How Permanency Planning Came to North Carolina

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 8 No. 3, "Growing Up Southern." Find more from that issue here.

In North Carolina, a handful of influential citizens and public officials have successfully completed the ponderous process of changing state laws and capturing funds to aid a minority population — children in crisis, children without homes. Thousands of children are tangled in the web of the foster care system. Before advocates documented their dilemma and moved to ease their plight, children dangled there in unknown numbers and circumstances, powerless to help themselves because they are isolated, they are poor, they have few legal rights, and they cannot vote. These conditions still hold true, but there is a new impetus towards freeing children from the system. 

At its best, a foster care system provides temporary homes or institutional shelter for children who, for a variety of reasons, cannot stay with their biological parents. At its worst — and as national exposes have revealed of late — the system removes more children than is necessary and then loses sight of its original goals: to aid the natural family and return the child home, or to terminate parents’ legal rights in hopeless situations and free the child for adoption. 

Recent national attention on the foster care system has exposed shockingly large numbers of children taken into state custody and then lost for years in what is commonly called “foster care drift.” Jan Brukman, an anthropologist who studied foster care extensively through the Center for the Study of the Family and the State (within the Public Policy Institute at Duke University), summarizes: “Children in foster care actually get lost to the agencies charged with overseeing their future, a clear function of the rapid turnover of caseworkers in social service agencies, the shoddy, inconsistent and in complete information obtained on children in foster care, and the generally overburdened and underfinanced ‘anti-system’ that is foster care in the U.S.” 


The extent of the problem is yet unknown because of poor record-keeping in the foster care bureaucracy. Recent estimates are that between 500,000 and 750,000 children nationwide exist in some sort of foster care arrangement. Over half of these children remain in state custody more than two years and are moved from their foster families or institutions once or twice during their stay in the system; almost 20 percent are moved more than twice, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, a private non-profit child advocacy organization in Washington, DC. In 1979, the Children’s Bureau of HEW reported that 100,000 kids had been in the system at least six years. Obviously, for a significant number of children, foster care is not a temporary solution at all. 

Seventy years ago, President Teddy Roosevelt stated publicly that children should not be removed from their homes for reasons of poverty alone. Yet poverty and its accompanying characteristics — lack of education, joblessness, inadequate mental care, deficient housing, and lack of resources to prevent and cope with family breakdown — have continuously supplied the foster care system with its wards. The increase in foster care this century has been proportionately larger than the overall population growth, as poverty has been exacerbated by fragmentation of traditional community and kinship ties in a mobile and industrial nation. 

In 1959 a study by Henry Maas and Richard Engler, Children in Need of Parents, revealed that only 25 percent of the children placed in foster care ever returned to their natural parents. In 1963, Helen R. Jeter discovered that the only plan public agencies had for two-thirds of the children in their care was to continue their placements. (See Children, Problems and Service in Child Welfare Programs.) Then, in 1978, in the midst of belated national awakening to the crisis, Alan R. Gruber reported in Children in Foster Care that most children are removed by the state from so-called “high-risk” families — but the agencies were doing little or nothing to aid the natural family so the child could return home. Although there are cases in which children must be held for longer periods of time by the state — when parents abandon a child or when a single parent is incarcerated and there are no relatives to take responsibility, for example — still, Gruber wrote, two-thirds of the children he surveyed had come into state custody for temporary placement only. And there they remained for years. 

When children are shuttled from one set of strangers to another foster family home, when every home or institution is temporary for year after crucial year of childhood, irrevocable emotional damage occurs — so says common sense. Research about the long-term effects of foster care is controversial and inconclusive. But public realizations of the possible emotional damage and the certain pain that children in foster care suffer — together with considerations of the long-term costs to the state as these children grow up, often requiring continued welfare services or even incarceration, not to mention the burgeoning expenses of the foster-care system itself — all have triggered a unique coalescing of private and public interests for reform. 

In North Carolina, as nationally, some social services agencies are welcoming, even eliciting, the aid of leading citizens and child advocacy organizations in a mutual attempt to gain the support of the highest policymakers and lawmakers for what must be termed an establishment-approved reform plan. The name of this reform is permanency planning. Permanency planning attempts to eliminate one of the worst aspects of the existing system: the long “drift” of children through foster families and institutions. In June, 1980, Congress approved, and President Carter signed, a bill which may institutionalize permanency planning nationally, if the requested money is in fact appropriated. 

Now, at all levels in the foster care system, the rhetoric is that in most cases biological parents can supply the best home for their children. Failing that possibility, permanency planners stress that the parents’ rights should be legally sundered, freeing the child for adoption. If neither of the first two options is possible, then social services agencies are expected to locate a long-term foster home for the child. Integral to the permanency planning method is a mandatory public review of each child’s case, both in the courtroom and within the social services agency, to ensure that there is a permanent placement plan for the child and that efforts are underway to institute that plan. In localities and states where permanency planning has recently been incorporated into the foster care system, citizen volunteers are sometimes being drawn into the review process. The volunteer’s role is to act as an advocate for the “best interests” of the child and to serve as a buffer between the sometimes antagonistic forces of judicial process and foster care services. Jan Brukman describes the meeting between caseworker and judge as “the flashpoint of the system, the point where two professional competencies — and often two generations of values and morals — can come into conflict.” Case workers and judges may accuse each other of being either too ready to terminate parental rights, or not ready enough. Brukman adds, “Coordinating these professionals is a gargantuan managerial problem, only one of the many reasons permanency planning for foster care is just now officially getting under way in North Carolina.” 

Permanency planning also strongly favors the court appointment of a lawyer to represent the child and urges the rewriting of juvenile legal codes to define more clearly the rights of birth parents as well as the grounds for terminating those rights. Definitions of “neglect,” “abuse” and “dependency” — primary causes for removing children from their homes — are disturbingly vague, and thus open to interpretation by the various professionals and citizen volunteers involved in a child care (see Sarah Ramsey’s article, p. 76). In North Carolina, for example, state law defines a neglected child as one who does not receive “proper care, supervision or discipline ... or who has been abandoned; or who is not provided necessary medical care or other remedial care recognized under state law; or who lives in an environment injurious to his welfare.” 

In most cases, the individuals who influence the outcome of children’s custody cases — social workers, lawyers, psychologists, judges, foster parents and citizen volunteers — are far removed from the poverty that causes “neglect,” “abuse” and “dependency.” Traditionally, the people involved in deciding custody cases have been inherently suspicious of poor people and unimpressed by the strong bonds which exist, despite hardships, between children and their natural parents. In Children in Foster Care, Gruber quotes the findings of The State Charities Aid Association of New York which, in 1960, studied the original home situations of 100 children in foster care and decided that over three-fourths of the families “had such a serious degree of social and economic incompetence as to render them in all probability beyond the hope of salvage for the particular child.” 

