Adoption And Safe Families Act

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Adoption and Safe Families Act

Signed into law by President Clinton on November?19, 1997, the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997 was enacted by Congress in an attempt to correct problems that were inherent in the foster care system that deterred the adoption of children with special needs. Many of these problems had stemmed from an earlier bill, the ADOPTION ASSISTANCE AND CHILD WELFARE ACT OF 1980, although they had not been anticipated when the law was passed.

One key problem that appeared to stem from the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 was that child protection agencies subsequently began to concentrate heavily or solely on the principles of FAMILY PRESERVATION, or reunifying a child with his abusive or neglectful parents. Adoption became a goal for few children. The underlying idea with the family preservation concept was that parenting classes and various programs would enable the parents to overcome the problems that led to the abuse and neglect and thus help them become effective parents.

Another problem was that the number of children in the foster care system ballooned subsequent to the passage of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, as did the length of time they spent in the system. The only number that seemed to decline was the number of children who were adopted.

In some cases, family preservation worked. In many cases, however, it was a failure, and children remained in the foster care system for many years. Many children were not returned to their families nor did another family adopt them. Children grew up in the foster care system, often until they "aged out" as young adults.

As Howard A. Davidson wrote in a 1999 issue of Trial, "Too many caseworkers have misapplied principles of family preservation or reunification. The result: Children are maintained in or returned to hellish living environments where they suffer further severe, sometimes lethal, harm .?.?. Too much deference to parental rights has sometimes led child welfare agencies and courts to delay resolving cases, giving unfit parents inordinately long periods of time to remedy their various 'problems.' In these cases, children spend critical childhood years in limbo, sometimes in unsafe foster homes, and many of them come away from the experience emotionally scarred by the instability of multiple temporary placements."

To implement the Adoption and Safe Families Act, Davidson recommended that "Lawyers-particularly those in attorney general offices and state or county attorney offices representing public child welfare agencies-should ensure that these principles are implemented through state legislation, CPS [Child Protective Services] policies, and most important, court practice reform."

To encourage adoptions, the new law authorizes an additional $20 million per year for FY 1999-2003. The money is to be used to incentivize states to increase the numbers of adoptions. States would receive $6,000 for a child in foster care with special needs who is adopted and $4,000 for a child in foster care who does not have special needs. Nearly all foster children have some form of special need, whether it is based on race, emotional problems, age, being a member of a sibling group, or another category. In many cases, children fit into two or more "special needs" categories.

States are also required by the new law to make "reasonable efforts" to place children for adoption. In the past, if a parent severely abused a child or even murdered that child, another child in the family could be returned from foster care to that parent by a judge. The ASFA requires states to terminate parental rights and find an adoptive family if a child has been in foster care for 15 months or longer or if a parent has assaulted or killed another child in the family or if a child has been determined to be an abandoned infant, according to state law.

The major goal of ASFA to move children more quickly out of foster care into adoptive homes (or back to their families, if appropriate) appears to have been met. Testimony and data was presented at a congressional hearing on April?22, 1999 by Joe Kroll, Executive Director of the NORTH AMERICAN COUNCIL ON ADOPTABLE CHILDREN (NACAC).

Kroll said that, of the 45 states that were surveyed by NACAC on the number of finalized adoptions completed in fiscal year 1998, "all but five reported an increase in adoptions." In fact, dramatic changes were seen in some states. Illinois more than doubled the number of adoptions from foster care. In 1995-1997, the state averaged about 2,200 adoptions per year. But in 1998, 4,656 children were adopted from the foster care system. Other states with even higher percentage increases were South Carolina (84.4%), Mississippi (64.9%), North Dakota (68.1%) and Minnesota (61.2%). (See chart on pages 14-16.)

"The increased adoptions show great promise that the country can meet the goals identified in President Clinton's Adoption 2002 initiative and the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997," said Kroll.


Congressional Testimony of Joe Kroll, Executive Director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC), before the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the Committee on Ways and Means regarding Implementation of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, April?22, 1999.

Howard A. Davidson, "Protecting America's Children: A Challenge," Trial 35 (January 1999): 22.

"Foster Care Reform Becomes a Reality," National Adoption Reports, 18 (October 1997).

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