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Raising Kids With 'Hope'

FOSTER-CARE CONCEPT

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FOR months, whenever the drug-addicted infant showed alarming signs of withdrawal, foster parent Debbie Calhoun would cradle the baby nobody else wanted.

Today, the robust nine-month-old smiles and chortles in the lap of Mrs. Calhoun's adopted teenage son. Free from the symptoms of drugs, he is developing normally. And, thanks to a unique Illinois foster community, he has hope of never being unwanted again.

The Calhouns live at Hope Meadows, a quiet clustering of 1950s-era homes converted from military housing at the abandoned Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Ill. With neat lawns and rows of black curbside mailboxes, the 22-acre subdivision has the feel of an ordinary, middle-class American neighborhood.

Amid mounting concern that America's foster-care system is failing the children it was designed to protect, Hope Meadows represents a fresh approach to raising young victims of abuse or neglect. While it's too soon to know if the community will become a model, Illinois officials praise the program's cost effectiveness and "strong, community-based approach."

Hope Meadows, situated about 130 miles south of Chicago, is a racially diverse community of about 100 people - nine families with a mixture of 33 biological, adopted, and foster children, as well as 56 senior citizens. Devoted to providing a stable, family-like upbringing for troubled children, it targets groups of siblings in state care who are unlikely to return home or be adopted elsewhere. Hope offers its families immediate, day-to-day support often lacking at standard foster homes.

Child is 'whole focus'

"We have tried to create a community where the whole focus is the child," says Brenda Eheart, a child-care expert and professor at the University of Illinois in nearby Champaign, who founded Hope Meadows in 1994.

Launched with a $1 million state grant, $235,000 of which went to buy the air-base parcel, Hope receives about $500,000 in state funding each year. The cost of care for each child at Hope is now about $20,000 to $25,000 a year, less than half of the average $63,000 at state-run institutions and group homes, but substantially more than the $8,760 a year for standard foster care.

The Illinois Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) acknowledges the program's strengths. But the DCFS has no plans to duplicate Hope, notes regional administrator Don Vacca, saying it is too early to gauge Hope's success.

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