Family Values

Sue LaBella lives in a two-level home in Westminster, with white siding, a wooden fence, and two Labradors playing in the yard out back. It's the classic picture of the suburbs.

Inside the house, however, you won't find the typical nuclear family. Six-year-old Ray, a boy with thick black hair and heavy eyebrows, watches the door with an intent but lost gaze. Ray has Down's syndrome, and he has a cold. He's been tired and irritable the last few days, but today he zips around the first floor trailed by two dozen feet of oxygen tubing that is connected to his nostrils on one end and to an inert canister on the other.

He crawls into what in another home might be an ordinary family room. There's a TV, photos of kids on the wall and a poster of a Salzburg castle. But there's also an IV hooked up to a crib, and in another corner a ventilator hums quietly--there's the occasional warning chirp--and one blue tube and one white tube snake their way across the floor and into the neck of Chuck, a fifteen-month-old infant delivered prematurely whose dysfunctional lungs are kept expanded by the machine. Chuck has chubby cheeks and a tuft of copper hair and appears content to lie on his blanket--at least he's out of the hospital.

"I was never interested in getting married," LaBella says. "But I always wanted kids."

LaBella adopted an eight-year-old girl named Stacey who suffered a severe brain injury when she was two, which led to a stroke, which led to paralysis on her right side and poor eyesight. Now she has problems with memory and self-control, and three-fourths of her brain is dead. She has therapy three times a week.

LaBella also adopted a boy named Vincent Michael, who had been shipped around to four foster homes in less than a year.

There are seven kids in LaBella's home. The former computer-science major and nanny thrives on taking care of these children. With the help of Renee McAfee, a full-time nurse, LaBella's days are full with taking the kids to speech therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy, as well as with feeding them and watching over them. Several times during the course of an hour, Chuck's ventilator emits its warning bells, and McAfee and LaBella must constantly check to make sure all is well.

"It's the coolest machine I've ever learned," LaBella says.
With few exceptions, foster homes that are overseen directly by the county are not equipped to deal with the problems of LaBella's medically fragile charges. But LaBella contracts through Synthesis, a private child-placement agency. And, she says, without the agency's support, "I couldn't take another baby." Synthesis caseworkers have accompanied her to the hospital for children's surgeries, and they provide an extra set of wheels for trips to the doctor and to school, plus the seven weekly trips to therapy.

LaBella's home is drastically different from another foster home that's been in the news recently, where children also had been placed by a private agency. Three weeks ago, in the same town where LaBella lives, two-and-a-half-year-old Miguel Humberto Arias-Baca died from severe head injuries brought on by a "non-accidental trauma." The boy had been placed in the home of Rick and Evon Haney by an Englewood CPA called All About Kids.

The boy had bruises all over his body, and he had been badly beaten when the Haneys first took him to the hospital. The pair, it turned out, had prior arrest records. After $3,000 turned up missing from an after-school program she supervised at a Thornton elementary school, Evon Haney was arrested in December 1997 but later released. That case is still under investigation. Rick Haney was arrested in February 1997 and charged with drunken driving, careless driving and driving without a license. Police in Westminster had also visited their foster home a few years ago to investigate a reported sexual assault involving two foster children.

The child's death focused media attention on private child-placement agencies, which had previously been a relatively unnoticed element of a state child-welfare system overburdened by levels of bureaucracy, skyrocketing costs and antiquated data-collection methods that make it difficult to gauge whether children benefit from their time in the foster-care system.

Since the late Eighties, private child-placement agencies--some run for profit, others not--have emerged as pivotal players in a system that is seeing more children than ever before, at a younger age and with more serious problems. Last year, 6,288 kids in Colorado were taken out of their homes. Of those, 3,597 were placed in family foster care, and of those, 53 percent, or 1,906, were placed through private child-placement agencies.

The private placement agencies emerged in the mid-Seventies as an alternative way of getting handicapped kids out of institutions. "They were kind of warehouses," says Synthesis executive director Pam Hoggins, whose agency was one of the first handful of CPAs. "Multiply handicapped kids had no shot of living in the community," she says.

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T.R. Witcher

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