Value judgements, motivated by upper-class charitable mentalities, have contributed in numerous cases to children being removed from their homes and then never allowed the chance to return. The national permanency planning philosophy has turned many heads in the direction of the biological families, to examine more closely the possibilities of reunification, to save costs to the state and to allow children at least a chance of growing up in a caring family. The new reform plan does not directly emphasize the need to increase services and support payments to poor families. This aid is left to the discretion of advocates and officials within each state, and in most states remains in the realm of theory, not reality. 

In North Carolina, the new reform movement has concentrated on creating a new permanency planning structure — atop the old bureaucracy. Reforms of the system were unquestionably necessary to protect children from the impacts of bureaucratic indifference and lack of resources. But permanency planning has little effect on the original causes which turn children into wards of the state in the first place. 

Still, bringing permanency planning to a state traditionally resistant to supporting social services has required a great deal of creative action, coalition building and personal commitment. 


The model program which North Carolina permanency planning advocates and those in other states used for their reform efforts began in Oregon in 1973. A grant from the Children’s Bureau of HEW initiated the demonstration project there, called “Freeing Children for Permanent Placement.” Through aggressive planning, casework techniques and legal action, 90 percent of 520 “hard-to-place” children selected for the project were removed from the temporary foster care system: 27 percent returned to their natural parents, 52 percent had parental rights terminated and secured adoptive homes, and 11 percent were placed with relatives or with a long-term foster family. 

To spread the word about their success, the Children’s Bureau funded an outreach program from Oregon to other interested states, providing the uninitiated with staff training, technical assistance and how-to literature for implementing permanency planning. Over a four-year period, the outreach has touched almost every state in some way. Virginia was one of the first Southern states to adopt the Oregon model, and within two years reported a reduction of 2,000 from the 12,000 children in the state’s foster care system. Some aspects of permanency planning had been included in the programs of five other Southern states (Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia) before social services officials and child-care professionals in North Carolina came on board in 1978. 

Sylvia Stikeleather, director of Foster Care Services within North Carolina’s Division of Social Services, traveled to Oregon in 1978 to study the model program. Also visiting Oregon that year was Pat Gustaveson of Group Child Care Consultants, which is affiliated with the University of North Carolina School of Social Work. Both women returned to North Carolina determined to incorporate what they had learned into their programs. The Division of Social Services then invited staff from the Oregon outreach program to conduct workshops, meetings and seminars across the state, involving social workers, judges, foster parents and concerned citizens. Child advocacy organizations in the state were eager to hear about any reform plan. But most North Carolina legislators and top-level administrators were yet unaware of the need for reform. 

Clearly, an urgent need for child advocates in the state was to document the extent of the damage being done to children in the foster care system. “The state didn’t even have a handle on the number of children in custody,” a statistician in the Department of Administration recently recalled. “Accountability and planning are impossible without these basic figures.” 

In early 1978, the Governor’s Advocacy Council for Children and Youth undertook the project of compiling facts and figures about foster care in the state. Created in 1971 by the governor to monitor programs for children, the Council has a small staff in the Department of Administration. John Niblock, the director of the Council, says, “The Children’s Defense Fund was conducting a national study of foster care [since published in the book-length report entitled Children Without Homes] and there was a lot of national attention on the problems. No one in North Carolina knew what the problems were - they suspected, but they weren’t sure. So we borrowed some of the questions that the Children’s Defense Fund was asking in other states and applied them to our own system.” In December, 1978, the Council published “Why Can’t I Have A Home?” — and lifted the veils of misinformation and confusion which had shrouded North Carolina’s foster care system from public review. John Niblock says, “The questions we asked weren’t complex, but the answers were elusive.” 

One reason for the obscurity of figures prior to the Council’s report was that the state’s records followed dollars spent on children, not the children themselves. With each new placement, a child was identified as “new” to the system, even if she or he had been in state custody for a number of years. Thus, the first recommendation of the report was that the state establish a computerized tracking system to monitor the progress of children through the system. 

This standard procedure of operating blindly year after year is not unique to North Carolina. In 1975, for example, the Children’s Defense Fund surveyed 140 counties in the nation and found that child welfare officials could not provide data on the race of 54 percent of the children in out-of-home care; the age of 49 percent; length of time in care for 53 percent; number of moves for 87 percent; and the legal status of 73 percent. 

In North Carolina, the Council uncovered prevailing conditions about foster care in the state to match those coming to light nationally: 

• At least 10,000 children are known to be in the state’s foster care system. Of these, 8,000 were in foster families at the time of the study, while 2,000 were held in child care institutions or group homes. 

• The average child in the system has already spent 40 percent of his or her life in foster care, without a permanent home. Significantly, the proportion of children remaining in foster care five years or more increased from 5.4 percent in 1973 to 17.4 percent in 1978. 

• Fewer than 10 percent of these children are orphans. 

• The natural parents of North Carolina’s foster children average $3,150 in yearly income, eight years of schooling and 50 percent unemployment. The majority are divorced or single. 

• “Child abuse” and “neglect” are the major reasons children are placed in state care. The other major cause is “dependency,” which means that the family is unable (due to poverty, perhaps, or alcoholism or a number of other causes) or unwilling to support the child. 

• Once a child has been removed from its birth family, the majority of parents lose contact with their offspring. Yet natural parents interviewed for the study strongly contended that if social workers had intervened or offered services earlier, the children could have stayed at home. Likewise, half of the judges who responded to the Council’s questionnaire believed that foster care placement could be prevented by parental training and counseling services. In numerous cases, lack of family financial resources was the sole reason for removing the child. 

• More factors are at work in the state to encourage removal of children from their natural families than to prevent it. In 1978, the Council found that Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) payments reached at best only 21 percent of the families in need. Medical care and mental health treatment were provided to only 15 percent and 11 percent, respectively. Services to families with child-raising problems were rare: only seven percent of the natural parents inter viewed had received parental counseling; five percent were provided with child-abuse counseling; and only three percent had the advantage of day care. 

When asked what services would have enabled them to keep their children, the natural parents spoke most often of financial assistance through AFDC, food stamps, job placement, housing assistance and financial counseling. 

• North Carolina pays natural parents less in AFDC support to keep their children than it does foster parents for those same children. Overall, the study revealed a state-level willingness to pay 150 percent more to keep a child outside his or her original family. And the average cost of holding a child in one of the state’s foster care institutions is $6,161 a year — almost twice the average yearly income of natural families and twice the average yearly cost of maintaining a child in a foster family. • Foster parents subsidize the state by paying $10 million out of their own pockets for the care of foster children. Also, foster parents receive the same amount in board payments for an adolescent child as they receive for a younger child; they must spend about $1,100 more a year for a 16-year-old than for a one-year-old. 

