Foster family still hurting over the 'daughter' they didn't get to keep
By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
After they took away the baby who was supposed to be Nikki Brown's little sister, Nikki refused to sleep in her room.
The 7-year-old would curl up on the couch downstairs or sneak into her adoptive parents' bed, but she wouldn't go back to the room she'd shared for a year and a half with a foster sister. Six months later, she was still asking her mother to please get her another baby sister.
Christine Brown didn't think she could. At 48, she wasn't having any more babies of her own. And she had quit as a foster parent when Allegheny County Children and Youth Services returned this latest baby, Stacy, to her mother. This time, it had been just too hard to let go.
Christine and Randy Brown had opened their home to 83 foster children over 18 years. They understood that the foster parents' role was to care for the children until they could go home to their birth parents.
But Nikki and Stacy were different. Nikki's mother had delivered her at home, then stuffed her into a bag and left her for dead. The mother's rights were terminated and the Browns adopted Nikki on Feb. 7, 1996. After that, they asked CYS for another child they could adopt so Nikki would have a sibling near her age.
CYS gave them Stacy. She was 6 months old when she arrived at their house in Avalon. Stacy's mother, the caseworker said, had drug and mental health problems and had lost her rights to five other children. All had been adopted. She'd never turn herself around and get this new baby back, the Browns were led to believe.
But, with help from CYS, she did just that. Days before Stacy's second birthday last September, CYS sent her back to her mother. New child welfare legislation passed by Congress two months later arrived too later for the Browns. It said agencies such as CYS no longer needed to help parents like Stacy's mother get their children back. It said if rights to a child were terminated against the parent's will, the agency wasn't obligated to work with that parent to return subsequent children.
The Browns told CYS that if Stacy's mother relapsed, they wanted Stacy back. But they didn't expect to ever see her again. The hardest part for Christine Brown is the lack of information: "I will never know how she is. I will never know what happened to her."
The day Stacy was to go home, her mother delivered another child, so CYS placed Stacy with a relative temporarily.
"I wondered if she was crying because she wouldn't go to just anyone," Christine Brown said, "I wondered if she was eating because she had a problem with solid food and had only started on Cheerios. Ninety million things go through your head."
She says foster parents love all their foster kids, but they don't bond with them all because they know they'll have to give them up eventually. It's different, however, when foster parents expect to be able to adopt a child placed with them.
"It ripped us up. A piece of us went with her," Christine Brown said.
Because of that, one provision in the new federal child welfare law is troubling to the Browns. They believe it could put more parents in the same painful position they found themselves in.
The provision encourages agencies to do two things at once: try to help the birth parent and begin paperwork necessary for adoption. The idea is to get the child adopted as quickly as possible if parents' rights are terminated.
The practice is called concurrent planning, and its supporters say it's a particularly good policy for babies entering the system. They would be placed from the start with a preadoptive couple -- like the Browns -- who would keep them if parents' efforts to rehabilitate themselves fail.
But the Browns see a downside. They envision caseworkers telling couples they'll probably get to adopt, then sending the children home when the parents reform themselves within the 15-month deadline.
After such an experience, other foster parents may quit just as the Browns did. Friends of the Browns, who had also served as foster parents for 18 years, recently did just that. They resigned after CYS took a baby the caseworker had told them they'd probably be able to adopt.
Though the Browns lost Stacy, they still had two adult children, daughters 25 and 23, Nikki and three grandchildren.
"Imagine if I had no kids and I thought this was the child I could adopt," Christine Brown said, "I would have been even more devastated when they took her."