Posted Jul 1, 2010 5:39 AM CDT
By Susan A. Berson, Photography by Ernie Block
Each May is National Foster Care Month, but for Gene Balloun and Sheila Wombles, foster care has been celebrated nearly every day of their 26-year marriage. “David, of course, was our first. He came to us as an infant at 14 months old in 1987 and is 23 now. We were able to adopt David when he was 4,” Wombles explains, sitting in the living room of their four-bedroom home located off a quiet cul-de-sac in a suburb of Kansas City, Mo.
Balloun is a commercial litigator at Shook, Hardy & Bacon; Wombles, a former Indiana elementary schoolteacher. The two have shared that home with David and 28 more foster children through the years.
Their efforts have created a legacy of changed lives in many ways. They have encouraged others in the legal profession to become foster parents. Balloun has used his legal skills to help many foster parents adopt. And in that process they created a scholarship fund for foster youths that has inspired those young people to break through the wall of poverty, crime and hopelessness blocking those who reach the age where state foster care funds run out.
Balloun and Wombles married when Balloun’s two biological children were in their 30s.
“After we married, I missed teaching, but mostly I missed the kids,” Wombles recalls. “A friend of ours who was a social worker suggested foster parenting.”
Balloun was long on cases and short on time, yet he shared Wombles’ desire to use their resources to help children.
“I didn’t set out to be a lawyer, and I didn’t set out to be a foster parent,” Balloun says, “but when I got involved in both, I knew I wouldn’t want to be any-thing else. Sheila and I both always liked children, and when we saw how the kids in foster care are so special and deserving of a stable home life—and we could certainly offer that—I just couldn’t not get involved in foster parenting.”
After David, Balloun says, “C.J. was our second foster child; he was a teenager. Then came three brothers: Matt, Richard and Jason; then Mark, who happens to be in the Marines in Iraq right now; then came our second David, and then Ontavio. But keep in mind that all of our children were here for different time periods and for different lengths of time. Some were with us for a few months.”
Giggling from the kitchen area interrupts his remembrances. “And of, course, there’s Hannah,” Wombles says with a glance behind to check on the reason for the young girl’s laughter. “She’s 11 now and came to us as an infant. We knew we wanted to adopt her and were able to almost immediately because her biological mother had already lost parental rights on four other children because of a drug addiction.
“Hannah came into our lives because I had decided that we had been caring for only boys up to that point—not by design, just that’s how it evolved with our foster parenting. I wanted to have the experience of caring for a girl,” Wombles adds. “So at 47 years old, I had a newborn baby girl.”
Balloun and Wombles also experienced the pain of having their adoption requests rejected. “We had gone out of town for a week,” Wombles remembers. “The plan was that when we returned, the adoption process would be started for a boy who had been staying with us for four months.”
“We were told it was a done deal,” Balloun says. “Parental rights of the father were terminated and the mother’s was to be done. But when we returned, the system allowed a distant relative in Chicago to take him because the system favors biological family members first. It didn’t matter that he had bonded with us, was thriving with us, or that we were better suited for parenting him.”
Thereafter, Balloun and Wombles became active in a foster parent support group to offer guidance and to mentor other new foster parents when similar issues arise. “It’s easy to have positive motivations to adopt these kids and then become blindsided by the actual process of getting the adoption papers moving through the court,” Balloun says.
Soon after David’s adoption in 1987, that process became part of Balloun’s practice.
Balloun decided to provide pro bono legal representation for foster parents in adoption proceedings. His pro bono commitment earned him recognition from the ABA with a Pro Bono Award in 2002, but it is the domino effect of this decision that makes him most proud. To date, more than 600 children have “forever families.” Dozens of other children have an education courtesy of Balloun and Wombles’ post-secondary education scholarship fund, all inspired by one adoption.
“Basically, the scholarship fund started because the state of Kansas automatically paid a $500 fee for pro bono adoptions,” Balloun says. “I was going to refuse the fee. Then, after talking with Sheila, the idea of the scholarship fund was born.”