Tax Cuts vs. Kids  

By Lanier Rand Holt


In 1979 a sizable surplus existed in the North Carolina general fund, and the legislature caught the national epidemic of tax-cut fever. Due to the impact of inflation, which increased revenues faster than expenditures, the legislature and Governor Hunt decided that the state could afford roughly $50 million of permanent tax relief. In arguing over how to distribute the sur plus, the majority of the lawmakers said they wanted to “help the people” with these tax cuts, even though the cuts spelled doom for many of the state’s human needs. What did the taxpayers “gain” - and what did the state’s children lose? Many disturbing deficiencies in the quantity and quality of public services can be attributed to the North Carolina leaders’ preferences for tax cuts. 

The legislature voted to cut taxes by $57 million over two years by allowing a 10 percent increase for all personal income exemptions and the standard deduction for those not itemizing expenses and by increasing the $600 dependency exemption by $100 per year of the biennium. The cut was supposedly designed to assist families with children since dependency exemptions were increased, but this goal could have been pursued more directly. North Carolina taxpayers already paid less per capita in state and local taxes than did residents of 45 other states, and less per $1,000 of personal income than in 38 states. The 10 percent increase in exemptions and deductions grants relief most effectively to people in upper-income brackets. For the average family of four earning about $8,000 and using the standard deduction, the savings would not exceed $40.00, or 55 cents per month per family member. And if this family has handicapped members, poor relatives, takes in a foster child or needs day care, the tradeoff between this tax savings and the human services lost through the cut in revenue is undesirable in the extreme. 

When the tax cut passed in 1979, the state did not provide for a litany of children’s and families’ basic needs: 

• Foster parents are paying out-of-pocket costs of $10 million a year because of insufficient state board payments for foster care. 

• There are no state facilities for evaluation, treatment and education of emotion ally and mentally disturbed youth. Courts and other agencies have nowhere to refer the troubled children they see. 

• Multi-handicapped children are placed out of state because of the lack of residential treatment facilities in North Carolina. 

• Public school programs for exceptional children, mandated by state and federal laws, need an additional $40 million. 

• Many young people in training schools are living in decrepit and understaffed facilities. 

• More than 1,200 eligible children remain on waiting lists for day care because adequate placement is unavailable. 

• Lack of subsistence income and poor nutrition are making it impossible for many parents to “raise a new generation.” More than one million state residents live at or below the federally defined poverty level. Only 193,000 receive Aid to Familes with Dependent Children (AFDC), but even those receive only a maximum of $210 for a family of a mother with three children — 33 percent less than the national average. If the mother’s husband lives with the family — even if he is unemployed — the family cannot receive benefits for the children, a policy which does not encourage family stability. Often these families cannot buy enough food. Only 52.5 percent of those eligible for food stamps receive them. The maximum allowable income is $596 for any food stamp assistance. 

Other generations have accepted racial discrimination and “blaming the victim” as reasonable motivations for historical neglect in meeting public needs. In the 1980s, tax cuts are the fashionable excuse. Poverty lies at the root of most family breakdowns which result in state removal of children. If North Carolinians are unwilling to use available public resources to support families, the goal of preventing foster care — and other state interventions in poor people’s families - are unrealistic aims. 

• The average child stays in foster care twice as long as the average foster care worker stays on the job, making individual and consistent attention to a child’s case nearly impossible. Most caseworkers are overburdened, under trained and underpaid, reports the Council. Because of excessively high caseloads - up to 80 cases a worker in some North Carolina counties, with an average load of about 25 — combined with administrative duties and paperwork, caseworkers spend only 12 per cent of their time — an average of 48 minutes a month per child — on direct, in-person contact with their foster children. Yet this social worker in many cases has sole control over the child until a court review of the case is held, which in many cases happens infrequently and sometimes not at all. 

• Legislation passed in 1977 instructed district court judges to provide legal representation for children in cases of alleged neglect or abuse. The judge could appoint a lawyer for the child, called a guardian ad litem, who would serve as an investigative arm of the court, with powers to obtain confidential information from files, natural parents, foster parents, caseworkers and others involved. The guardian ad litem then advises the court about the best plan for the child. The Council discovered that almost 40 percent of the judges were not appointing guardians ad litem in all of their abuse and neglect cases. 

• Also in 1977, North Carolina passed a law requiring judges to bring a foster child back to court for a thorough review after the first six months and yearly thereafter, to ensure that some kind of long-term placement plan had been formulated. But the Council found that about 60 percent of the state’s district court judges were uncertain about how to conduct a case review or who should schedule it — social services or the court. Judges who did conduct court reviews did so inconsistently: instead of consulting with all persons involved with a child, judges who responded to the Council’s questionnaire indicated they rely most on social workers or the child’s file for their custody decisions. Least considered, said the judges, were advice and information from the children and their natural parents. 

• Of 290 children’s progress reports surveyed, the Council found that in almost half the cases the child was removed from one foster home and placed in another with no reason given. For the other half, reasons had little to do with the child’s wishes or behavior: almost 80 percent of the children were removed because of the personal needs or changes in the foster family. 

• In the five-county survey, the average child had been placed in two foster homes in less than four years; about 10 percent were in five or more homes; three children had already been moved 10 times! John Niblock wrote, “Foster care ‘drift’ . . . leads to the child being shunted from one temporary foster home to another, with the resulting loss of attachment and inability to form healthy emotional relationships. . . . The overall impression is that of paper cutouts of young children, alone and helpless, being driven to and fro at the mercy of vagrant winds.” 


In early 1979, Sylvia Stikeleather initiated an eight-county demonstration project — based on the permanency planning model — out of her Foster Care office in the Division of Social Services. Because there were no state funds available for the project, she asked for voluntary participation and contacted all of the county’s social services departments. 

To qualify, a local agency had to select one social worker whose caseload could not exceed 16 children (which, without additional staff, meant that services were reduced to a number of other children during this time). The counties also had to agree to participate in state training sessions, commit some of their supervisor’s time to permanency planning efforts, locate adequate legal assistance, provide support services to the families of the children in the experiment, and step up adoption recruitment efforts. By February 1, 1979, Stikeleather had selected counties that were representative of the state’s diversity. 

