November 17, 1997
*Clinton Says He Will Approve
Sweeping Changes in Adoption
By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE
WASHINGTON -- President Clinton is preparing to sign into law the most sweeping changes to the nation's adoption and foster-care system in nearly two decades.
The changes, approved by Congress last week as it wrapped up its work for the year, are intended to make it easier to remove children from abusive families and speed up their adoption.
The new legislation marks a fundamental shift in child-welfare philosophy, away from a presumption that everything should be done to reunite children with their birth parents, even if the parents have been abusive. The legislation would instead give more weight to the child's health and safety.
Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., who was a leading sponsor of the legislation, said on the Senate floor before the measure passed by a voice vote: "We will not continue the current system of always putting the needs and rights of the biological parents first." Although that is a worthy goal, he said, "it's time we recognize that some families simply cannot and should not be kept together."
The new legislation would require states to set up a permanent-placement plan for a child after one year of foster care, as opposed to after 18 months under current rules.
The courts would have to terminate parental rights after a child has been in a foster home for 15 of the previous 22 months -- and almost immediately if there is evidence of severe abuse, including abandonment, torture or physical or sexual abuse, or if the parent has caused the death of a sibling.
The legislation also would provide cash bonuses to states that increase their adoptions, giving them $4,000 for each child adopted above the previous year's number and $6,000 for each adoption of a child who is older or has some physical or emotional disability.
Even if the legislation eliminates certain hurdles to adoption, some child-welfare experts said that it was only a first step toward improving the sprawling, fragmented foster-care system, which encompasses a half-million children.
The federal government, which provides some cash assistance for foster care and sets standards for the use of that money, has little actual control over the system, which is administered state by state. "There is very little at the federal level that we can do," a top congressional aide conceded. "But we want to send a signal that we don't like what we see."
The numbers of children in foster care climb every year and are now up 89 percent from 1982 levels. Experts attribute the increase to a combination of social problems, including drug abuse, AIDS and teen-age parenthood, which are responsible in some cases for a new and severe level of child abuse.
But the average number of children in foster care who are adopted has held steady, at about 20,000 per year, according to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich., a nonprofit organization trying to improve health and education. The children who are adopted spend an average of three and a half years to five and a half years in foster homes before finding permanent homes.
Children in foster care are generally perceived as hard to adopt. Many are older, some have major disabilities and some come from severely abusive homes. Some are part of sibling groups that do not want to be broken up.
In addition, many middle-class families who are looking for children want healthy white infants and can more readily find them through private adoption agencies, private lawyers or overseas.
About 63 percent of children in the American foster-care system are nonwhite, according to the Kellogg Foundation. About 47 percent are black, almost three times the percent of black children in the population at large.
Clinton signed legislation last year to remove barriers to cross-racial adoptions. Some agencies believed it was inappropriate for families of one race to adopt a child of another race, which had the effect of slowing the adoption of black children by white families. Experts said it was not clear yet what effect the removal of those barriers has had.
Another reason so many children languish in foster care is a 1980 law that requires courts to make "reasonable efforts" to reunite them with their biological families before parental rights can be severed and the children can be legally available for adoption. Of the 500,000 children in foster care now, only about 100,000 have had their parental rights terminated and are free for adoption.
It is the interpretations of the 1980 law that the current legislation seeks to change. MaryLee Allen, director of the child welfare and mental-health division of the Children's Defense Fund, said that state courts had widely interpreted the 1980 law as a directive to keep biological families together at all costs.
In a statement saying he was eager to sign the legislation, Clinton said the bill "makes clear that children's health and safety are the paramount concerns." He said the bill would help meet his goal of doubling the number of adoptions by 2002.
*excerpted from New York Times
On Nov. 13, 1997, the House and Senate approved the Adoption and Safe Families Act (H.R.867), legislation designed to help keep children safe and in permanent families. The act incorporates several provisions from the Adoption Promotion Act (also called H.R.867), which passed the House in April; the Safe Adoptions and Family Environments Act (S.A.F.E., S.511); and the Promotion of Adoption, Safety and Support for Abused and Neglected Children Act (P.A.S.S., S.1195), as well as additional measures added during final House-Senate negotiations. The bipartisan package promotes safety and permanence in several ways:
Acknowledges the importance of services to prevent child abuse and neglect and assists families in crisis, be they birth, foster, or adoptive families, by reauthorizing for three years the Family Preservation and Support Services Program (renamed the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program), and increasing its funding by about $20 million a year.
S.A.F.E. Act. S.A.F.E. would have expanded resources for courts and
agencies to help ensure that foster children have prompt permanent homes. Despite broad support from child and family advocates and service providers, Congress and the Administration provided little support for the funding increases in the original S.A.F.E. Act. Support for the increases was further diluted by controversy over proposals regarding the funding source to pay for the increased cost of the service and training improvements in S.A.F.E.
For more detailed information, see CDF's two-page description or a
four-page summary of the new act or contact CDF's Child Welfare and
Mental Health Division at 202-662-3568.