Three-year-old Niki is a charming little girl with alluring eyes, a serious disease and no permanent home. She is adrift in the District's foster care system, waiting for a family willing to adopt her.
Three months after she was born, doctors at Children's Hospital discovered that she had cystic fibrosis. For the first 18 months of her life, Niki lived alternately at the Hospital for Sick Children and her mother's home in the District. Unable to cope with her daughter's disease, social service workers said, her mother put Niki up for adoption in 1979.
After that, Niki lived with a Baltimore widow who kept her for 18 months and a foster family in Landover, Md., where she has been since May. She is a ward of the Department of Human Services (DHS).
While DHS officials were willing to tell Niki's story and permit use of her photograph in hopes of finding a home for her and other hard-to place children, they said they could not publish her full name. Niki is the name given to her by the Baltimore woman who cared for her.
Niki is one of nearly 2,200 District children is foster care. She is one of 14 children -- most of whom are handicapped -- available for immediate adoption. Approximately 200 other children are in the process of becoming legally adoptable. The others in foster care wil probably stay there. Last year DHS placed 61 children from the District in permanent homes.
While handicapped children like Niki are difficult to place to place, social workers say it is often difficult to find homes for some healthy children. "Special needs" children include those who are black, male and over 5 years old. Some children also must be placed with their sisters and brothers. Social service workers say they try to avoid splitting up brothers and sisters.
Niki has a serious case of cystic fibrosis, a progressive and eventually fatal disease caused by an enzyme deficiency that affects the lungs and makes her highly susceptible to infection and colds.
She requires physical therapy called "postural drainage" about 20 minutes twice a day. The treatment consists of tapping on the child's back while she is in various positions to dislodge and mucus that has collected in her lungs. She also takes medication to help her digest her food and gain weight.
Pierce Warwick, a private D.C. adoption agency, first placed Niki with Donna Dougherty, a 24-year-old Baltimore widow whose husband had died of cancer. Dougherty, who had two young sons, also wanted a daughter and felt she could cope with the child's illness.
The adoption never became final. In time, Gougherty died, she began to feel that Miki was so attached to her that she could not leave the house, and that she could not face the prospect of seeing the child die in a few years.
In May, Martha Galdi, a social worker with the Pierce Warwick agency, and DHS worker Frances Vaughan placed Niki in a foster home in Landover with Willie and Millie Hall. The Halls have raised several foster children including a girl with cystic fibrosis who is now 22.
Niki's "doing real well," said Millie Hall, adding that Niki adjusted to the couple quickly. Hall said she and her husband are willing to care for Niki as long as possible, but "I feel we are too old to adopt."
Galdi, whose agency contracts with DHS to find homes for hard-to-place children, expressed concern that DHS is not actively seeking an adoptive family for Niki. Faldi said she was told by DHS social workers that the Halls will provide permanent foster care for the child. But Galdi said, "She needs parents who can be with her while she's living, to enjoy her, and then most particularly, she needs a mommy and daddy who can be with her when she dies. . . The danger in foster care is that it's not a permanent commitment."
While DHS workers provided the names of two doctors who have examined Niki, neither could be reached to discuss the severity of the child's disease.
Vaughan told a reporter that the best solution would be to place Niki with a couple who have other children and who will be able to handle Niki's needs. She added that she will be extremely selective in considering any prospective parents that Pierce Warwick might find.
The wheels of the bureaucracy turn slowly for children like Niki. The D.C. auditor's report released earlier this year shows that one third of the children in the District's foster care system have spent 90 percent of their lives in that system, and they move frequently from one home to another, especially when they become teen-agers.
Department critics say many of the DHS social workers prefer foster care over adoption, which is a complicated process. But social workers say staff and resource shortages hamper their ability to recruit new adoptive families. They also say they can't adequately supervise children in foster care or work with their natural parents.
In addition, the city does not provide lawyers for children who are to be freed for adoption by D.C. Superior Court, a process that can take up to two years. Therefore, lawyers offering their service to the Volunteer Attorney's Office must navigate the lengthy "termination of parental rights" process that frees children for adoption once it has been determined that their real parents cannot or will not be responisble for them.
Norma Jernigan, head of the DHS adoption division, said she is reluctant to remove children from long-term foster homes because they have formed strong attachments to those families. In addition, "the courts are reluctant to free a child unless they know there is a home available."
"We're trying to encourage 'at risk' placement," said Louvenia Williams, a social worker at the Volunteer Attorney's Office. This means a child can be placed with prospective adoptive parents while waiting for the legal hurdles to be cleared. Because the adoption process can take years, Williams said, she prefers that a child be in a permanent home as soon as possible instead of maturing in a foster setting.
The city subsidizes many of the children in foster and adoptive homes. For families who qualify, money is available to help raise these children as well as to pay for treatment for those youngsters with special medical problems. Subsidies for adopted children are about $200 a month, up to 18 years of age, while payments for foster children are $55 a month more.
Williams hinted at other problems at DHS.She said she believes that DHS workers do not always have a clear idea of which children are "adoptable." Just a week ago, she said, a family was found for a 3-year-old girl who has had corrective surgery for a stomach problem. "Someone (from DHS told us not to bother to free this child because she had medical problems." Yet Williams said the baby is bright and perfectly adoptable.
In another case, Clinton and Marjorie Gantt of Alexandria, who are adopting a hard-to-place District boy, were told the child was hyperactive and could not speak properly.
But Tony, now 5, is a tall and handsome child who is well-mannered, talkative, and reads and writes a bit. The Gantts said their new son adjusted to their family better than they expected.
"Babies can get a home anyplace, but an older child can't," said Clinton Gantt, explaining why he and his wife, both 27, took Tony into their home. The adoption will be final at the end of the month.
The Hantts, who have been married four years, say they enjoy children and plan to have their own as well as adopting more. Marjorie Hantt is a hospital X-ray tecnician, and her husband an insurance salesman. Both believe they will always be able to find a way to provide for more children. "I've seen so many kids who become victims of their environment . . . they become bitter and lonely . . . I wanted to share a little of what I had," Marjorie Gantt said.
There are many chidlren who need homes throughout the metropolitan Washington area.
In Northern Virginai counties from Loudoun west to the Blue Ridge Mountains and south to just above Richmond, there are 1,264 children in the state's custody, 123 of whom are ready for adoptive parents. In Prince George's and Montgomery Counties, there are 1,117 children in foster homes or institutins. In Prince George's, 132 children are awaiting adoption. Because of aggressive placement practices, Montgomery's chief of child welfare, Mary Lou Hurney, said only five children are waiting.