During the year, she provided consultation and workshops for those eight counties on case planning and utilization of legal assistance to ensure that the court proceedings resulted in a permanent home for the child. The year’s results in terms of placements were impressive: of the 370 children in the pilot program, 238 were returned home or placed with relatives; 59 were placed through adoption; 21 were in the legal process preceding adoption; eight remained in long-term foster care; and 24 had “plans pending” with hopes that some might return home. The project’s success was later provided as evidence to the state’s administration and legislature that permanency planning was both cost-effective and humane. 

It is worth noting, however, that the children whose numbers added up to success in this demonstration project were all under the age of 12. Teenagers are more difficult to place in permanent homes; half of the children in North Carolina’s foster care system are 11 or older. Obviously, Stikeleather was determined to achieve good results in this project in order to sell permanency planning to the state’s policymakers. She defends the project’s integrity, saying that the children served were both black and white, and that other social workers in the county picked up the children dropped from the caseload of the designated permanency planning worker. 


While Stikeleather was conducting the demonstration project aimed at providing the state with proof of the viability of permanency planning, Group Child Care Consultants (GCCC) of the UNC School of Social Work — the group Pat Gustaveson represented when she went to Oregon in 1978 — received a $100,000 grant from the Children’s Bureau of HEW. This grant, from the same agency that funded the Oregon project, was designed to step up the pace of transition in North Carolina from “foster care drift” to permanency planning. Specifically, the program’s aim was to win friends in high places for the ideals of permanency planning. GCCC hoped to educate key representatives of middle-class organizations already involved in children’s issues in the state, as well as church leaders, county officials and directors of local social services departments, judges, legislators and state bureaucrats. 

Among the organizations represented in the GCCC year-long series of conferences were several chapters of the Junior League — a women’s club with chapters in the larger cities of North Carolina “devoted to promoting volunteerism and developing leadership” — which had lately been examining foster care within their communities. Also represented was an association of foster parents, originally formed to sound a collective voice of frustration within the foster care system. And there was Action for Foster Children, a broad-based organization of social workers, judges, child-care professionals and foster parents. President Jane Richardson, a foster parent herself, explains: “We formed an organization because we found that, individually, we couldn’t do anything.” A basic motivation for organizing Action for Foster Children, she adds, was the realization that children in foster care are moved from one home to another too often. 

In December, 1978, along with several dozen other influential representatives of public and private constituencies concerned about children, members of the Junior League, the foster parents’ association and Action for Foster Children attended the first of six two-day meetings at Quail Roost, an elegant estate used for conferences, located in central North Carolina. They were treated to workshops and seminars, films and slide shows, attractive and convincing literature, and speeches delivered by prominent permanency planning advocates. Interspersed with this was swimming, tennis, jogging along wooded trails, fine meals and, as 5:00 rolled around, discussions over cocktails in a scheduled “Attitude Adjustment Hour.”

John Niblock was a member of “The Steering Committee to Develop Leadership for Permanency Planning” (as the group called itself), as was Sylvia Stikeleather’s boss in the Division of Social Services. State Senator Willis Whichard also lent the power of his office to the movement, and later cosponsored permanency planning legislation in the North Carolina General Assembly. 

In the early stages of development, the steering committee was not in complete consensus about Niblock’s recommendations for reform of the state’s foster care system, based on his Governor’s Advocacy Council report, “Why Can’t I Have A Home?” Niblock and Sylvia Stikeleather, however, had already compared their recommendations and found them to be a perfect match. But when Stike leather submitted her permanency planning budget to Secretary Sarah Morrow of the Department of Human Resources, the cutbacks effected by that higher office amounted to “slaughter,” according to one official involved in the process; and when DHR passed the revised budget along to the State Budget Office, what was left of permanency planning was picked off the skeleton. Nothing remained of the budget for the General Assembly to even consider, much less approve. 

In Spring, 1979, therefore, Niblock presented to the legislators the Council’s recommendations — in the form of a special bill and budget request. Some members of the steering committee wrote letters to legislators pushing for passage of permanency planning; and they initiated letter-writing campaigns within their organizations. The foster parents’ association and Action for Foster Children also lobbied and held news conferences about the need for reform. 

Both the Council and the GCCC steering committee expected that at least a portion of the permanency planning funds would be appropriated that year. Perhaps their optimism was naive, since their reform, and the problems with the current foster care system, were still new to the legislators; moreover, the advocates were not united in an intensive effort to force the passage of their plan. Yet within the agencies and constituencies involved, the reform came highly recommended. The Council’s report and the GCCC program had received much attention, which seemed to indicate that the problems in the foster care system were widely, and publicly, recognized. “It seemed that the climate was right,” says Pat Gustaveson, the permanency planning consultant from GCCC. “With national attention drawn to the issue, solid information in the literature, a state pilot program that was working, and a great deal of local interest statewide, we hoped to be able to move ahead in 1979.” 

The reform advocates believed that the biggest obstacle to securing funding in 1979 would be the tax-cut fever which had infected Governor James Hunt, as well as many legislators. So they emphasized, in letters and in the legislative halls, that if permanency planning could reduce the average length of stay in foster care by even 10 percent, the investment would more than pay for itself. The state tracking system alone would reduce the number of children staying in foster care unnecessarily long, said Niblock; the system would cost about $76,500 to install and operate for the biennium and would more than pay for itself in the first year of operation. Also, costs to the state are compounded when the disturbed drifters from the foster care system end up in more restricted institutions: Niblock reported that more than a fourth of the children in North Carolina’s training schools were sent there directly from foster care placement. 

These cost-benefit projections, revealing the advantages to the state of reducing the number of children and length of stay in foster care, were heady concepts in the world of public service expenditures. 

An additional reason for the advocates’ optimism was that in 1979 - “The International Year of the Child” — Governor Hunt had become increasingly vocal in his commitment to the well-being of children in North Carolina. As chair of the Southern Growth Policies Board that year, he was the figure head for the Board’s “New Generation” stance, a broad scenario which, through studies, leadership workshops and conferences, publicly declared the need for improved education, health and housing for children in the Southern states. With Hunt at the helm, with constituency and citizen backing, and with support from the Division of Social Services, permanency planners were confident that their budget request would be approved. 

But when the governor’s proposed 1979-80 budget emerged from the Legislative Advisory Budget Committee, the total permanency planning special request had been left out. “No one knew exactly why,” Gustaveson reflected. “Maybe the governor thought other people would be able to take on that particular battle. Maybe our cause was too new to the legislature.” 

Disappointed by the setback, the Council and some of the steering committee members resolutely stepped up their efforts in the General Assembly throughout the course of the 1979 session, and their work showed results — not a dramatic victory but an unusual concession from the legislature. Even though the special bill request had not received the support of Governor Hunt, the legislators agreed to consider a permanency planning budget in the 1980 short session. 

