On a Wednesday in late May the sweet cherub-cheeked face of Barbara appears on the Channel 8 evening news in Dallas. Here is twelve-year-old Barbara out for a pleasant afternoon at the Forth Worth Zoo, petting the baby deer and rabbits. She is dressed in pink shorts, a pink-and-white shirt, and white straw sandals, looking wholesome enough to star in a Blue Bell ice cream commercial.
Barbara is on television because she is a Wednesday’s Child, one of about eight hundred children in Texas who on any given day are waiting for someone to adopt them. Most Wednesday’s Children are wards of the state; a few are in the custody of private agencies. They were either abandoned by their biological parents or so abused that the Texas Department of Human Services took custody of them to save their lives. Their faces are familiar to us; each week an estimated 80 percent of the population of Texas sees Wednesday’s Children on the local news. They appear on our TV screens and from there, presumably, are taken into the arms of safe, loving families. It is the perfect made-for-television story; everyone seems to live happily ever after.
WFAA anchorman John Criswell tells viewers that up until now Barbara’s life has been one of terror. “Barbara was severely victimized, and it will always affect her life,” says Criswell as he strolls with her through the zoo. “Caseworkers describe Barbara as twelve going on thirty-five.”
Before she became a Wednesday’s Child, Barbara had another identity. She was a prostitute known on the streets of Dallas as Raspberry. Her first experience with sex occurred when her mother—a schizophrenic who was married to an alcoholic—allowed her boyfriends to sleep with Barbara. Barbara later turned to prostitution. Last summer she ran away from her pimp and turned herself in to the Dallas police. The night she fled to the police, Barbara was wearing a black miniskirt and hooker-style makeup, and her brownish-blond hair was spiked. She told the police and her social workers that her pimp’s name was Star Child. Lately she has been living in a state-licensed group home and is taking prescribed medicine for depression and anxiety.
The two-minute television segment about Barbara does not reveal the dark details of her life. Criswell ends by telling viewers Barbara is a good student and wants to be a veterinarian. “Barbara is a survivor,” he says. “Now she needs parents to help her thrive.” On the screen flashes a telephone number for viewers who want to make Barbara their daughter.
“Monday’s child is fair of face,” goes the old Mother Goose nursery rhyme. “Tuesday’s child is full of grace/Wednesday’s child is full of woe.” The rhyme is perhaps the most honest thing that can be said about these children. Barbara is a typical Wednesday’s Child. By the time the social service system found Barbara and decided to market her on TV, she had suffered years of brutalization. It’s difficult to reconcile the television image of Barbara enjoying a trip to the zoo with the reality of her past and the riskiness of her future. The heartbreaking truth is that whoever adopts Barbara is adopting Raspberry as well.
There are no orphanages in Texas anymore. The Department of Human Services declared them nonexistent in the mid-seventies. In the late sixties changing social attitudes made the idea of rearing children in orphanages repugnant to child-welfare experts. Soon support for deinstitutionalization spread to the public. At the same time, the DHS gave abandoned and unwanted children a new name. In 1975 they became “special-needs children,” a phrase that fit neatly with the belief that they would be better off in families than in orphanages.
Today there is a shockingly high number of victimized children, innocents whose parents have subjected them to horrendous physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. In 1986 Texas had more than 61,000 confirmed victims of child abuse, double the number of reported cases in 1976. Of 8,911 confirmed cases of sexual abuse, slightly more than half of the victims were under ten years old.
Often parents who are abusing their children don’t want to give them up, and their reluctance is matched by DHS’s. The primary goal of the courts and social service agencies is to keep children with their biological parents. Sometimes, though, meeting that goal puts a child’s life at risk. By the time the state moves in to take children from their parents permanently, the odds are overwhelming that such children have been irreparably damaged. As infants, they learned that their fundamental survival needs would not be met. When they were hungry, no one fed them; when they cried out for comfort, they were beaten or sexually molested. The consensus among psychologists who specialize in abused children is that if they receive treatment before the age of seven, they have a decent chance of becoming attached to a new set of parents. After the age of eleven, the chances of ever truly bonding are poor. The average age of a Wednesday’s Child at the time of adoption is eight. Yet many, like Barbara, are adolescents.
The first step for children who have been removed from their parents is to be placed in a foster home. Eventually, however, children who become wards of the state are cleared for adoption. Although only a few appear on the local news, all of these children are known as Wednesday’s Children.
The practice of marketing the children evolved from the pet-of-the-week stories in newspapers. The idea was that if sad stories helped dogs and cats find homes, the same system could work with children. So in the mid-seventies the DHS began recruiting adoptive parents through the newspapers. The department gave reporters general information about its hardest-to-place children, and the feature stories appeared under the “Wednesday’s Child” label.
In 1980 John Criswell became the first broadcast journalist in Texas to put these children on the air. Now most Texas markets have at least one television station that carries “Wednesday’s Child” spots. The spots are a strange mixture of