Jasmine beats the adoption odds for black children
By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Little Jasmine Davis was on the brink of going home. Her bags were packed and sitting in the living room of her foster parents' home.
Her mother had completed a drug rehabilitation program and stayed clean for 10 months. She'd gotten an apartment of her own. Jasmine had spent several weekends with her there and, more recently, most of a week.
Now a juvenile court judge had ordered the 3-year-old returned to her mother with the provision that an Allegheny County Children and Youth Services caseworker watch over them for a year.
The foster parents, Lee and Margaret Shaw of the North Side, knew this reunion of mother and child was supposed to be a good thing. They understood their job was to care for the little girl only until her mother could get her back.
But they were worried. Jasmine's mother had a history of relapses. And when Jasmine returned from visits with her, the child always seemed so sad.
That morning, as they waited for Jasmine's mother to pick her up, they got a call from the caseworker. They were not to let Jasmine go. The mother had used drugs the night before.
So Jasmine stayed with the Shaws. That was 1993, a time when there were tens of thousands of Jasmines in the foster care system nationwide black children who'd suffered neglect by crack-addicted parents.
White kids were abused and neglected, too. But black children were affected disproportionately. They're 15 percent of the child population, but 44 percent of all foster children. In urban areas such as Allegheny County, the percentage is even higher. Here, it's about 75 percent.
Poverty and crack, both of which also hit black communities disproportionately, are driving those numbers, most experts say.
Crack not only intoxicates, it obliterates maternal instincts. Babies are particularly vulnerable. They starve while their mothers trade their toys for crack. They suffer life-threatening sores beneath never-changed diapers. They learn no one responds when they cry. By the mid-1990s, nearly half of children removed from their parents were taken because they were ignored or forgotten, not because they were battered or broken.
Jasmine was one of the forgotten babies. At 14 months old, she was rushed to Children's Hospital with ulcerated diaper rash and labored breathing. Her condition was so bad that her mother, Valerie Davis, was convicted of endangering her welfare.
Knowing that history, the Shaws were relieved that Davis relapsed before she got Jasmine back. They didn't want Davis to have the chance to imperil Jasmine again.
After Davis lost that chance to get her daughter, she signed herself in and out of drug rehabilitation programs and sporadically visited, called and sent cards. But she also was arrested several times on new drug and assault charges.
As time passed, Davis began to fade as a parental figure in Jasmine's mind, and the Shaws took that place, even though she called them "Grandma" and "PaPa," as their 13 grandchildren did. CYS made no effort, however, to place a legal seal of approval on that change in relationships.
This also was true for hundreds of thousands of other children in foster care across the country. A major reason was caseworkers had become so overwhelmed with responding to the crises of the day, few had time to work on termination of parental rights and adoption.
The average time in foster care, which had dropped in the early 1980s, began to rise again by the early 1990s. Now it's three years for the typical child.
When Jasmine had been with the Shaws two years, they asked a judge if they could adopt her. They were 63 and had already raised five children. But Jasmine was very special to them.
The judge gave approval, but then nothing happened.
That was 1994, and Allegheny County's caseworkers were as overburdened as any in the country. But another reason nothing happened was peculiar to this county.
The director of CYS at that time, Mary Freeland, opposed adoption by foster parents. She said if it were allowed, CYS would be swarmed with foster parents intent on taking children from parents instead of being dedicated to helping return children.
During her four-year tenure, the agency completed fewer than 100 adoptions a year. As a result, by the time she left in 1995, CYS had a backlog of nearly 1,000 children awaiting adoption. Some were orphans because their parents' legal rights to them were terminated. For some, like Jasmine, the goal had been changed from reunification with parents to adoption by foster parents. But then CYS hadn't done what was necessary to terminate her parents' legal rights and complete the adoption.
The interim director who replaced Freeland immediately set about changing that. His name was Tim Pawol, and he believed loving foster parents, such as the Shaws, should be encouraged to adopt children who could not return to their parents. He established the "terminators," a group of CYS lawyers whose sole function was asking judges to sever parents' legal rights to their children so they could be adopted.
A year later, Marc Cherna was hired as the permanent CYS director. One of his missions was completing adoptions for the 1,000 waiting children. Cherna hired more caseworkers to finish the complicated paperwork necessary for termination and adoption.
The Shaws finally got their adoption application. They filled it out and told Jasmine. Gleefully, she asked, "You mean my name is going to be Shaw and I don't have to pretend anymore?" She started signing her school papers Jasmine Shaw.
In the Shaws' care, she'd grown from a 20-month-old toddler to an honor roll grade-schooler. She was ready for adoption. When her mother failed to show up for visits, she returned to the Shaws happy, skipping and singing.
The caseworker lost the first adoption application. The Shaws filled out a second. Then, they completed a third because the second expired when a year passed without the adoption occurring.
At this same time, Max Baer, admininstrative judge for Allegheny County's Family Division, was trying to resolve those sorts of bureaucratic problems and delays. He enlisted Pittsburgh's largest law firm to provide free legal help for the terminations and adoptions. He moved adoption hearings from Orphans Court judges, who knew nothing about the cases, to Juvenile Court judges, who had handled the cases from the day they were brought into court as abuse and neglect allegations.
And Baer began conducting hearings every Monday to find out what was holding up adoptions. He demanded information from caseworkers, lawyers and adoptive families. Why hadn't home studies been done? Why hadn't criminal records been checked? Where were the adoptive parents' physicals? Could this information be provided in a month? He pushed, and cases started to move.
Last year, 344 Allegheny County foster children were adopted. Other child welfare agencies are calling Cherna and Baer to find out how to copy their model.
All of this effort paid off for the Shaws a year ago this week. On May 13, 1997, Jasmine was adopted, five years after she was placed with them and one month after her mother's parental rights were terminated.
At the adoption hearing, the Shaws promised to love Jasmine as they did their natural children and to support and guide her. Jasmine's name was changed to Jasmine Davis Shaw, and the 6-year-old left the courtroom chanting, "Jasmine Shaw, Jasmine Shaw."
She'd never have to pack her bags again.