Other pieces of legislation of interest to the Council and steering committee fared better in the 1979 session than the permanency planning appropriations bill. Foster care board payments were increased somewhat; added to the juvenile code were mandatory appointment of a guardian ad litem in child abuse and neglect and dependency cases, and a provision allowing the appointment of an attorney for indigent parents. And the court review procedure was clarified — specifying that the district court judge must consider what services had been offered to the natural family before taking a child into custody, must obtain a permanent plan for the child and must take into account information and advice of foster parents and natural parents before deciding custody. 

As the 1979 session of the General Assembly adjourned, it was clear to the advocates of reform that their lobbying efforts in the months preceding the 1980 short session would be crucial. Only state spending for permanency planning would allow the Division of Social Services to hire new staff and launch its reform program. 

As the GCCC “leadership training” project drew to a close, the most active members of the steering committee decided to continue their work. They formed the Coalition for Foster Children, including in its ranks some of the members of the steering committee and some new representatives of state organizations such as the League of Women Voters, the Black Child Development Institute of North Carolina, the Smoky Mountain Area Mental Health Center, and the North Carolina Association of Black Social Workers — thus broadening their base of support and, significantly, including a few more black representatives in what had previously been an almost all-white committee of advocates for a system in which half the foster care children are black. 

John Niblock was the First president of the Coalition, though he remained in that position only a few months, just long enough to ensure that the Governor’s Advocacy Council and the Coalition could present a unified front to the rest of the state. They began holding news conferences in different parts of the state, inviting local legislators to speak up about permanency planning. Each of their organizations joined in the lobbying efforts in their communities and at the state level. 

The second president of the Coalition, Betty Rose (who still holds that office), beams as she tells of her own efforts during that time. She first became interested in foster care reform as a member of the Junior League in North Carolina’s capital city of Raleigh. The League assigned Rose to investigate foster care in the community; in doing so, she met Jane Richardson, president of Action for Foster Children, and joined that organization as well. When the Coalition was formed, Richardson drew Betty Rose into that effort also, to represent the Raleigh Junior League. 

“When I was lobbying, I’d wear three hats,” Rose says. “If the person I was talking to thought the League was a good thing, I’d say I was from the League.” Other Coalition members did the same, speaking to community and business clubs or pursuing legislators — and wearing the multicolored cloak of several influential positions and organizations.

Perhaps the Coalition’s most inspired strategy was the polite pressure they continually applied to Governor Hunt in the months preceding the 1980 session. Several of them appeared at each of the governor’s six hearings, in different sections of the state, in which he gathered “grassroots” opinions prior to formulating his policies and goals for the coming year. At one such hearing, says Betty Rose, Governor Hunt appeared, flanked by the heads of several key departments, including Secretary Morrow of DHR; Rose waited for her chance, then stood and said, “Governor Hunt, if we are really concerned about children, let’s not forget about those in foster care.” A discussion about permanency planning ensued. The persistent campaigners — aided by increased media exposure — began to achieve their desired effect, to the embarrassment of the “New Generation” governor.

Suddenly, to the surprise of all child advocates in the state, Secretary Sarah Morrow of the Department of Human Resources “redirected” $750,000 of federal child welfare funds to the cost of implementing permanency planning. She explained that the money was not being robbed from the existing foster care system. Rather, the funds had been held for some years by the State Budget

Office to conserve state funds; by freeing that money and using it for the existing foster care

system, federal funds could be redirected into the permanency planning program.

The unexpected emergence of this money from the dusty coffers at the heart of state government was a tribute to the untiring efforts of child advocates. It is also another example of the kinds of bureaucratic and political decisions that frustrate delivery of public services in a system where fiscal knowledge is concentrated close to the governor and far away from county service providers and

their clients.

The $750,000 was more than half of what the Council had planned to ask for in the special budget request to the 1980 General Assembly. When the short session began, advocates lobbied strenuously in the legislative halls for the remainder of the funds needed for the permanency planning program.

This time the legislators responded, allocating all but $58,000 of the request. “It was something of a miracle,” commented Senator Whichard. “I think people are sold on the program.”

Also quietly passed in the short session was a controversial bill expanding the circumstances under which parental rights may be terminated. Under this new law, if a natural parent can be proven “mentally incompetent,” the offspring will be legally freed for adoption. Safeguards to this procedure, according to Niblock, are that the parent may be represented by a court-appointed attorney, and that the judge is supposed to require testimony from a psychologist or other professional who will state that the parent will never recover from his or her incapacity.

Coalition members and the Council were pleased with the expanded parental termination law, saying it may free up to 500 children in the state for adoption. They expect that this law, along with the newly funded permanency planning program, will remove a significant number of children from the limbo of foster care in the next few years.

Actual implementation of permanency planning will undoubtedly vary from county to county in North Carolina. As of this writing, $650,000 of the funds appropriated for the total program will be divided among the state’s 100 counties, if they request it. To receive the funds, counties must submit a plan to Sylvia Stikeleather’s Foster Care office in the Division of Social Services, specifying how they will meet the permanency planning criteria. Briefly, they are required to use the funds to set up a team of social workers to review cases regularly; hire a permanency planning specialist and keep his or her case load at a maximum of 16 children; receive training and supervision from the state; have

access to an attorney knowledgeable about foster care issues to aid in the necessary court processes; provide support services to natural parents and foster parents; set up an adoption recruitment service and refer adoptable children that they cannot place to the state level. And counties are being urged to concentrate their permanency planning efforts on children under 12, for whom placement is most likely to be successful.

One problem with North Carolina’s plan —which the advocates have decided they can live with — is the distribution formula. Permanency planning funds will not in all cases be placed where the need is most extreme. The Budget and Planning Office of DHR decided, despite Stikeleather’s and Niblock’s initial objections, to divide the $650,000 on the basis of each county’s population rather than on the number of children in foster care. Generally it is true that the most populous counties have the largest number of children in foster care. Yet dividing the funds by population means that appropriations to large counties will be in the tens of thousands of dollars, while the smallest counties will receive only a few hundred dollars.

The distribution formula is most strikingly inequitable for counties with large numbers of poor people. Compare, for example, Wake County (site of the state’s capitol) with Robeson County, which is notorious in the state for its poverty. In 1970, Wake County had a 23 percent non-white population; only 11 percent of its people existed below the federal poverty level. Robeson County in 1970 had a 60 percent non-white population, with 32 percent living in poverty. Since it had only a third of Wake’s population, Robeson can receive only a third of Wake’s permanency planning allocation, even though state records reveal that in June, 1980, there were 133 children in foster care in Robeson, a mere 39 children less than there were in Wake County that month. Out of poverty come the children of the foster care system, yet permanency planning will benefit Robeson County relatively little this year. 

