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Of the 5,000 abused and neglected children in foster care throughout the Washington, D.C., area, at least 1,000 of them are awaiting adoption. Research shows that those who “age out” of child welfare at 18 without ever finding a permanent home will be susceptible to overwhelming trends of poverty and homelessness. In the face of these grim statistics, one young boy with a precarious future was taken in recently by a dedicated foster mother from Upper Marlboro, Md. Supported by the pro bono efforts of Ross, Dixon & Bell associate Kelly Overman and Children’s Law Center in the District, the woman acquired full legal rights to claim the boy as her son. Today he can finally enjoy the comfort of a permanent and loving household. Magistrate Judge Alec Haniford Deull called the case one in which “truly everyone is happy.” Its resolution came after a year of proceedings in D.C. Superior Court. The natural mother of the boy is deceased, and his father experienced a rapid decline in stability and mental health after her death. When first reached by social workers in June 2003, the boy, then 3 years old, had virtually no speech or language skills, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and had been deprived of any basic childhood medical care. At first, the boy continued to experience difficulties in foster care. He was very aggressive and feared his foster mother was planning to abandon him. According to her testimony at the final court hearing, the foster mother encountered the full extent of the child’s underdevelopment on a particular occasion early in the course of their relationship. THE CAR IS CRYING While the two were driving in a rainstorm, the boy misinterpreted the situation and said to her, “The car is crying.” That the boy had been deprived of learning such fundamental concepts disturbed the foster mother, whose experience counseling pregnant teens in her area had engendered in her a deep sense of responsibility for distressed youths. “I made the decision to adopt because I saw it as another opportunity to give back to my community,” the foster mother said in court. She recounted that she had been determined from the start to expose the boy to things that should have been familiar to a child his age but were still a mystery to him. The two bonded over schoolwork during the week and during weekends of movies, shopping, and visiting a friend’s farm. She proudly related how the boy had begun to call her Mommy. She also was pleased that he had become so acclimated to his new household that every day upon returning from school he would announce, “We’re home.” Despite this happy outcome, the realization of her adoption petition was dubious at first. One of the woman’s biggest hurdles was procuring legal services. This problem is common in adoption cases. Frequently, petitioners’ incomes price them out of eligibility for court-appointed attorneys, but at the same time, many of them cannot afford to hire a lawyer. This financial barrier is a frequent deterrent to those considering adoption. That, of course, cuts into the number of potential caregivers. Added to those problems, often there are circumstances that complicate the issue, such as when a biological guardian refuses to consent to the adoption. A slew of these factors in Washington has significantly hindered the placement of at-risk children in safe and permanent residences. The situation has been improved, however, by a number of reforms in the child welfare system. The establishment in 2001 of the Family Court, which replaced the former Family Division of the D.C. Superior Court, has alleviated the strains on permanent placement. With greater autonomy and a sole focus on matters involving children and families, the court has made progress in expediting adoption and custody cases, according to the Government Accountability Office. Among its successes, the court has helped to cut the median delay time for children’s disposition hearings from 202 days in 2001 to 39 days in 2003. In addition, the court has sought to bolster its communications with social service agencies such as the Child and Family Services Agency. While certain goals have yet to be reached, the Family Court in the District registered a record 376 public adoptions during the 2004 fiscal year. Further progress toward achieving a more efficient system has come through the establishment of nonprofits such as the Children’s Law Center. Since its inception in 1996, the CLC has provided free legal services to families wishing to adopt abused and neglected children in the District. PERMANENCY PROJECT Overman and supervising partner Elizabeth Gere received their case by way of a partnership formed between the firm and the CLC’s Family Permanency Project, a program launched in 1999 to delegate such adoption cases to attorneys in law firms throughout the city and to provide them with technical support and expert advice. To date, the CLC has successfully handled more than 500 permanency cases through the work of its resident staff and volunteer attorneys who are enlisted on a pro bono basis to advocate on behalf of the CLC’s clients. Extending the reach of legal aid to a wider pool of caregivers allowed 28 adoptions to be processed last fall in cases that had been back-logged the previous summer. Overman gained valuable litigation experience as she developed a trial strategy and drafted numerous motions. The CLC provided her with access to its network of information on family, adoption, and custody law. Overman says she was delighted to be matched with her client, with whom she formed a bond that lets her know that she — like her client — has made a difference in the life of a child in need. Ross, Dixon & Bell has pledged to undertake at least five CLC cases a year. For a firm of 110 attorneys, the CLC offers a steady but manageable influx of pro bono opportunities and consistently stimulating cases. At the same time, the CLC is assisted in its mission of placing at-risk children in permanent homes where they can flourish. On June 15, the foster mother, the child, the social worker, the guardian ad litem, the judge, the attorneys, and a few observers were all in court for the adoption authorization hearing. The boy, present for the first time with his mother at court, was conscious of the adoption, though he might not have understood the magnitude of the life-changing event or its legal ramifications. He repeatedly said, “I am getting adopted today!” He enjoyed playing with a pair of toy cars and gave one to Judge Deull after the adoption was finalized. Several times that afternoon he proudly flashed his new smile, having just received dental work to repair early childhood tooth decay. Perhaps most striking to those not in regular contact with the child was the vast improvement in his speech, something that less than two years prior had been described as unintelligible. The progress the boy has made under the care of his foster mother since entering her home in 2003 is now unmistakable, and their mutual affection leaves no question as to who will satisfy his best interest. Capitalizing on the contributions of pro bono attorneys throughout Washington, D.C., the CLC manages to find homes for nearly 200 children a year. Nevertheless, it continues to be overloaded with permanency cases and is seeking more firms to devote pro bono hours to its cause. Firms interested in learning more about the Children’s Law Center should visit the Web site.
Daniel Dooley is a marketing assistant for Ross, Dixon & Bell in Washington, D.C.

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