Fostering Hope

Foster kids rarely get the chance to grow roots in a community. But in an Illinois neighborhood known as Hope Meadows, they are finding loving families, supportive social services, and an irreplaceable network of 'grandparents.'

Every June 17, Loralee Peña and her husband, Al, hold a small celebration. They drive the half hour from their home in Rantoul, Illinois, down to Champaign. They go out to dinner, then make their way over to the train station. Sitting quietly, they wait for the night train from Chicago to pull in, load and unload its passengers, and start up again on its journey to Memphis and New Orleans. Once it's out of sight, they drive home.

Loralee was two months old when she arrived at that station late on the night of June 17, 1941, on an old Illinois Central train. She'd been born in the infirmary at the Illinois Eastern Hospital for the Insane, up in Kankakee. Her mother, a patient there, refused to care for her. A state caseworker took the baby from the hospital, carried her down to Champaign, caught a taxi from the train station, and delivered her to the woman who would go on to raise her, a 50-year-old widow and former teacher. Loralee grew up knowing nothing about the circumstances of her birth, though she knew as soon as one could know such things that she was a foster child.

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She is a large-boned, handsome woman now, with shining eyes, a soft, deep voice, and a reticence she wears like a second skin. When she smiles, it is never with her whole self; so many years later, her childhood still casts its shadow. "If I'd been told that I wasn't eligible for adoption -- and I wasn't -- it wouldn't have been so hurtful," she muses. Her birth mother, a severe manic-depressive, was in and out of institutions and could have claimed her at any time. So she was never adopted by her foster mother -- and never reclaimed by her own flesh and blood. "In my mind," she says, "I was always waiting for my real family to show up."

It now seems a kind of justice that Loralee Peña has ended up living where she does. Hope Meadows, the subdivision to which she and Al retired, is a community focused on giving children who've been taken from their birth parents something she never had: life surrounded by family. Hope Meadows, in the heart of the Corn Belt, appears to be an ordinary subdivision of late-1950s split-level ranch houses with tidy lawns and cement driveways. It is filled with ordinary people: hardworking parents, older adults, kids squeal-ing around the streets on their bikes. Just driving through, you'd have no idea that you were in the midst of an ambitious exper-iment aimed at one of the most intractable and discouraging challenges American society faces: how to raise foster children.

At any one time, there are 580,000 kids across the country in foster care. Many will eventually return home, but many will not: They'll shuttle from foster home to foster home, or be freed for adoption but never adopted, or spiral from a foster family to a group home to an institution, or simply "age out" of the system at 18 and go off to live -- well, no one really keeps track of where. These children are already laboring under the weight of the abuse or neglect that led the state to take them from their families. Quite often, their time in the child welfare system leaves them with additional scars. Theirs is a world of courts and caseworkers, of "placements" and inflexible rules. The course of their lives is determined by the vagaries of bureaucracies, courts, insti-tutions, stressed foster families, and the disruptions caused by their own behavior. Children need stability, love, and acceptance; these are not qualities one finds readily in the child welfare system.

At Hope Meadows, one does. The community was founded in 1994 by Brenda Eheart, a sociology professor at the nearby University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It sits on part of the old Chanute Air Force Base, which was abandoned by the military in 1993. Much of the base housing has been turned into market-rate developments, and in their midst lies Hope Meadows. Though its 84 units are owned and operated by a not-for-profit corporation called Generations of Hope, there is nothing institutional about it, not even a hint that, in the eyes of the state of Illinois, it is a private "facility." This is intentional because Hope Meadows strives to be, more than anything else, a community.

