Family Court judge in St. Louis conducts 48 adoptions in one day
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By Nancy Cambria
May 3, 2009 / The Southern.com
Nicole Woods-Owens, 16, wiped a tear from her eye and didn’t say much in the courthouse Friday.
She didn’t have to. Presiding Family Court Judge Jimmie Edwards pretty much said it all: “From this day forward,” he declared, “Nicole shall be the daughter of Kelly Roxanne Owens.”
She entered foster care 13 years ago because her parents had alcohol addictions and couldn’t care for her. On Friday, Nicole got a legal mom. Kelly Owens, 34, a woman from the neighborhood who took in Nicole eight years ago as a foster child, has committed to parenting her.
Edwards opened his courtroom doors and conducted 48 adoptions Friday — 35 for foster children like Nicole. He did so in honor of national Foster Care Awareness Month in May.
The adoptions, which usually would have been sprinkled through the docket over several months, were done by Edwards in one marathon day to spotlight the need to find permanent families for foster children.
Edwards said adoptions such as Nicole’s are a cause for celebration in a courthouse that often makes heart-wrenching decisions about abandoned, neglected and abused children.
But the judge, an outspoken advocate for poor kids since he took the bench 18 months ago, also had reservations, despite the cheery balloons, sheet cakes and hugs.
Edwards believes adoption has not solved the problem of creating permanent homes for foster children in his city. Too many kids are in the system without anyone truly committed to parenting them.
“Adoption is kind of a double-edged sword for me,” he said. “I’m very happy that a kid is getting a permanent home. But it’s not lost on me that I’ve had a biological mom and dad fail.”
Between 2004 and last year, the number of adoptions in the city dropped by nearly half, from a high of 251, even though the number of adoptable kids in state custody remained about the same. Last year, the court conducted just 100 adoptions of foster kids.
Edwards’ response to the trend has raised eyebrows among caseworkers and advocates hoping to place children in adoptions. He’s put fewer kids in state custody and has more often rejected requests to terminate custody rights of biological parents than his predecessor, Judge Thomas Frawley.
Frawley was praised for streamlining hearings and aggressively following federal guidelines for the termination of parental rights so foster children spent less time in legal limbo.
Edwards, however, said he’s not sure the court should be dismissing the biological parents so easily, given the problems foster children in the city often face.
For every child like Nicole who is lucky enough to be adopted into a permanent home, Edwards said, there are about 300 teenagers every year who will never be adopted and will “age out” of foster care as orphans — with no family, no money and no place to go.
Edwards also is outspoken about the rush in the late 1990s to terminate parental rights of biological parents. That’s when the federal government began giving states financial incentives for successful adoptions of children in state care. He said that was particularly unfair to parents who needed things like housing, employment help, counseling and medical care to keep their children.
“There was a time when people felt that we needed to fix abuse and neglect by punishing the parent and taking the children. Now I have the children of these parents,” he said. “They’re now teenagers, and they are still in the system.”
St. Louis generally gets good marks from national watchdogs such as Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. St. Louis has a high number of foster kids — about 1,100 — but Wexler said officials still use family therapy and other programs to try to keep families together. Wexler argues these programs work because the rate of re-abuse of children reunited with their parents is very low.
But the city still has great challenges. According to Fostering Improvement, a national database of child dependency courts, St. Louis children, on average, stay in state custody for four years and are moved to a new foster or group home four times, about twice the state figure.
Edwards said he also cannot ignore adoptions that fail because of teenagers put into foster care at an early age seeking out their biological parents when they get older.
Every year, a handful of those kids revisit the court, begging Edwards to dissolve their adoptions so they can rejoin their natural parents.
“They’re utilizing the same technology we do to find them,” Edwards said. “They’ll make the contact themselves.”
Edwards said in some cases the parents have turned around their lives and the children can live with them again.
Edwards’ decision to slow the termination of parental rights in his court isn’t universally accepted. Advocates for swifter decisions on the fate of a child fear such a move sways the court in favor of the biological parent, and could put the best interest of a child in jeopardy.
It’s a move that Owens’ mother, Johnnie Owens, also questions. Johnnie, who legally became Nicole’s grandmother on Friday, said she has seen parents lost to drugs and the streets inflict horrible pain on their children. She worries about the safety of the children if they were to return to their parents.
But that debate took a backseat Friday in Edwards’ courtroom. After the hearing, the judge posed for pictures with Nicole’s new family.
Owens, still wiping away tears, said foster parenting hasn’t always been easy. She has adopted one other child and has a child of her own. She also had hoped to adopt Nicole’s brother, but he left Owens’ home and now lives on the streets.
Owens, though, has the highest hopes for Nicole. Ten years from now, she’s sure she’ll be celebrating Nicole getting a graduate degree.
In the meantime, Edwards had a simpler goal for the teen.
“Make sure you be a good girl,” he said, leaning over to Nicole as they posed for a final picture.
She nodded a yes.