Mellie Klinger's baby looked at her when he spoke his first word: "Mama." But it would be another two years before that word came without any strings attached.
Davey Klinger was 3 by the time the courts finalized his adoption in the fall of 2008, a case his mother thought would have been open and shut after the boy's sister had been violently shaken by one of the children's biological parents, suffering injuries that would eventually kill her.
About a quarter of the children in South Carolina foster care are left in limbo for an average of 39 months, while the state is torn between its responsibility to respect the rights of biological parents and make sure kids are in permanent, loving homes.
Child advocates want kids to spend no more than two birthdays in temporary custody, and several efforts are under way to reach that goal. The national average for foster care is more than 31/2 years, according to 2007 data, the latest available.
Since 2007, the state has shaved six months off the average time a child spends in foster care before an adoption is final, said Kathleen Hayes, director of the S.C. Department of Social Services. Advocates credit her for helping reach that accomplishment.
Hayes said every child in foster care deserves to be returned to his or her parents if they can make a safe and loving home, or, if that doesn't happen, the children deserve to be adopted. A stable, permanent home is essential to a child's healthy development.
"The most amazing part is, in the middle of an economic recession, people in South Carolina are adopting at the highest level ever," she said.
Hayes supports a proposal before the state Legislature backed by the West Columbia-based group Children Come First. It would immediately terminate parental rights in the most severe abuse cases and give biological parents 12 months, instead of the typical year and a half, to address problems that caused the child to be removed from their care in the first place.
The Senate passed the bill. The House is expected to vote on the bill after it returns to session April 13. If approved, it would then go to Gov. Mark Sanford for his signature.
Sanford said parental rights are on "fairly sacred ground," but the rights do have limits.
"When you go off and torture a kid, I think you lose that right," the governor said. "Development of the child is so fundamental. If you cross certain lines with a child, I think you do forfeit and terminate your parental rights."
Sanford created a task force in 2007 to study ways to lessen the time children spend in foster care. The group, which included Hayes, reported back with a long list of recommendations in 2008.
Children Come First was established to carry on that mission and see that the recommendations were put in place.
Children Come First board member James Fletcher Thompson said the pending legislation to terminate parental rights faster builds on some previous efforts. Children Come First successfully pushed for a bill that became law last year that created a registry for biological fathers.
To help cut down on the time it takes to track down some biological fathers, the state has a registry, effective July 1, that requires birth fathers interested in their parental rights to sign up and assert their rights. That helps the system run more smoothly.
When the first goal of reuniting families does not work, the state must step in so children can spend the beginning of their lives in "forever homes."
"It is our belief that lengthy foster care drifts can re-victimize some of our most fragile and vulnerable citizens, these children," Thompson said. He is a Spartanburg lawyer and dad to three adopted kids.
Davey Klinger's biological sister died in August 2008, not long after her second birthday. He's now 5, and his mother, Mellie Klinger, said he is still haunted by nightmares that wake him up some nights. But, during the day, she said, he is a happy boy who loves sports, Sunday school and playing with his new puppy, Rosie.
"He is my forever baby," she said. "He doesn't know what that means."
But she does.