When Peg McQuarrie notified a social worker at the Prince George's County Department of Social Services that her 15-year-old foster son had run away, she was told that her son's aberrant behavior was typical of a normal adolescent.
"I said that after raising children of my own -- the oldest of whom is 24 -- I should know what 'normal' is," said McQuarrie from the porch of her Mitchellville home, the dappled sunlight illuminating the tension on her face. "They said, 'No, you're wrong.'. . . They tried to put the guilt on me."
The episode with John last year is only one example of the condescension and lack of concern Jim and Peg McQuarrie say they have encountered in the foster-care system since they took him in as their first foster child eight years ago.
Since then, they have sought to counter the negative attitudes they say pervade that system -- Jim, through his post on the Prince George's County board of social services, and Peg through her position on the newly established county Foster Care Review Board.
As Peg McQuarrie shows a visitor a portrait of her large family -- two teen-aged foster sons -- Jim and Ralph -- an adopted daughter, three biological children -- she says she is not a "rabble-rouser" by nature.
"It's just that we have encountered so many inadequacies and inequities over the years," she said in a voice barely louder than a whisper. "We first adopted (their daughter) in 1973. When we went back to adopt again, we found the laws had changed so radically we decided to go into foster care."
Peg McQuarrie was instrumental in establishing the county's nine-member view board, which provides citizen input by reviewing cases where children have been in foster homes for more than six months. Approximately 700 children are in foster homes in Prince George's, she said. a
She also lobbied for a state bill, which passed in 1973, placing children under the custody of the social services agency after they have been in foster care for more than two years. The children then become available for assignment to a permanent foster home.
"It prevents them from floating in the limbo of the system," McQuarie said.
She explained that the reason her family has taken in three foster children during the past eight years is simple: "We felt that we could provide a stable environment for them."
Beyond that, she says, is the subtle motivation stemming from the first three years of her life, which she spent in a foster home before returning to her biological family.
For many reasons, McQuarrie feels she is a perfect candidate for the citizen review board.
"There was talk that foster parents shouldn't be on the review board," she says, "but I think they are particularly aware of the problems.
"Most foster parents won't speak out because they're afraid of getting the children taken away from them," she said.
She noted that although her foster sons Ralph and Jim are not adopted, she did gain permission from their biological mother to legally change their names to McQuarrie. She does not believe the boys' mother will take them back because of the mother's illness.
Although being a foster child is difficult -- often because the children do not receive adaquate schooling or have emotional problems -- being a foster mother can be equally trying. The system fails to consider the needs and concerns of foster parent, McQuarrie said.
"I feel the agency hasn't shown compassion for the foster parent. When something goes wrong, (the parents) are left to their own devices. . .
"You ask me if I'd do it all over agian," she continues. "After what happened with john, I probably would have given up if it hadn't been for Ralph and Jim."
McQuarrie is particularly interested in maintaining the practice of placing children in permanent foster home -- a practice the state is thinking of abandoning for government-subsidized adoptions in which parents receive a stipend for care.
To a lay person, the two are very similar," said McQuarrie, who believes that both practices should be used.
"Permanent foster care should be used to place hard-to-place children, children with problems who are facing innumerable odds," she said.
State and local agencies remain financially responsible for medical and psychiatric treatment of children in foster care, paying large bills that would be beyond the means of most families.
McQuarrie points out that if an adopted child develops emotional problems, the family would not receive additional money, beyond the stipend, to pay for treatment.
McQuarrie considers herself a family person who, despite her new post as chairman of the county's League of Women Voters and volunteer work with International Visitors Information Service, intends to spend most of her time with her four teen-agers who live at home.
"That's why I never took on a full-time job," she said. They need me here, and I like to come and go as I please."