In particular, it's a community focused on providing a stable family life for foster children and those adopted out of foster care, and on giving those families a web of supportive neighbors. It includes about a dozen couples and single mothers raising almost 50 children among them, a few of them biologically their own, many of them adopted out of foster care, and the rest either on their way to being adopted or in temporary foster care. The families get $19,000 a year, plus benefits, in exchange for one parent staying home to give their children the attention they need, though some of the single mothers also work part-time. Most families have between four and six kids. Hope Meadows also includes 60-odd seniors, who pay only $350 a month in rent (in nearby Champaign, a two-bedroom apartment can go for $1,000) in return for six hours a week of tutoring, babysitting, gardening, serving as a school crossing guard, or simply hanging out with the kids.

That's what Eileen Baker is doing. "Tell me about the book," she says to Tyrus, a bubbly, quick-tongued 10-year-old. (The children's names in this article have been changed.) It's reading time in the library at Hope Meadows, and the children there need to put in at least 15 minutes before they can pelt down the stairs to the computer room, where they're allowed to play Bugdom and Madeline Thinking Games. Tyrus is reading Dazzle the Dinosaur with her. He's insisting that he finished Dazzle and should be allowed to go. Five kids cluster around her, asking her to fill in the yellow certificate showing they've put in their time. Three girls sit in a nook nearby, taking turns reading aloud. A couple of boys sit on the floor, alternately reading to themselves and poking each other. Baker fills in Tyrus' certificate -- "This certifies that Tyrus has read from the book Dazzle the Dinosaur for 15 or more minutes!" -- and he bounds out of the room. One by one, the other kids leave, too, until only six-year-old Gary remains. Baker picks up a book to read with him, determined to make reading time count, but he wiggles in his seat, anxious to bolt for the door.

This stint in the library is Eileen Baker's initiation into Hope Meadows' communal life. A 60-year-old nurse, she moved in recently, and if things hold true to form, the same kids who have upended her preconceptions about a cozy reading hour will soon be calling her Grandma, climbing in-to her lap for hugs, and dropping by her house. Family ties can form quickly here.

That's the idea behind Hope Meadows. Brenda Eheart spent years studying what happened to troubled kids adopted out of the foster-care system. By the late 1980s, she'd concluded that the adoptive families were not getting the support they needed to overcome the children's problems. "It was a disaster," she says. "These kids and these families just fell apart." At the time, the crack epidemic was beginning to hit Chicago, and 1,000 children a month were entering the foster-care system in Illinois alone. "I'm thinking, 'A thousand of those. Each month!'" she remembers. "I decided I couldn't live with myself if I didn't try to do something. So what I finally did was say, 'What if these were my kids? If these were mine and my husband and I died, what would I want for them? I'd want someone to do what I'm doing now: to raise our kids, to have them live in a caring, diverse neighborhood.'"

At first, Eheart figured she would create a neighborhood for 12 families willing to adopt kids out of foster care. Working with friends and university colleagues, and eventually with both conservative and liberal allies in the Illinois state legislature, she fought several years of bureaucratic battles to get $1 million in state funding and the Pentagon's agreement to sign over a piece of the Chanute Air Force Base property. But when the Pentagon finally agreed to turn over a parcel to her, it would give her no fewer than 84 units of housing. "I didn't want 84 families with foster kids," she says. "I wanted a normal neighborhood." Around that time she went to hear Maggie Kuhn, the founder of the Gray Panthers, who talked about her notion that seniors could rent out space in their houses to young people in exchange for whatever help they needed. On the plane home, Eheart realized she could invert the idea and rent houses to seniors who could help her families. In the nearly eight years that Hope Meadows has existed, seniors and parents together have created a community, supporting one another, and giving some of the most endangered children in America the sort of upbringing most people believe the child welfare system ought to ensure, but rarely does. "Having good memories to draw on as you grow older is just crucial to a child," says Eheart. "That's what the people here provide in droves."

At the Hope playground one sunny morning, Joe Stang is playing ball with a small knot of Hope children. He is a tall man with silver hair and a toothy smile that veers toward the sardonic. Among Hope's seniors he has a reputation as a curmudgeon, though with the kids he is a patient, sturdy presence. He has been paying special attention to a seven-year-old boy named Keith -- Gary's adoptive brother -- who collapses in dramatic wails whenever he misses a ball or gets confused. "Keith," Joe keeps reassuring him, "we're just practicing here, so we learn for later."

