by Patricia McBroom
First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a heartfelt address to a campus audience last week in a conference on foster care.
Her remarks brought some to tears.
Speaking eloquently from notes, she recalled her own personal struggles with the foster care system as a young lawyer and set forth a new national agenda that is expected to make sweeping changes in state and local adoption practices.
"For too long, too many people have taken the path of least resistance, leaving children to languish in foster care," said Clinton, noting that California alone has 100,000 children in foster care, representing 20 percent of the national caseload.
"If California doesn't get it right, it is unlikely we'll ever be able to deal with this system the way we should," she said to the audience of faculty, foster children and special guests at Clark Kerr campus's Krutch Auditorium.
In proof of the point, the town hall meeting also featured seven young people who had spent some 50 collective years in foster care. Members of a foster-child advocacy group, the California Youth Connection, they met and told their stories to Clinton in a private meeting before her address.
One of them, Durrell Demings, 19, introduced the First Lady, exulting, "Who could ever know that I, a foster child, would stand before you and introduce Mrs. Hillary Clinton."
Chancellor Robert Berdahl opened the assembly sponsored by Berkeley's National Child Welfare Research Center in the School of Social Welfare and by the San Francisco Youth Law Center in celebration of new adoption legislation signed by President Clinton Nov. 19.
The legislation, said Berdahl, is expected to move "tens of thousands more children now in foster care into permanent homes."
Berdahl was followed to the podium by Richard Barth, the Hutto Patterson Professor of Child and Family Studies, whose research helped lay the groundwork for the new Adoption and Safe Families Act.
Barth has shown that thousands of young children remain in foster care for extremely long periods of time and many are moved from one home to another. Twenty percent of infants who stay six years will live in five or more homes, Barth told the meeting.
"Children cannot be expected to make sense of changing families every year," said Barth. "As a coping mechanism, foster children too often erect a hyper-vigilance around them and fail to develop the trust they need to explore their world. They often play educational and social catchup ever after."
The First Lady said Berkeley's School of Social Welfare and the child welfare research center are "rightfully known as the very best, creating research and disseminating it...with influence in the work that led to this legislation."
She said that only now has the nation reached a consensus that foster care is supposed to be a temporary "safe haven on the way to a loving home."
The new laws require states to move more quickly in terminating parental rights so that foster children can be adopted by other families. Many children remain for years in foster care because courts have not ended the rights of parents who may be very slightly, if at all, involved in their children's lives.
The new legislation also removes laws that have protected the rights of parents involved in abandonment, torture or chronic abuse of their children. Together the provisions shift the balance from an almost exclusive reliance on reunifying biological families to taking the child's health and welfare into greater account.
"This makes it possible to do for foster children what we want to do for all of our children," said Clinton. "There is no more important issue."