CHARLESTON -– Of the 115,000 children in foster care nationally who are available for adoption, the average age is 8.6 years.

About a third of those children are African American and 15 percent are Hispanic.

In West Virginia, there are more than 1,000 children whose parental rights have been terminated and who are waiting for adoption. Many of those children have prospective families, but there are 66 children who are not so lucky and whose profiles appear on the state adoption Web site www.adoptawvchild.org.

These and other statistics were discussed Nov. 14 at a press conference in the Courtroom of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia. The press conference was to mark National Adoption Month in November.

The goal of the national event this year is to encourage the adoption of older children. Nationally, each year about 24,000 children "age out" of the foster care system without being placed with a permanent family.

"We want to affirm how essential permanency is to a child," Justice Robin Jean Davis said. "There were approximately 4,500 children in foster care in West Virginia at the end of 2007. In 2007, 473 children were adopted through the West Virginia Bureau for Children and Families, an increase from 419 children in 2006. The total number of adoptions in West Virginia in 2007 was 913.

"Even with all of the strides we are making, we know that the system is not perfect. Some children still need loving, permanent homes.

"We hope that West Virginians will consider taking on the challenge of adopting an older child whose life has not been a fairytale. You don't have to be perfect to be the perfect parent.

Bobby Jean (B.J.) Miller spoke about her experience adopting two boys.

"Five or six years ago, I was single. I thought I was fairly intelligent," Miller said. She joked that her two teenage sons now tell her how much she doesn't know, as all teens do.

She was too old to have a child, and most of her immediate family was deceased. She was tired of spending holidays alone.

"I learned you didn't have to be rich to adopt a child. I learned it was not difficult to adopt a child," she said. She looked on the state adoption Web site and fell in love with an 11-year-old boy.

"It hasn't always been easy. There hasn't ever been a time when I have regretted it," she said.

About a year later, Miller decided Michael was getting spoiled. She realized she had gone overboard trying to make up for his years of abuse and neglect and his time in foster homes. He needed a brother; that's when then-14-year-old Matthew joined their family.

"I now have a family to spend Thanksgiving with. I now have a family to spend Christmas with," Miller said. "I highly recommend (adoption) to anyone."

Nicholas Circuit Judge Gary Johnson said children make up both the saddest and the happiest parts of his docket. About 30 to 40 percent of any circuit judge's caseload is abuse and neglect cases.

"We try to get a child a permanent home as quickly as possible," Johnson said. "If we can give a child the help they need while they still accept that help, we can make a difference in their lives.

"The happiest cases you do are adoptions. It's something that is very fulfilling for a judge. It makes you want to go to work every day."

The adoption process is fairly straightforward. Anyone can adopt: individuals, spouses together, or one spouse with the other spouse's consent. Once the petition is filed, a hearing can take place after 45 days of the filing of the petition or after the child has lived with the adoptive parent or parents for six months.

Before the adoption is finalized, consents, relinquishments, or termination of parental rights of the birth parents must be obtained. Even adults may be adopted if the adult consents and the adoptive parent is a resident of West Virginia.

"We think every child deserves a home as quickly as possible," Johnson said.

Johnson is Chairman of the Court Improvement Program, which works to improve the child welfare system and secure safety, timely permanency, and well-being for children.

The CIP does the following:

* promotes procedural and systemic changes.

* funds annual updates to the child abuse and neglect bench book used by judges.

* funds updates to the court system's now-electronic child abuse and neglect database.

* developed a uniform child and family case that will be implemented in 2009.

* encourages judicial leadership and collaboration between the courts and DHHR.

* funds software for use in child abuse and neglect and youth services cases called JANIS and JUDI.

* has a Web site (www.wvcip.com), which provides more information.

Davis said the court system and DHHR are working together in many ways to improve the child welfare system. The collaboration was evident in the recent Child and Family Services Review that the federal Administration for Children and Families Children's Bureau conducted this year in West Virginia.

West Virginia judges participated in unprecedented numbers as reviewers and interviewees. The federal agency found that West Virginia courts largely have timely hearings, achieve permanency for children, and place children with close relatives or near their own communities and schools.

West Virginia Circuit Courts also have improved their compliance with the wording of Title IV-E forms, which provides funding for children in out-of-home placements, to 100 percent compliance.

"Because of our Circuit Court Judges and their dedication, we are receiving every penny of federal dollars," Davis said.

Full compliance with Title IV-E means millions more in federal funding for West Virginia.

"I am so proud of our circuit judges," Davis said.

Joan Ohl, the Commissioner of the Administration for Children, Youth and Families in the Administration for Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, noted the strides West Virginia has made since she was the Secretary of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. The compliance with Title IV-E form language is an important milestone, she said.

"West Virginia has done a wonderful job on the Court Improvement Program," she added. "We have a lot to recognize and celebrate."

Still, she said, more needs to be done to help children find adoptive homes. The true heroes in the world of adoption are adoptive parents, Ohl said.

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