Eventually, Keith hits a pop-up, throws the bat down, stomps off, and again starts crying. "Keith, Keith, I want to show you something," Joe says, following him. "I want to show you how to do it better so next time it'll go better." He shows Keith how to swing, drop the bat, and run to first. Keith can't seem to shake his own dark mood and turns away, but then changes his mind and picks up the bat. He hits a mighty double, and, yelling happily, rounds the base to second, then heads for home. His triumph is short-lived. Next time up, he hits the ball again, runs to first, then hesitates. By the time he decides to run to second base another boy, Stuart, is waiting with the ball and tags him out. He wails, wanders off the field, and sits down. Joe Stang follows, sits next to him, and starts in again, talking softly.

A year ago, when Keith arrived at Hope Meadows with two of his birth sisters, this ball game would have been impossible. He grew up in a setting rife with alcoholism; his mother had seven children with several different men, one imprisoned for killing two of Keith's half siblings. Keith himself could not laugh when he got here. Nor did he know how to interact with other people, or show his emotions in any but the most angry and dramatic ways. That he's sitting still, letting Joe Stang talk calmly with him, is no small thing.

There are some horrific stories in Hope's files -- some children were kept in a basement; a brother and sister were raised in a cult and subsequently abused in foster care; others were beaten, sexually abused, all but abandoned by their parents. The statistics the office compiles are sobering: 63 percent of the children have behavioral and emotional problems; 33 percent have medical problems; 27 percent were exposed to cocaine in utero; 27 percent were sexually abused. "It still astounds me to see the damage that can be done to kids," says Brenda Eheart. "There's a child who, when he got here at five years old, couldn't say a personal pronoun because he had no concept that he was a person."

The kids who come to Hope Meadows are among the most wounded the child welfare system sees, and the ones it tends to serve the least well. They're the boys and girls who bounce from foster family to foster family because they can't control their anger or they wake up repeatedly with nightmares; the groups of siblings potential adoptive families don't want; the children whose various disorders -- asthma, hyperactivity, drug exposure -- prove too much for even the best-meaning foster family to handle. The parents who have decided to make a home at Hope Meadows are a determined lot: Michelle Roberts adopted six girls as a single mother still in her 20s; she is in the process of adopting a seventh. Two of her girls were born to drug-addicted mothers -- Roberts nursed one through severe cocaine withdrawal as an infant -- while others were neglected or abused. Linda and Tory Hines, also still in their 20s, have six kids; two of them their birth children, one of them an informal adoptee from a troubled family Tory has known since he was growing up, and three of them siblings adopted out of foster care. Joanne Townsend, a former Peace Corps staffer who moved to Hope last summer with her two daughters, one of them adopted out of foster care, found herself dreading going back to full-time work.

"I didn't want to come home and spend an hour at night and weekends with them," she says, and realized that Hope Meadows gave her a chance to be a much steadier presence in their lives. Since arriving, she's also taken in two young foster children.

What sets the Hope Meadows parents apart is that here they have a lot of company. To begin with, they have the seven full-time Hope staffers -- social workers, thera- pists, and Carolyn Casteel and Mary Jo McCann, who are in charge of Hope's day-to-day operations. Casteel and McCann are, in essence, community facilitators, helping organize events, making sure there's juice and cookies at the twice-weekly "enrichment time," or working with families to find a suitable senior companion for a child who's having trouble. The parents also have one another, and they meet once a week to talk over the problems they face, and to help one another out.