The couple recognized that foster children need help when they become young adults. The law in Kansas—as it was in most states—was that when children turned 18, they would unceremoniously graduate from foster care, “aging out” of the system.
“With little to nothing in terms of financial support to fall back on for daily living needs, higher education was just not possible,” says Balloun. “Even for those children who were adopted out of foster care, our experience has been that their families might have limited means to send them to college, especially these days.”
“We thought that for many of these kids, if they had access to higher education, it was a way to break the poverty cycle that so many continue to be born into,” says Wombles.
Balloun arranged for Shook Hardy to accept the standard attorney fee allocation for his pro bono adoption work; then the firm donated the money to the Kansas Foster and Adoptive Children Scholarship Fund, a program created by Balloun and Wombles. Today the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation administers the fund.
“Our most recent numbers for 2009 show that we have awarded almost $219,000 in scholarships,” Balloun says, “compared to our start in 2001 with just two $750 scholarships. With so many of my colleagues volunteering for pro bono foster care adoptions, the scholarship fund grew. We’ve expanded the program into Missouri.
“The only requirement for the scholarship program is that a student has to have been in the foster care system. It doesn’t matter if they were eventually adopted by a family, aged out of the system, or had only been in foster care a few days or their entire lives.”
Christie Jones, a 2009 University of Kansas graduate, received $11,500 from the fund.
“I think gratitude is the best word to describe how I felt and continue to feel,” Jones says. “It is hard to explain, but I think that my hard work, dedication and character as an adult and while I was in college really reflect how grateful and appreciative I was to receive the scholarship. I wanted to make Gene proud of me.”
Graduating with honors in sociology and women’s studies, Jones is now working in the federal Social Security Administration.
Another aid to Jones’ success is the state’s tuition waiver program for foster care youths. Matt Hudson, a first-year law student at Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, earned a psychology degree last May from the University of Kansas financed, in part, by the state’s tuition waiver program.
“I testified in support of Kansas extending the tuition waiver program to a foster care student’s 23rd birthday, among other changes,” Hudson says.
Kansas is one of 17 states along with the District of Columbia that has a tuition waiver program for foster care youths. Balloun also touts its benefits:
“I don’t understand why more states don’t do it. It really doesn’t cost them anything. Our scholarship program fits nicely with it because the students can use our scholarship funds for books and room and board. ... Certainly lawmakers should see that their states benefit when the kids graduate and get jobs. Forgoing tuition payments for four years is really an investment for the state when you consider that these kids will be paying their taxes during their lifetime of employment.”
A NATIONAL CONCERN
Gene Balloun, Sheila Wombles, and Hannah
The couple’s concern about young adults dropped from foster care support is reflected in nationwide efforts to deal with the issue. In mid-April the ABA organized an invitation-only summit of experts from the foster care trenches to help develop a blueprint for state and national leaders to better serve young people as they age out of the foster care system.
Of particular concern: how to get states to better implement the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008. Under that law, states that allow youths to stay in foster care until age 21 can get federal funding to provide higher education and expand support for those transitioning out of foster care.
“Most of us recognize that children are not independent once they turn 18, nor are they independent when they turn 21—they still need help as they transition into adulthood,” explains U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., who co-sponsored the act. “Providing care to age 21 is a critical improvement, but must be accompanied with any necessary physical and mental health care, job and education services, and most importantly, the human connections that we all need to get by.”
Yet some states refuse to take the necessary first step to obtain the federal funding—allocating cash to support foster youths beyond age 18.
“Many state legislatures are making cuts across the board. Either the cuts prohibit expanding care to those beyond age 18 or eliminate new funding for foster care programs,” says Laura Farber, who participated in the summit and chairs the ABA Commission on Youth at Risk. “Certainly in California, where I practice, the budget is a concern. It seems education is needed to show the shortsightedness of states that are not taking advantage of the federal funding now for helping these kids transition from their foster care.”
