hundred more kids like him disappearing into institutions."

Since the Marcheses launched their organization in 1976, they have orchestrated at least 3,500 adoptions of Down's syndrome children. Janet hears about babies who need homes and connects them with suitable families. With her nationwide network of contacts, she assists agencies that may never have handled a Down's syndrome baby and don't have the resources to find a home for the child. In more than 20 years of handling such adoptions, she has never seen a family regret adopting a child.

Why are they so successful? Janet cites those large phone bills. She explains that when parents are distraught over discovering they have, or will soon have, a handicapped baby, they need individual counseling with someone who has gone through the same experience. Prospective adoptive parents, too, need this kind of personal attention.

"There's a lot to do with such a simple little thing as who answers the phone," she says. "People will call the social-service agencies and get turned off -- that's where we lose the success. The public agencies have limited budgets and a lack of enthusiasm. For them, it's a job. For us, it's our life."

She has also excelled in her secondary goal: Dispelling the myths about Down's syndrome. "When I started, there were 20 kids for every parent," she says, "and now there are 20 parents for every kid."

But much remains to be done. After receiving a prenatal test indicating Down's syndrome, a mother these days is still likely to be counseled to terminate her pregnancy or institutionalize the child. And agencies continue to classify Down's syndrome babies as unadoptable. "It's still those same people who are saying, 'Run for your life! It's Raymond!' " says Janet.

For more information, contact: A K.I.D.S. Exchange -- Janet Marchese, 56 Midchester Avenue, White Plains, N.Y. 10606. Tel.: 914-428-1236.

Children with AIDS

James Michael Jenkins began his life as Infant X, a racially mixed baby addicted to methadone, heroin, and cocaine. He had been abandoned at birth and had tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The hospital that was his home couldn't even find a foster family for him. That is, not until Joy Jenkins, a nurse at the hospital who wanted to adopt a baby, came by one day.

Like Janet and Louis Marchese, Joy and her husband, Jim, soon found themselves in love with the little guy, adopted him, and then established an organization to help other children like him. For the last eight years, Jim Jenkins has been running the Children with Aids Project, mostly full-time, with minimal compensation.

So far, the project has no major funding, but Jim remains optimistic. His aim is to develop a national endowment fund that would help defray the expenses of families who want to adopt infants with HIV.

The project has undertaken a major fundraising drive. On September 16, Louie Rochon began a walking trip across the United States that will take him two years to complete, raising funds along the way for the children. They have raised $2,000 and hope to find a publicist to promote the walk in the coming months. Jenkins refuses to take any public grant money. "I'm a firm believer that private enterprise can come to the fore to solve social problems," he explains.

The Children with Aids Project also functions as an information exchange, not an adoption agency. Jim maintains a database of families interested in adopting HIV-positive children on a computer donated by Sears Business Systems. Rather than maintain files on waiting children, Jenkins focuses on recruiting families and then refers them to adoption agencies on a case-by-case basis.

The Jenkinses have recruited mainly through word-of-mouth, but the project has recently taken off through the Internet. Jim says their Web site has "just gone crazy," receiving more than 250,000 visitors from around the world. Since families pass through his offices on their way to an agency, Jim doesn't always know when he's been successful, but he does know that they have helped at least 60 children find homes since they began eight years ago.

Jim wears two silver bracelets to remind him of two of those children, Laurie and Alexis, both of whom died of AIDS. Both children died, however, in the care of loving families. And that's what motivates Jim Jenkins in the face of hardship. "If you can find one home for one child," he says, "that's a victory."

For more information, contact: Children with Aids Project of America, Jim Jenkins, 4141 W. Bethany Home Rd., Suite 5, Phoenix, Ariz. 85019. Tel.: 602-973-4319, fax: 602-530-3541, Internet: http://www.aidskids.org.

Personal Commitment

Each of these private groups is stepping in to fill a vacuum: Their work is a plea for the children that many parents are aborting on a daily basis. And their efforts are putting to shame the excesses of a government-run foster-care system that allows too many children to go through their childhoods without a permanent, loving home.

Why are these groups successful, on such limited budgets, when the public agencies are not? The biggest reason is their personal commitment to the children -- their passion for helping kids find permanent families. In most cases, these activists know from personal experience what many government bureaucrats can never know: "There is no such thing as an unadoptable child," says Maureen Hogan, the executive director of AASK's advocacy office in Washington. "We can say that with no qualification."

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