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Picnics Link Hard-To-Place Children With Prospective Families

June 30, 1996

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (AP) _ Sarah hung out by the dunking booth but refused to throw the ball. She was in no mood for hijinks.

Sarah knew someone at this picnic might be setting up her future. The brass band, face painting and hot dogs did not distract her from the whispers and pointing fingers.

``I just feel awkward,″ the 12-year-old said. ``I just feel like everybody is just staring at me, like they’re observing me.″

She was right.

Like 53 other children at the picnic, Sarah lives in state custody, bouncing from foster home to foster home, and she needs a family.

But finding suitable homes for ``hard to place″ children _ older kids, sibling groups, children with physical and emotional disabilities _ is a difficult task. And with drugs, alcohol and AIDS adding to the number of America orphans, their advocates are increasingly turning to more aggressive techniques to find them parents.

One such proven course is the ``adoption picnic,″ where children are basically put on display.

As good-hearted as the goal is, the picnics invite comparisons to meat markets, used-car lots and the historic orphan trains. From 1854 to 1930, the trains took more than 150,000 abandoned, orphaned and mostly immigrant children from New York City to rural America and lined them up to be taken by families, many of whom were looking for cheap farm labor.

``I know the kids have to be circulated, but I have a name for it. I’m calling it a cattle call,″ said Tonie Washington, who nevertheless hoped to find a toddler to adopt with her husband, Willie, who is stationed at this Army base in south-central Missouri.

Despite the organizers’ insistence that they don’t mislead the youngsters about finding families, few of the children are fooled into thinking the day is just for fun, said Autumnrose Swento.

Autumnrose, 14, returned to Thursday evening’s picnic after finding a family at last year’s event. She spoke like a veteran of this year’s crop, aged 3 to 14.

``They’re kind of excited, but they’re kind of nervous because they’re scared,″ she said. ``I came with a lot of hope (last year), but also I was really scared. I didn’t know there was going to be anyone who wanted me because I figured I was too old.″

Autumnrose was one of the lucky few.

Nationally, about 70,000 of the estimated 600,000 children in foster care are legally cleared for adoption, said Charlotte Vick, assistant director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children, a support and advocacy group based in St. Paul, Minn.

Vick acknowledged most children know the purpose of the picnics but said they willingly endured the awkwardness if it might find them a home.

``There are always downsides to these things. Nothing’s perfect,″ she said. ``On every occasion, I would err on the side of parading them around if it meant a way of finding them a family, a place to belong.″

No child leaves a picnic with a new family. Parents must complete applications and pass home visits and criminal background checks. There are training sessions, transitional visits and court hearings before the child moves in.

That’s what officials say distinguishes these picnics from the orphan trains.

``The orphan trains had people waiting on the other end who hadn’t been studied, who hadn’t been trained,″ said Arlend Oney, the state’s program and policy development specialist for adoption. ``These families have gone through the complete home evaluation process.″

In Missouri, the annual picnics at Fort Leonard Wood began four years ago, sponsored by the Pulaski County office of the state Division of Family Services.

Last week, the children were not lined up or given numbers. They were told to have fun, to act like kids, to talk to the strangers. And the prospective parents were told not to talk specifically about adoption with the children. That proved tricky for some.

Patti and Vince Chunk of Strafford spent time with brothers Terry, 10, and Terrence, 5. The boys knew how to tug on heart strings.

``(Terry) said, `Will you adopt me?‴ Patti said. ``I said, `That sounds really good.′ I don’t want to set a kid up for heart wreck, but I’m sure interested.″

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