And allowing foster youths to age out without adequate preparation for life on their own could erupt into greater problems. “Every year close to 25,000 youth age out of our nation’s foster care system,” says Miriam Aroni Krinsky, summit co-facilitator. “Without the anchor of a family, former foster youth disproportionately join the ranks of the homeless, incarcerated and unemployed.
“Emancipated foster youth earn an average of $6,000 per year, an amount well below the national poverty level. These adolescents are woefully unprepared for independent adult life: Only one-third have a driver’s license, fewer than four in 10 have at least $250 in cash, and fewer than one-quarter have the basic tools to set up a household—let alone the skills to know what to do with those tools.”
Summit experts urged that state legislators realize that foster youths are at a crossroads when they become young adults. “They desperately need help in gaining skills that will be critical to achieving self-sufficiency, and they need to have a safe and stable place to live while they study or work to attain that goal,” says Krinsky, a lecturer at the UCLA School of Public Affairs and an adjunct professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “When you consider that the average age of financial independence is 26 for the general population, for a state to not make support mechanisms available to foster kids beyond their 18th birthday is irresponsible.
“Studies show that foster care youth are 10 times more likely to be arrested than those of the same age, race and sex,” she adds. “One in four who age out of foster care will end up in jail within the first two years after leaving our collective charge. These outcomes are unacceptable and should not be sanctioned.”
Statistics suggest fiscally conscious legislators should view the matching federal funds as a watershed moment for their foster care programs. Otherwise, taxpayers will support foster youths in other state-run facilities: Poverty, prison, pregnancy, homelessness and substance abuse will be a reality for many such young people, according to experts.
“The ABA Commission on Youth at Risk will provide recommendations based on the summit’s work to the ABA House of Delegates in August,” says Farber, who serves on the ABA Journal Board of Editors. “We’ll address how professionals can encourage states to better implement the 2008 act to help children in their foster care programs.
“Educating us, the professionals, is also key. Re-thinking our approach and having a willingness to break out of the business-as-usual practices can better the care for the children at any age in foster care, so we can enable all of them to have a bright future.”
‘THEY JUST NEED AN EXAMPLE’
Wombles and Balloun look forward to seeing those recommendations. “Education at all levels is important,” Balloun says. “Sheila and I have always advocated for training at every level, including the birth parents. Some situations are kids having kids having kids. They have simply never experienced a stable home life so they don’t know how to parent. They just need an example.”
Kansas Court of Appeals Judge Melissa Taylor Standridge is proof of the couple’s teaching by ex-ample. “It was Gene who introduced me to the world of foster care. His passion for making a difference in the lives of foster children was positively infectious.”
Standridge worked for Balloun as an associate more than 15 years ago and feels fortunate to count him as one of her greatest mentors. “Not long after I started, Gene asked me if I would be willing to provide pro bono legal representation for foster parents in adoption proceedings. As I handled more and more of these foster care adoptions, I realized that it wasn’t just Gene who had a passion for helping foster kids. Although I was single at the time, Gene encouraged me to become a licensed foster parent and, fortified by his support and guidance, I have been fostering for over a decade and am in the throes of adopting my fourth foster child.”
Balloun invites all who hear of his family story: “Call me. I’ll help you get a similar program set up. I would love to see a scholarship program funded through pro bono adoption work in every state.”
As for changes in state programs, Balloun poses a simple question: “If you can help a young person achieve a better life and become a member of our society that is productive, employed, adding to your tax base—why wouldn’t you, as a state legislator, do it?” To check on your state’s foster care progress, go to the National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators’ website.
For those who fear they are too busy to help, Jones replies: “The easiest thing is to spread the word. Talk about it. Share this article, share the websites, share Gene’s name. The more people who know about foster children and the adversity we face, the more help can be given. And I don’t expect anyone to take on something like Gene has, but everyone can join in on his genius.”
“This could really ‘balloon’ into something,” puns Wombles on her husband’s last name. “I love happy endings, and the children in foster care, everywhere, are very deserving of a happy ending.”