Informal Adoptions

By Lanier Rand Holt


“I was 77 years old this last gone February. The two little orphan children, I raised them here with me. These little orphan children, mother dead and father dead too. I'm their great aunt. Me being the oldest one and me being their mother’s aunty and the oldest head, that’s how I come by them. So me and my husband raised them children from little bitty things.”

 — All Our Kin, by Carol Stack, 1974 

A strong tradition of self-help, born of necessity and nurtured with sacrifice and dedication, has grown up in the Southern black community. Historically, and except in rare instances today, black children have been considered “hard to place” by white adoption agencies. Nationally, black children are heavily over-represented in the number of children in foster care who are waiting for adoption. 

The assumption that few permanent homes are available for black children who have no homes is contradicted by Robert G. Hill’s book, Informal Adoption Among Black Families (National Urban League, 1977). Especially in the South, black families have built their own informal networks for adoption and foster care. Robert Hill documents the tradition of black families who have confronted poverty and crisis with self-reliance and a sharing of scarce resources to bring up their children. The extended family networks that Hill discusses are built on the knowledge (currently touted as a new insight in permanency planning) that children need the permanence and integrated identity that comes from having a family of their own. In the black community this family often includes more than two generations; most “informal mothers” are in fact grandmothers. 

Government social services spend much more to place children outside their homes than in assisting the children’s own families. The preference of the black community in day care, and in long- and short-term foster care, however, has been the extended family and home community, where natural parents often actively participate in decisions and care for their children. Sibling groups are considered especially “hard to place” by formal agencies, but the overwhelming majority of informally adoptive black families take in two or more children. 

According to Hill’s figures, more than 1.5 million black children in the United States live with extended relatives. While two-thirds of white children born out of wedlock are given up for formal adoption, 90 percent of the black children born out of wedlock remain in extended families. Less than one percent of black unwed mothers who keep their children live apart from their relatives. In contrast to the more isolated living patterns of elderly whites, half of all black families headed by elderly women include children who are not their own, and elderly blacks are more likely to take children into their own households than to move in with younger generations. 

Informal adoption is overwhelmingly a Southern phenomenon. Seventy percent of all black children living in relatives’ homes without their natural parents are Southern. In Alabama. Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi. Virginia and Louisiana, between 15 and 18 percent of all black families include children who are not natural or legally adopted children. Informally adopted children live in a fourth of the families headed by women in these states. 

Most of these families live in urban areas of the South. Informal adoptions are especially viable in smaller Southern urban com munities where grandmothers still live in the neighborhood, and neighborhoods are close-knit. The strengths of informally adopting families form a supportive community where day care, foster care, support for unwed and teenage mothers and preventions of crises like abuse and neglect are provided with a personal commitment and attachment and with shared values that cannot be matched by a bureaucratic approach. 

At the same time the problems these families confront threaten their continuity and keep them from getting the resources their children need. When economic conditions deteriorate, more and more children move into households where relatives are pooling resources to get by on less and less. Almost half of all black families below the poverty level do not receive the public bene fits they are now entitled to. All the services that public agencies ideally use to find permanent homes for foster children — especially adoption subsidies — and to reunite foster children with their natural families could assist the informally adoptive families as well as those on the social services roles. 

Child welfare resources for children whose parents cannot take care of them alone fall far short of what these children deserve. Most of the progress for black families and children has been quietly carried on in homes with children of all ages on the porch, and aunts, uncles and grandparents keeping watch. Most of the progress for public agencies lies ahead.

The rest of the funds appropriated for permanency planning (over $40,000) will be used to set up the state tracking system to strengthen the state adoption exchange, and to hire state-level permanency planning staff and supervisors. Stikeleather plans a head count of children helped by the new system in four to six months, and says, “I think the program will show results.” 

At a Coalition meeting held in August, 1980, the members rejoiced over their “pot of money” and questioned Sylvia Stikeleather extensively about the fine points of the system. They intend to continue their watch dogging efforts. Stikeleather assured the Coalition that the Department of Human Resources views permanency planning as a continuing program which, almost assuredly, will not require much advocacy effort for funds in the next few years. 

One Coalition member drew hearty laughter from the group when he reported that Governor Hunt is now saying publicly that permanency planning is one of the greatest accomplishments of his administration! 

The Coalition is now continuing to work on one aspect of permanency planning which must be incorporated county by county. Called the Children in Placement Program (CIP), it is a post-placement monitoring process for use by district court judges who hear placement cases of children removed from their homes because of alleged neglect, abuse or dependency. Already the recent changes in North Carolina law requires judges to peri odically review the child’s case, and to appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the child’s best interest. The CIP programs add new objectives: to include more citizens as monitors, to ensure that court reviews are indeed scheduled, to review case files, talk to children and their natural parents, their foster parents, their social workers, and then to act as the child’s advocate in the courtroom. 

In one model permanency planning county (Montgomery County, Alabama), a volunteer-staffed CIP project reduced the average length of time children spent in foster care from over three years to only five months. Of 357 children served by CIP during a seven-month period in 1978, 106 were returned to their parents and relatives, 23 were freed for adoption by terminating parental rights and 54 remained in foster care. 

CIP projects are underway in three of North Carolina’s 100 counties, and two other counties will begin the project in September, 1980. So far, these citizen-monitoring programs in North Carolina have come about through individual county initiative; one county recruited volunteers and then freed a staff person from social services to coordinate them. In another county, a coordinator will be hired partly with funds raised by the local Junior League, and Junior League volunteers are involved in the review process. 

The Coalition and the Governor’s Advocacy Council are nudging the CIP movement along: they are working with the state’s Social Services Commission to legalize citizen involvement in what traditionally has been a confidential process; it seems almost certain that soon citizens can be “deputized” into the process, thus allowing them into courts. Also, the Council has begun steering federal grants to counties interested in beginning projects. 


Members of the Coalition, the Council, and now the CIP volunteers, have several things in common: they share a concern for children caught in the limbo of foster care, and they are devoting time and energy to that cause. They represent or are individually recognized as powers in the state (“an interesting alignment of interests,” one observer labeled them). They are not challenging the bureaucratic system which structurally exhibits a distrust of the poor. Instead they are applying their efforts within it. And they are, by and large, far removed from the poverty and its symptoms which have enabled the foster care system to become what it is today. 

Members of the Coalition, especially, are shocked by natural parents who drink heavily, or who have no food in the house; they speak about the child covered with cigarette burns, the mother who lost contact with her child but still would not agree to legally terminate her relationship. One woman said, as if surprised, “Most abused children have an attachment to their parents. You let the child, he’ll go back to the parents that abused him.” 

