The Children's Crusade

The Reverend John Bowie is trying to unite Houston's black churches into a single purpose to take care of their own

"A lot of black families who come to the attention of CPS don't have the financial resources or sophistication to deal with the system," Sayles contends. "A lot of children throughout the county are picked up simply because they are poor." Young, inexperienced CPS workers sometimes misinterpret a spanking as a beating, and consciously or subconsciously view poverty as unacceptable. And they remove the children to foster care, when the focus should be, says Sayles, put on training or counseling for the parents in an attempt to save the family. If the children aren't getting three meals a day, she insists, it would be better to make it clear to the parents the importance of providing three meals a day instead of plucking the kids out of the home and putting them up for adoption.

But if some see the problem as having an element of class conflict, others, such as Pat Lee, director of adoptive services for CPS, say that race is also a factor. "Many times the case worker assigned is not a black case worker," notes Lee, and as a result, they may not have much sympathy for the problems of the families being investigated. Which returns Lee to the question of class. "Sometimes I have to help them look at their middle class values, as to whether or not we're penalizing the family because the family is poor," she says. "Is [a mother] not able to provide food because she spent the money or didn't have it in the beginning? Sometimes we have to look at ourselves, black and white, to look at the middle class values that frequently interfere."

A further problem is that many of the black children caught in an adoption limbo don't fit the profile of the preferred adoptee -- they're not necessarily cute, gurgling infants. The children waiting to be adopted simply don't fit any one stereotype. Some, like 14-year-old D'Aundre, were abandoned. D'Aundre is a good student, likes to play baseball and is described as "very artistic." His CPS profile says he needs some stability and a patient, nurturing two-parent family. Eleven-year-old Cornelius is described as likable and very protective. A single parent home could work for him. Jonice is a seven-year boy who came into care due to medical neglect. He has cerebral palsy but is described as a "happy, active" boy who enjoys playing outdoors. Jimmie is in sixth grade and is in special education due to slight mental retardation. Siblings would be good for him, since he interacts well with other children. These four are among a number of older, harder to place children. There are others who are younger and perhaps easier to place, but the sheer numbers tell the story: too many children waiting too long for what everyone agrees they need -- a family. And if One Church, One Child is going to find them those families, then it will have to do more than challenge Houston churches; it will have to teach them what modern day adoption is really about.

The Reverend Bowie says he has an approach, if not necessarily an answer, to those issues. Part of his program will go beyond adoption to "family enrichment." In the next three or four years, Bowie hopes to have a counseling program started to help prevent children from being taken from their original home unless it's absolutely necessary. "Most people who go into court and lose their kids have problems with decision making, problem-solving. They need parenting skills," Bowie says. In Los Angeles, judges could refer parents to a counseling program that was part of One Church, One Child; a similar arrangement might be helpful in Houston. "If you can fix the home where the kid is," Bowie notes, "you don't have to go through the process of the problems that go with adoption and foster care."

This would be a way for Bowie's church-based program to provide services that some blacks may be reluctant to accept from CPS, since there has been a historic -- and too often justified -- suspicion of public agencies within the black community. "People think very negatively about CPS," says Lee. "What we have to do is dispel some of those myths they have about us, that we're baby snatchers, that we're out to break up families."

On an overcast December morning, John Bowie is out once more trying to spread his message. He has been invited to guest on KYOK's morning Community Hotline call-in talk show; the topic, in keeping with the charitable side of the Christmas season, is how to find African-American homes for the growing number of African-American children awaiting adoption. Along with Bowie, Pat Lee of the Harris County Children's Protective Services has been invited to the discussion. Lee has arrived on time and sits in the glassed-in tenth floor studios at Weslayan and the Southwest Freeway, looking out over the upscale terrain of Greenway Plaza. The top of the hour is filled with commercials, an introduction by Rayna Davis, who's subbing for regular host Leroy Patterson, and a few opening remarks by Lee.

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