How Illinois Is Moving Kids out of Foster-Care Limbo ; the State's Child-Welfare System, Long Maligned, Has Become a Model for Reform by Encouraging Adoption

Article excerpt

Until recently, Carol and Melvin AuBuchon's home, in this middle- class town just east of St. Louis, epitomized much of what was wrong the Illinois foster-care system.

Over the course of 17 years, the couple has helped to raise 21 foster kids - and would have liked to keep a number of them. But the child-welfare system was so difficult that adoption or even guardianship seemed out of the question.

Now, though, their home is taking on a more permanent feel. The AuBuchons have managed to adopt one of the six children currently in their care, recently gained guardianship of four others, and are close to winning guardianship of the sixth child.

Their household, in many ways, is emblematic of a dramatic improvement in Illinois's once-troubled foster-care system. In moving wards of the state out of the uncertainty of foster care - and into more permanent situations - it has become something of a guide for other states looking to reform their own systems.

The transformation has come fairly quickly. Not long ago, Illinois had one of the worst adoption rates for foster children nationwide. In three years, the state has cut its foster-care caseload nearly in half and has seen a huge increase in the number of adoptions.

The change is largely thanks to an innovative effort that encourages adoption and guardianship, rewards private child- placement agencies for finding permanent homes for foster children, and returns greater numbers of children to the custody of a relative.

While almost everybody lauds the steps Illinois has taken, some do caution that the numbers appear so dramatic in part because Illinois had such a long way to come. Others are somewhat critical of the state's emphasis on adoption as a long-term solution to foster-care problems.

The main goal has been to get kids out of the limbo of foster care and into a more stable situation. "Permanency is so important," says Mrs. AuBuchon. "A child needs to know that even on their baddest day they're not going to lose their home. A foster child often feels that's held over them: If I mess up, I have to leave."

Recent foster-care success in Illinois stands in sharp contrast to the state's checkered past. In 1993 a child died after being returned to a mother now widely regarded as being mentally ill. Intense media coverage set off what has been described as one of the nation's worst foster-care panics. The pendulum swung dramatically in favor of removing kids from troubled homes.

The foster-care population in Illinois exploded from approximately 25,000 kids to the 1997 high of 52,700, and by all accounts the system turned nightmarish. Courts were clogged and caseworkers so overloaded that they were unable to make good decisions. …