ROYAL OAK, Mich. - Five years in foster care has been too long for Nicholas Norton.
The 15-year-old who plans to be a veterinarian has bounced between two foster families and the group youth home where he has lived in this Detroit suburb since he last saw his biological mother four years ago. Now he is awaiting permanent adoption.
"I miss the independent love with a family instead of people trying to care about me as best they can," he said.
Young Norton was in the audience yesterday as Texas Gov. George W. Bush outlined a proposed federal policy he said would help children and teens languishing in the limbo of child welfare: foster care while awaiting adoption.
The presumed Republican presidential nominee said if elected, he would provide $1 billion over five years for states to try to keep children in their biological families.
"The first goal is to reunite a child with the biological family in a healthy and safe environment," he said.
But recognizing that's not always possible, Mr. Bush outlined a national plan to make adoption easier administratively and financially, and to provide tuition or vocation training credits. to young adults who outgrow the foster-care system.
"Foster care ought to be a bridge to adoption. Adoption is a loving alternative. Adoption is one of the greatest acts of kindness in our society," he said.
Under his proposal, the tax credit for expenses associated with adoption would increase from $5,000 to $7,500 and set a goal of "permanence" for children in foster care - either a safe return to the biological family or finalized adoption.
He would require states to conduct better criminal background checks on foster and adoptive families.
Mr. Bush announced his plan at the Judson Center, an agency with offices throughout southern Michigan which provides family and social services including adoption counseling and placement. He said improving the lives of children should be a priority of all communities in the United States.
"The most important job any of us will ever have is to be a loving mother and a loving dad, to be a responsible mom and a responsible dad," he said.
In Lucas County, about 700 children and teens are in foster care during a year, Dean Sparks, executive director of Lucas County Children's Services, said.
"On any given day, we have about 550 in foster care, 80 in custody," he said. "We are at any moment looking for 70 families for adoptive children."
Mr. Sparks applauded Mr. Bush's proposal and said he hopes for more attention to the issue.
"The support for adoptive families all over the country needs to be increased," he said. "I hope that any candidate that is running for national office will put children on the top of their priority list."
Marn Myers, Judson's chief operating officer, said situations like young Norton's are common: children who wait years to be adopted while living in group settings.
"There is a crisis for children who are in the child welfare system. There are more children in the child welfare system than there are foster and adoptive families stepping forward today," she said.
According to the Institute for Children, a Boston-based charitable child advocacy group, about 700,000 children will be in foster care at some point this year.
On any given day, about 540,000 children are in a foster setting, said Conna Craig, the institute's president, who appeared with Mr. Bush yesterday.
"This is so much more than a policy issue," Ms. Craig said. "Every child is adoptable and lovable."
Ms. Craig was abandoned by her biological parents and then adopted by a couple who raised 117 foster children as well as adopting nine.
"I've often sat with governors and taken their hands and looked in their eyes and said, 'How many of me are you willing to throw away?' " she said.
Mr. Bush later appeared at a fund-raiser in downtown Detroit where more than 500 people paid $1,000 a plate.
In a 20-minute speech, Mr. Bush broadly outlined several policies he would enact if elected, including tax reform, rebuilding the military, and making public schools accountable for student school performance.
He said a Bush presidency would "uphold the honor and dignity of the office."