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
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
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
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
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