Above all, the parents and children of Hope Meadows have their neighbors, the seniors, who are much more than a nice, homey touch; they are the community's anchors. There is a lot that goes into the Hope model: the notion that adoption is the goal for foster kids who won't be returning to their birth families; the conviction that families trying to raise former foster children need as much help and support as a neighborhood can give them; the belief that life at Hope should be as close to ordinary as possible. But all of this springs from a single principle: that steady, permanent relationships are key to helping children heal and families cope. In this, the seniors have turned out to be indispensable. Esther Buttitta, a 74-year-old former teacher who peers through her bifocals but addresses the world head-on, says, "The kids have strange things they'll say; they'll talk about experiences they've gone through, like touchy-feely things, and they sometimes accuse you of having been there." But by remaining a warm and constant presence, she says, the seniors help the past to recede. "We provide security to those kids. Because we're here. No matter what they do, we're here."

The Hope Meadows model is being watched closely by child welfare authorities in other states, but it has not yet spawned similar programs: The big unknown is whether it's replicable enough to make a real difference (so far, Hope Meadows has helped about 80 children, which is a drop in the bucket in Illinois alone). There are also questions about which ingredients have made it successful, though there is general agreement that a closely defined physical neighborhood is important -- and that the seniors are essential.

While the baseball game is going on with Joe and Keith, a group of senior women play with the younger children over at the Inter-Generational Center, sited in one of the Hope homes. The ground floor is three rooms -- a kitchen, a crafts room, and a carpeted playroom -- and in this last, Mary Jo McCabe squats on the floor helping three boys set up Shark Park, a popular game. Five women sit chatting a few feet away, in the crafts room, interrupting their conversation when little Dena and Ivan, the two foster kids Joanne Townsend plans to adopt, come in. They make the rounds to get hugs. Ivan climbs onto Marlene Lankford's generous lap and nestles in. Dena, grinning, goes from Lankford to Gwen Pryor to Helen Hall. "C'mon," Esther Buttitta says, taking the girl into her arms, "I need one of those to get me going this morning." What the seniors do better than anything else is to make the neighborhood a genuinely welcoming place. This is crucial to Hope's purpose, but it's also a challenge. George King, one of the community's old-timers, says, "When they come here, it isn't real to them. They've had such a bad time, they look at you and think, 'You're not real!' You can hug them and love them, and still you can see it in them: They don't think you're real."

Over time, though, the community that the seniors help create does become real to the children. Eleene and Ray Cromlich, for instance, keep a refrigerator in their basement stocked with juices for the kids, who need to observe just two rules: Take only one at a time; and come for juice only once a day. Otherwise, the Cromlichs' door is open pretty much all day. Bill Biederman, who with his wife, Fran, was the first senior to move into the neighborhood, is available whenever a bicycle needs fixing or some neighborhood child just wants to pull up a chair and talk. On warm days, Al Peña and Lee Johnson can usually be found sitting in the shade of a carport and keeping an eye on the children circling the neighborhood streets on their bicycles. All of this creates a sense of security for the children, and a conviction that no matter where they turn, they'll encounter kindness.

It is the informal web of relationships the seniors have nurtured, however, that truly sustains Hope Meadows. Irene Bohn, a former nun, who is white, took a black boy she'd grown close to out to her brother's farm at harvest time a few years ago. "On the way up, it brought tears to my eyes when the little bitty boy put his hand on my arm and asked, 'Grandma, do they know I'm black?' He was just kind of leery about it, how they were going to accept him, because his skin was different.… When we got up there the nephews were all fine with this. They saw him, and one of them picked him up and said, 'Come on, we've got work to do.' They put him in that pickup truck and his little head was bobbing back and forth across the field...and his eyes were like dollars." Now, the two of them go out to the farm every fall.

