A Home of Their Own ; African-American Leaders in Florida Push Adoption for Children in Foster Care

Article excerpt

They don't creep out of their bedrooms to flip on TV cartoons on the weekends, even though their parents tell them it's perfectly fine to do so. They never open the refrigerator to get a glass of milk when they are thirsty. They dare not complain when they are cold. They say "Thank you" incessantly.

"We explain: 'This is your fridge. Your food. Your TV. Your home,' " says James Parrish, a maintenance supervisor in Broward County, Fla., who, with his wife, Felicia, adopted three young siblings who had been foster children for years. "We work to make it clear this is not a stopover. But trust takes time to build. And they have had bad experiences."

Seven-year-old Marri and her two brothers, Mario, who's 8, and Shaquan, 6, were taken away from their abusive biological parents by the state of Florida when Marri was barely 1.

The children shuttled between bleak emergency shelters and temporary foster homes, sharing clothes, eating poorly, and falling behind in school. One foster mother would lock them in the garage when they asked to play, recounts Shaquan, stammering as he speaks. And sometimes she put them in a closet and pushed up a dresser against it.

"I would not want to go back," says the boy, his eyes widening.

These siblings were plucked out of the foster-care system, brought into a loving home, and will never have to "go back." But some 130,000 other young Americans seeking to be adopted are not as fortunate, and may go through their childhood years - feeling lonely, frustrated, angry, unwanted, even unsafe - without ever being invited into a permanent home.

The problem is most acute when it comes to black children. In Miami and Dade County, for example, African- Americans make up about 20 percent of the general population but close to 67 percent of the children seeking adoption. Furthermore, even accounting for that imbalance, black families are less likely to adopt than nonblacks, according to studies.

The reasons for this situation may be economic, social (many African-American families unofficially take in relatives and thus have less room or desire for strangers), or, as some claim, racial (there are those who think the authorities take black children out of a problematic family environment more quickly than they do nonblacks).

But the fact is that the statistics repeat themselves across the country. In Chicago, for example, 95 percent of children in foster care waiting to be adopted are black.

Increasingly, however, black activists are saying, "Enough is enough." Propelled by the shocking story of Rilya Wilson - the Miami girl in foster care who literally disappeared within the social- service system two years ago - three black Florida lawmakers have begun a grass-roots campaign to recruit more and better qualified black adoptive parents.

The project, which they hope to roll out nationwide in a year's time, is called the Rilya Wilson Legacy Project, in honor of the missing child, who would be 7 this year.

"When Rilya went missing, I could not sleep at night," says state Sen. Frederica Wilson. "I could not understand how this could happen to a little girl. I took it personally. I was offended. And I decided to do something.

"Her disappearance has heightened, in the mind of many blacks, the obligation we have to our children languishing in foster care," she adds. "And we are going to capitalize on that sense of obligation."

Senator Wilson was instrumental in pushing through legislation earlier this year requiring the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) to place all children in their custody in preschool - and for those schools to report any children absent. It's a move that will help alert authorities to trouble, and had it been in place two years ago, might have helped Rilya.

"But this is not enough," says Wilson. "Government cannot and should not take care of our children alone. …