Of course, they are equally horrified by stories of children “lost” in the foster care system. Another member of the Coalition told the story of an infant freed for adoption who nevertheless spent 18 years in various foster homes; another child was forgotten for years until his case file was discovered behind an office cabinet. And they speak about the heartbreak of children arbitrarily removed from foster parents whom they love. 

When asked if the Coalition’s long and vigorous reform campaign had perhaps skirted the problem of poverty for the majority of natural parents of foster children, one member responded: “I want AFDC payments to be higher, but when you are up to your armpits in alligators, it’s hard to concentrate on draining the swamp.” 

Interestingly, this same analogy appears, almost word for word, in a report from the Oregon project prepared for the Children’s Bureau of HEW, which likely was distributed by GCCC to permanency planning leaders in North Carolina. But in the Oregon project report, the alligator analogy is followed by a qualifier: “Nonetheless, what we really have to do is drain the swamp. We do have to get kids out of care and into permanent homes. But we also have to prevent children from entering care inappropriately in the first place.” 

Time will tell on permanency planning in North Carolina. Will the reform program in some indirect way aid the poverty-struck families which provide the foster care system with its clients? Or is permanency planning a fancy way for North Carolina to turn its back, once again, on people who lack the basic resources to raise healthy children? 

Most likely, permanency planning will reduce the number of children who drift for years through the foster care system. But will many of these children be returned, without the resources they need, to the same desperate home situations which originally motivated Social Services and the courts to take them into state custody? Plagued by these questions and others, Duke University anthropolgist Jan Brukman is less than jubilant about the motivations for permanency planning and its potential results in North Carolina. 

“These people convinced legislators with figures about how the cost of the foster care system will be reduced over the years with permanency planning. But permanency planning will be effective to the degree of resources put into it — more people and more money, more children will be placed. It’s like the Great Society programs of the ’60s — they proved to be expensive beyond any body’s reckoning. People just don’t have the data to predict whether permanency planning will cut costs. But that should be irrelevant. Children have to have homes.”   

Living in Someone Else’s House 

Joe, Denise and Cindy drift into breakfast separately, without speaking to each other. At 15, Joe has already been in 12 foster homes. He is white. Denise is 13, black, and was taken from her mother because the girl was going to bars with older men. Cindy is 15, white, has already had a baby, and her single mother kicked her out. Joe and Cindy get along fairly well, but Joe doesn't mind letting Denise know how racist he is. Talking to him about it doesn't help at all; he merely cites a long list of "parents" and friends who also hate black people. 

Denise calls Cindy her big sister, which Cindy tolerates. But all three of them squab bled until bedtime last night. This morning they are sullen. 

Social workers and the police know the emergency care group home where I work by its official name. Children's Haven. I try to avoid calling it that. Teenagers who come to the Home don't like to be called children and they don't relish the constant reminder of their dependence on the State. From the outside, at least, our house appears little different from other small, neat homes that line the streets in this part of town. 

Life inside is different. 

Cindy, Joe and Denise dawdle over their breakfast. They don't want to begin the morning chores. Like most teenagers, they despise mundane tasks — the degradation of cleaning a bathroom or washing dishes. I mention to them that school starts in a week because I'm thinking about how boring summer days are for them in the Home, but thoughts of school just trigger their bitterness. "I'm not going to school if my social worker doesn't bring me some money," Joe says. "I need some clothes, and I don't have any pens or paper." 

Cindy echoes, "I just won't go if she doesn't get the money before Tuesday." 

"Don't worry. We'll call her." 

Cindy persists: "Yeah, because whenever we want to do something, they always step in and say, 'She's in the custody of Social Services.' If they think they own us, they damn well better buy us what we need." 

"She cussed!” This from Denise who is particularly disturbed by the many house rules and therefore has memorized them. (Rule 8: There will be no profane language used in the Home.) 

I don't ask the kids where they will be going to school next week. They don't know. It will depend upon where in the county or the state they are placed. 

Joe says cruelly, "Cindy has to start ninth grade again." They were in the same school last year. "Just the first half of the year," she responds hotly. "If I do okay, I can start tenth grade after Christmas. And it wasn't my fault I missed so much school last year.” 

No one asks, and she doesn't explain, what caused her to miss school. Some things are understood without saying in the Home. 

Kids are brought here for a variety of reasons: some have been beaten by their mother or father, some could not be controlled by their families, many are from a series of foster families that didn't work out, and others have spent time in institutions, even mental hospitals. Neither the kids nor I know if they will remain in our comfortable three-bedroom Home for a few days or for the full 90 days allowed. Plans are made somewhere "out there" for their next placement, whether in still another foster family, an institution or, slim chance, back with their rehabilitated family or relatives. You don't have to be a psychologist to know these kids are hurting. That they have reached their teens in the foster care system means they likely will never secure a long-term and loving family. They know that. Greedily they consume whatever good comes their way, without reciprocating except in rare moments of contentment. 

Affection is transitory. Love, most often, is Sex between the beautiful people they see in glamor magazines or on TV. Jaded and bitter as the kids usually are, though, some of them are still trying. 

I found an unfinished letter beneath a stack of newspapers in the Home. On outrageously perfumed stationery, in large rounded hand writing, was an attempt to sustain a bond with a faraway friend, perhaps from another group home or institution: "Dear Lori, How are you? I am fine. I don't have nothing to say to you except I was thinking about you and hoping you was thinking about me." Donna, Rick and Jeff and I sat on the porch at dusk. Donna had a date coming at 7:00; the boys and I waited with her. She said, "If we go someplace without a clock. I'll tell him to drive me to the Kwik Pik to see what time it is." 

"If she's late, she won't be able to go out no more, will she?" Jeff asked. He's younger, and seems to have a crush on Donna. He watches her when she's talking, but looks away when she turns to him. An impossible spark: even if Donna didn't already have a boyfriend, the rules posted on the living room wall constantly remind them, "There will be no Sex in the Home." 

"Unless she has a good reason," I said. 

"Like, if we get a flat tire?" 

"Something like that." 

They're always pressing me to see how far they can go. "What if I was five minutes late, or 10?" "You should try to be on time," I said. "But I wouldn't start worrying about you after only five minutes. You could stop somewhere and call me if —" 

"Worry about me?" Donna interrupted, and she laughed. The boys laughed. "Why should you worry about me?" 

"Well, I might be scared that something had happened to you, like a car wreck." 

"Tell the truth, now," Donna said, suddenly serious, "why would you care if I was killed in a car wreck?" 