Esther Buttitta has become a central part in the life of the family of Linda and Tory Hines. One of their sons has learning disabilities, and she's been working with him. She has also made a special project of one of their daughters who, Linda Hines says, "is cute as a button and manipulative as all- get-out. But Esther has her down pat." Buttitta, who raised seven children of her own, spent three years working at homeless shelters after she retired from teaching at a nearby school. When the Chanute Air Force Base was in full swing, nearly half its students were new each year. "All you could do was take the kids where they were and try to move them on," she says. "It's the same here." She's been tutoring Linda Hines' daughter for three years. "She was in kindergarten and would have fits in class, throwing things and kicking. She couldn't hold a pencil on a line to write her name -- somewhere along the way, she'd missed the connections in her mind to be able to move her arms across the plane in front of her body. So I took her back, taught her to walk a line. Now, we work on life skills. I take her to the store to see if she can find things to buy for under $3."

Of all the seniors, Loralee Peña probably brings the greatest understanding to her interactions with Hope kids. There are some kids who struggle more than others, and in them Loralee sees a kindred heart. Stuart -- the one who arrived at Hope with no sense of himself as a separate person -- has recently begun running away. Katy, his sister, sometimes flares suddenly into violence.

"I recognize the anger and rage in both of them," Peña says. "Anger wells up unexpectedly in me. For a child, it's probably like that, and it probably goes further than they expect, so it's scary to see. I want to be there." So when Stuart runs away, she goes out to help find him. And with Katy, she says, "if she's rampaging, we just spend time together, go for a drive. We'll talk about what she needs to do."

Statistically, hope has had remarkable success. Over time, 80 children referred by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services have moved to Hope; 90 percent of them were able to leave the foster-care system, most by being adopted, some by returning to their birth families. Still, Hope is not immune to the fierce debate that has split the child welfare field. Some advocates believe the system ought to be focused on ensuring that children taken from their parents are adopted into stable families. Others argue that this approach tends to discriminate against the poor families from which foster children tend to come and that children should be taken from their parents only in the rarest of circumstances, with society's resources supporting "family preservation." Partisans of the latter approach do not much like Hope Meadows; it diverts attention, they argue, from the more important work of helping troubled families surmount their difficulties. There is a strong case to be made for family preservation; the child welfare literature is rife with horror stories about families who have been split apart unnecessarily. On the other hand, the reason Hope Meadows exists is that there are undeniably children who really are better off away from their birth parents.

Yet, for all its measurable successes, Hope Meadows is not immune to failures and setbacks. Sometimes things do not work out happily, and it is the hard times that throw Hope's strengths into sharpest relief. When seniors fall ill or children pass through a turbulent stage or families bend under the burden of everyday cares, the community knows. People stop by, they cook meals, they do the shopping, they listen and console. "We all close ranks," says Mary Jo McCabe, who moved to Hope Meadows in 1993. "We want to protect people."

Eleene Cromlich remembers what happened after she fell down some concrete steps in a nearby park. The fall shattered her shoulder and arm; in the surgery that followed, she was given a new plastic shoulder and a titanium arm shank. Her daughters came to help, and for days after she got home, Eleene lay on the couch, too stiff and in too much pain to get up. Children would come by to check in, including Ben, the brother of Stuart and Katy.

"Every day," she says, "Ben would come to visit, and he'd stand with the other kids and never say anything. Then one day he said, 'Mrs. C, do you have to spend the rest of your life on that couch?'

"I said, 'No, I'll get up and be about.'

"'Oh,' he said. 'When?'

"I told him, 'Whenever I can.' So I told my girls, 'If anyone sees Ben coming, you get me up and sitting on a chair!' Well, the next day, here he came, and they got me up. Ben saw me, and he just grinned from ear to ear. You know, I'm up and about now because of the kids."

Hearing a story like this, it's hard not to think of Hope Meadows as an experiment in building the kind of ad hoc extended family we associate with communes and utopian communities. That is not what Brenda Eheart and her staff set out to do. But in this neighborhood, three of the groups often disregarded by American society -- children caught in the child welfare system, families that adopt kids with special emotional and medical needs, and retirees -- have made a home for one another. "This is not utopia," says Gwen Pryor. "Look, they're just kids. We're just people. It's just a neighborhood. It's not like every day is sunshine and roses. But we're learning to live with each other."

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