As soon as Bette Handon gets foster children in her home, she starts teaching them what she calls survival skills--no matter how young they are. "You teach them how to turn on the stove without burning the house down," says Handon. "How to open a can. How to scramble eggs or fix toast in an oven or a toaster if they have one at their home. It's important they learn this, even if they're three or four. Because when mama's passed out somewhere, they're going to get hungry."

Across the country, the return of children to parents who are unable or unwilling to care for them is a basic truth of the child-welfare system. It's also part of the reason longtime foster parents like Handon (not her real name) are getting out of the profession. After twelve years as a foster mother for several Colorado counties, having played surrogate mom to a total of 49 kids, Handon says she can't take it anymore.

And she is not alone. Foster parents from around the state echo her frustration at the endless circle followed by so many children placed in the system: being yanked out of their homes, placed in state care, then "reunified" with birth parents who may be chronic drug addicts--or worse. Carole Jenny, a physician who heads Children's Hospital's Child Advocacy and Protection team, describes the phenomenon this way: "We've seen babies--horribly battered--who are inherently adoptable at that age. But Mom goes to a six-week rehabilitation program and gets the kid back. Then she flakes out after a few weeks and--presto--we see the kid again." By the time the state concludes that the parents of that inherently adoptable child are never going to be able to cope with parenthood, says Jenny, the child is often either so damaged--or so old--that he becomes inherently unadoptable.

The wasting of childhoods in a bureaucratic system isn't caused by a shortage of adoptive parents. Rather, it's an outgrowth of federal and state policy regarding reunification--a policy born of the deinstitutionalization craze of the 1960s and nourished thirty years later by a belief prevalent in the social-work field that removing kids from predominantly poor households to middle-class homes constitutes cultural--and often ethnic--bias.

The State of Colorado spends about $83 million per year in combined federal, state and local funds to feed and house the nearly 13,000 kids it cares for annually. About three-quarters of that money comes from federal funds--and thanks to a controversial federal law, it arrives with a condition attached: that the return of children to their birth parents be the primary goal. That law is known by its federal statute number: 96-272. It says that once a judge makes a child a ward of the state, the state agency must document its efforts to reunify the family. And the judge, who has ultimate power over placement, must base his decisions on that goal.

In Colorado, state law mimics its federal counterpart, demanding "judicial reviews" every six months at which social workers must document their reunification efforts. It's a requirement that leaves little time for anything other than reunification efforts, creating stacks of paperwork and cutting into the work schedules of already overburdened social workers. On top of that, a federally mandated "permanency planning" hearing is required eighteen months after a child is declared a state ward. At that hearing, the social worker and the judge must decide whether the family is "never going to be ready"--a conclusion the federal law makes almost impossible to reach.

Adoree Blair, a foster parent in Arapahoe County, says 96-272 essentially forces social workers and judges to return kids to homes that everybody involved realizes aren't prepared to handle them--just to maintain federal funding. "We find kids that go home for one day, get hurt, and come back out," says Blair. "One day, rehurt, and then they can come back into the system for a full eighteen months. All fully funded."

Pamela Day, the Washington, D.C.-based director of family services at the Child Welfare League of America, disputes Blair's vision of a system driven by funding concerns, noting that 96-272 also includes strong language emphasizing the safety and well-being of children. The law does provide certain protections for children who are in immediate danger of bodily harm. But after the initial separation, its emphasis on reunification makes a determination of parental unfitness difficult--even in cases where evidence of prior abuse is overwhelming.

As interpreted by child-welfare agencies throughout Colorado, the federal mandate has the practical effect of moving kids "through the system"--so many days here, so many days there, with "home" always the ultimate, if unlikely, destination. Children grow up in the system, developing more and more behavioral problems while their chances of adoption slip quickly away with each passing year.

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Michelle Johnston