"We used to get bogged down in the court process for months before a child could get adopted," Backman said.
Now, agency caseworkers review children's cases immediately when they enter into foster care and can map out their futures by anywhere from 60 days to nine months, she said.
"Washington County showed some immediate results. That means they pulled together and did some good work," said Stephanie Pettaway, state adoption manager.
A state-hired recruiter based in Western Maryland helped raise Washington County adoptions to 35 for all of 1996, the highest rate among counties of similar population, Pettaway said.
So far this year, families have permanently sheltered 21 foster children, she said.
"We can make their lives as normal as possible. Here, they can be kids," said Pam Leitma, 38, a Hagerstown mother who, with husband Phillip, 35, has given birth to three children and has taken in six foster children in the past two years.
The couple adopted one chronic asthma-stricken 3-year-old boy in October to help meet his medical needs, Pam Leitma said.
State and county officials said permanent family bonds help ease the problems of a child shuttled from home to home.
"Their self-esteem, self-worth is ruined by that time because they feel that nobody wants them. When you feel you aren't wanted, you tend to act out that way," said Darryl Shanholtz, president of the Washington County Foster Parent Association.
Also a foster parent of nine girls in the past seven years, Shanholtz, of Clear Spring, called Washington County "foster parent heaven" because of the way caseworkers include them in all major decisions involving the children.
"Our staff worked really hard to educate the community as to the needs of these children," most of whom have abusive or negligent parents, said county Social Services Director David Engle.
"We are really lucky at Washington County to have families step forward to receive these children," he said.