In July 2009, an article in the Washington Post posited that since the number of adoptions from foster care have declined, that city’s child welfare agency is not doing an adequate job of caring for foster children within their jurisdiction.
Read the article here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/19/AR2009071901430.html?sub=AR D.C. Adoptions Drop Sharply, Causing Dismay City Agency Is Not Doing Enough For Foster Children, Critics Say
This is fair, on the face of it, only if you equate adoption with success. And, clearly some observers do. At best, this is a gross oversimplification. The first responsibility of child welfare agencies is to make minor children safe and the second is to make a good faith effort to heal families so that these minor children do not become wards of the state.
Unfortunately, there are sound fiscal reasons for assuming that adoption = success:
Adoptive parents become financially responsible for the children they adopt, in most instances, completely relieving the jurisdiction of the financial burden. While children are in foster care, foster parents are reimbursed for providing for the child’s material needs and child welfare agencies devote a tremendous amount of time and resources to collecting support from natural parents to underwrite these payments.
For some years now, the federal government has paid a subsidy (or bounty) to state agencies that successfully place foster children in permanent adoptive homes. (See 105-89, at http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=105_cong_public_laws&docid=f:publ89.105.pdf.)
The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997 requires states to improve their efforts to provide children with permanent families.* The law requires states to ensure foster children have a permanency plan within a year. It also mandates termination of parental rights for (1) children who have been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months, or (2) whose parents have killed or seriously injured another child in the family. No one would argue with the later qualifier and most would think the former is reasonable. But surely there are exceptions. If adequate programs do not exist to heal dysfunctional families then the child welfare system that has failed.
What bothers most adoption reform advocates is that ASFA provides financial incentives for states to increase the number of adoptions from foster care by providing payments of up to $4,000 per adoption or $6,000 per special needs adoption when states exceed the previous years’ total. It is this part of ASFA that concerns me. As with almost any action government takes, there are unintended consequences.
The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform states:
“The federal law that effectively abolished the reasonable efforts requirement, the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), also requires states to seek termination of parental rights for many children in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months. Yet in many jurisdictions it can take at least 12 months for a judge to decide if the initial placement was justified in the first place.
“Thus, while some children in foster care do indeed need to be adopted, ASFA encourages the indiscriminate adoption of children without regard to whether they could have remained safely in their own, loving homes.
“And this influx of new termination cases comes despite increasing evidence that the system can’t cope with the thousands of children legally free for adoption right now.” (http://www.nccpr.org/newissues/14.html)
Instead of removing the foster children who have languished in foster care for an extended period of time, ASFA’s bounty system has, in some instances, resulted in the removal from families of origin, younger, more adoptable children, in some instances before every effort to keep the family together has been tried. Family preservation clearly offers NO financial incentive.
Quoting again from NCCPR: “As adoptions level off, the pressure to increase them again – and cash in on the bounties – is likely to have another pernicious effect. It is likely to prompt agencies to target the children most in demand by prospective adoptive parents: healthy infants from poor families. Agencies will rationalize that the parents really are “unfit” even as they continue to turn their child welfare systems into the ultimate middle-class entitlement: Step right up, and take a poor person’s child for your very own.”
See the following media reports that document this phenomena:
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette series, “When The Bough Breaks,” available online at http://www.post-gazette.com/newslinks/1999boughbreaks.asp
Lexington Herald-Leader, April 16, 2006, “Report: State unjustly terminates parental rights for federal money.”
Daily News of Los Angeles, December 8, 2003, “Government Bonuses Accelerate Adoptions.”
There are also some positive reasons why the situation in Washington, DC is changing. A colleague who is a social worker in DC in addition to being a triad member shared this with me: “good news… is that they are really trying harder, as I understand it, not to remove children from the home. They are trying to give more services on a higher level than was occurring in the past, with the hope that they will not have to take the children into care. Of course there has to be the available therapists, rehab programs, etc. to work with the clients….Those numbers may reflect this emphasis which has been escalated for quite a while.”
Although, she said that there are parents who cannot shake off substance abuse despite their good intentions but other parents when faced with an ultimatum, that the children will be removed, “will do anything they need to do to keep them.” Isn’t that the most positive outcome for such situations?
Of course, some readers will classify this as anti-adoption rhetoric. Indeed, when the Post article appeared last month, some adoption attorneys accused child welfare officials of being anti-adoption because from the “parental” point of view, there was a financial incentive to NOT adopt their foster son or daughter thus ending the government subsidy. And that prompted a thoughtful commentary from a number of adoption reform bloggers including this one: blog.amyadoptee.com/2009/07/23/define-antiadoption.aspx.
Whatever you think of adoption, keep in mind that it should be about finding a home for a child who needs one rather than about finding a child for a family that wants one. When those two situations coincide, adoption is a wonderful option. But when an existing family is torn apart needlessly in order to create an adoptive family, it’s cruel. When you read the dry statistics about parental terminations and adoptions, note that the number of parental terminations is substantially higher than the number of children adopted. If this trend continues, it only exacerbates the number of children who will grow up with no permanent home and, moreover, with proof in their minds that no one wants them. We must take care as a society that we don’t replace one bad outcome with a worse outcome in our efforts to do good.
* Between 1997 and 2000 adoptions of foster children increased from 31,030 to 51,000 but they leveled off at about 50,000 per year since according to 1997 to 2003: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Adoptions of Children with Public Child Welfare Agency Involvement By State FY 1995-FY 2003, available online at http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/stats_research/afcars/ adoptchild03b.htm, 2004 to 2007: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Trends in Foster Care and Adoption, chart available online at http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/stats_research/afcars/trends.htm)