Tourists passing through Utah picked up two 10-year-old hitchhikers - Edison and Maura - this week to draw attention to a problem facing thousands of American's children: the lack of permanent homes and families.
The "hitchhikers" actually were child-size dolls, sent traveling across country by Families Involved in Adoption, a children's advocacy group. Their goal is to focus public attention on the "children who wait" - the more than 270,000 American youngsters in foster care. Of these, more than 36,000 are eligible for adoption.Members of the group, including lucky orphans who have found permanent homes in Utah, got acquainted with the dolls at a picnic recently before bidding them farewell on their trip across the United States.
"The fact that a nation as powerful and rich as ours should continue its neglect of these children arouses more than concern," said group president Elaine Platt. "America continues to favor long-term foster care to the detriment of children; we continue to place barriers to adoption; we encourage lifelong dependency from these children."
Platt, who joined other adoptive parents at the picnic in the Bountiful City Park, stressed that long-term foster care "will lead these children to reliance on mental health systems and finally the prison system.
"Each step costs more taxpayers more money, and each step costs more children's lives. The rejection they have experienced, the physical and emotional scars they endure, the dependency we foist on them - all in the name of `protecting and sheltering' - are crimes of omission of which we are guilty," she said.
"By omitting these kids from a permanent, loving and nurturing family, we leave them no choice but to continue to feel rejected and dependent on systems for their survival at best. At worst, we force them to run away and join the expanding army of homeless where survival on the streets is measured in months."
Despite the growing number of orphans who want and need homes, the barriers to adoption are high.
One major roadblock is the home study - a required adoption document. Yet, with few exceptions, the Division of Family Services will do home studies for children in their care only.
"This makes it very difficult for families in rural Utah to adopt a child because there are no private agencies to do these studies in outlying areas," Platt said. "For a private agency to travel to do a study, the costs can be very prohibitive. Yet there are many capable, loving families eager to take one of these children into their hearts and homes."
Platt said that frequently families who do spend several hundred dollars for a home study discover it can be used within that particularly state only. Even if the home studies are acceptable in other areas, many states are reluctant to place children across state lines.
"Yet they may not have an appropriate family for a child in their care in their state," she said. "Often children spend years in foster care when in reality there are families anxious to adopt them.
"It really should not matter which state the child lives in or which state the perspective family lives in. The fact is, the child needs a family. Every effort should be made to place that child in an appropriate home."
Platt hopes the "hitchhikers" can draw attention to thousands of homeless children and the bureaucratic red tape preventing them from finding a family. Each doll is carrying a small bag containing a list of parent support groups in each state, adoption articles, and a map of the United States so the travelers can mark which state the "children" have visited. They will also be toting the account of two adopted children they represent, plus post cards for the tourists to send back to "Mom and Dad."
The families who picked up the dolls in Bountiful were asked to give them to "another nice family" in the next state at a rest stop or tourist attraction. "We want them to visit as many people as possible during the next five months," Platt said.
It's the group's hope that both dolls will be returned to their families in time for Thanksgiving (National Adoption Week) so they can ride on the group's float in the Christmas parade.
"We realize that the `children' might become lost, but we have faith that there are enough good people traveling out there to see our project through," Platt said.