(Of course I didn't want her to die, but how could she know — or I know — that my easy sentiment was truly for her and not for "unfortunate children" in general?) The boys watched, waiting. Donna stared at me in bitter triumph, thought she had me on the spot. 

(We'd spent two days together — no major quarrels. I'd nagged them as little as possible about the chores, we'd driven 40 miles to a state park lake, one of the few places where swimming is free for these kids. All in all, it hadn't been a bad couple of days.) 

I said, "For the same reason you wouldn't like to hear that I was killed in a car wreck." 

She nodded, but Jeff wanted Donna to say more: "Would you care if she died?" 

"Of course!" she exploded, already satisfied with my reply and impatient with the younger boy. She leaned forward, looked up and down the street. "He's late . . . and we only have a few hours." 

Bobby is 14. He came into the Home with unbelievable energy to fix whatever needed fixing, to help with chores, to spend endless hours in whatever activity was offered. His spirit had been infectious; even the kids who poohpoohed group games or the few outings that Mrs. Bullock or I managed to line up were convinced by Bobby to join in. Mrs. Bullock is the full-time houseparent. One day she told Bobby that he was "her boy," meaning that she was happy to have him in the group. But he thought maybe she meant she'd like to adopt him. It took a few days to get that notion out of his head. 

Bobby became sullen, and refused to help Mrs. Bullock around the house or do anything with the group except make trouble. 

Mrs. Bullock took the job with the Home because her children were grown, and she wanted to help "those poor children." She says she draws her strength from the Bible. Her lectures to the kids also come from the Good Book. With two or three children in the Home, she can maintain control, even keep her sense of humor and perspective, throughout her shift. One week, though, she had five kids, and with that many the fear of Hell fades fast and the Unholy Spirit takes over. When I called from my other job during that week, to see how she was faring, Mrs. Bullock was going out of her mind. She doesn't have the physical ability to take the kids swimming, so they had been inside most of the week. Besides a TV and radio, and bits and pieces of games donated by families in the neighborhood, there is little in the Home to entertain the kids. They were bored, frustrated, full of wasting energies, and they had become chaotic, even destructive. Mrs. Bullock told me about the new hole in the wall, the ravaged mattress, about them setting off the smoke detector with all their cigarette smoke — and as if that wasn't enough, Ben had stood on a chair and held his cigarette to the device, setting it off again an hour later. Dishes had been smashed; the chores were undone. She paused frequently during our conversation to shout at the kids for running outside without permission, for burning some hot dog chile on the stove, for fighting over their TV programs, for picking up the extension phone to see who was talking about them, for pushing and yelling and bullying each other and particularly the smallest child. 

She said that Steven, who had never smoked before, was chain smoking along with the others, using his odd-job money to buy cartons of cigarettes. "I'm not finding him any more jobs," she said. "He just wastes his money." 

Being trapped in the Home with five kids had temporarily caused Mrs. Bullock to lose all her initial feelings of caring: "Ben's threatening to run away, to ride motorcycles with some friends. Well, he may have a good time or he may end up dead, but what can I do?" 

"Call their social workers. You have to get some help." 

"They're so busy," she said. "They have many more children in worse situations than these." 

"Call the director then. Demand that they provide more recreational activities, find a van, or pay for a movie, something.” 

"They don't have any more money in the budget for the Home. We're at the limit now." 

"Couldn't they even afford a group membership at the Y?" 

"I already asked. They can't afford it." 

"Well, this can't go on. It's bad for you and it's bad for the kids. They'd be better off almost anywhere at this point." 

"I don't know about that," she said wearily. 

We are given so little information about the children in the Home. A descriptive sentence or two, summations of alcoholism or beatings or years in foster care. How can we be sure that a temporary stay at the Home is less damaging for some kids than whatever they have experienced elsewhere? Like most people involved in the foster care system, we have become so swamped with daily trouble that we can't see clearly anymore. 

They don't want to get up this morning. I make myself some coffee, and start the bacon and pancakes cooking. Soon the fragrance, the promise of melted butter and syrup, draws Angie to the kitchen. I imagine Loretta Lynn looked this way when she was 15: delicate but tough, tousled black hair and chewed finger nails. She sings softly as she sets the table, happy today because she saw her "baby" last night, was allowed on a three-hour date with the construction worker she wants to marry. "I lost half those fingernails last night, just like you said." 

"I know, I found a couple on the floor this morning," I say. She spent hours getting ready for her date, curling her hair and trying different shades of eyeshadow, then she borrowed money from a boy in the Home to buy false fingernails from the drugstore. She couldn't eat her supper last night, partly nerves, but also because she didn't want to jar the nails before the glue dried. "When I'm high, I can hear every instrument, his stereo is so good. . . ." Then remembering who she's talking to, she adds, "But, you know, I didn't do nothing, I get high on just being with people, like a kind of natural high." 

"Yeah, sure." I sling her another pancake. 

She changes the subject. "Do you like to watch the Mike Douglas show?" 

"It's alright."

 "I like it. When I had bangs, people said I looked just like Mario Thomas." 

"Who's she?" 

"You don't know who Mario Thomas is? She had her own show on for years!"

"Guess I missed it."

"Don't you have a TV?" 

Angie's eyes are wide.  

"For a while I didn't. You know, you can find other things to fill up your time, without television, if you have to. Try to imagine if the TV was taken out of here. What would you do?"

She stops chewing, looks toward the living room to make sure the TV is still there, turns back to her plate. Shakes her head. Her face is blank.

So far, Angie is the most content of any kids I've been with in the Home. She knows what she wants — release from state custody, something all the teenagers want — and she knows how to get it. Marriage. She concentrates on that, and fills in the gaps of time with television. Because she has one foot in the next phase of her life, she's more willing than most of the kids to talk about her past. Several years ago she came home from school and found her mother dead, choked by her own puke. Her father is an alcoholic still. Angie stayed with her grandfather for a while until one night he started drinking and talking crazy and then shot himself in the head.

"I hear Dave moving around, but Linda is still in bed."

"Did you tell her to get up?"

"I've already asked her to three times."

"Asked her?" Angie laughs. "You gotta go in there and tell her to get her ass outta bed!"

Mary was afraid to sleep in the dark. I placed the lamp on the floor in the corner of the bedroom so the light wouldn't disturb the other girl in the room. In the morning I found Mary wrapped in a blanket and curled around the lamp. Her social worker told me later that the 13-year-old girl had been attacked, raped, one night when she was alone in the housing project where she sometimes stayed with her aunt.

She only stayed in the Home one night before she was placed with a new foster family. A few days later I heard through the grapevine that Mary had already left that family and was back with her aunt.