The focus of the adoption law passed last November makes it easier and faster for children to move out of the foster care system and into permanent homes, but advocates say that adequate support services are lacking.
Out of the half-million children in foster care last year, only 20,000 were adopted, some say, because of the previously vague language of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act enacted in 1980.
The new law no longer requires states to make "reasonable efforts" to reunify families in these cases:
- The parent has subjected the child to "aggravated circumstance," such as abandonment, torture, chronic abuse and sexual abuse;
- The parent has committed murder or voluntary manslaughter of another child;
- The parent has committed a felony assault resulting in harm to the child or another sibling and
- The parental rights of the parent to a sibling have been involuntarily terminated.
The new law "helps clarify some of the old language that pits child safety against preservation of the family," says Karabelle Pizzigati, director of public policy for the D.C.-based Child Welfare League of America (CWLA).
To send children to permanent homes quicker, states will be given a $4,000 bonus for every extra child placed in a permanent home and $6,000 for every special-needs child placed. Permanency hearings for a child must now be held within 12 months of removal from the family as opposed to the previous 18 months. To shorten the time children spend in foster care, agencies can now look for adoptive families while still working to reunite birth families. In addition, children with special health needs will be able to keep state-financed health insurance when they are adopted.
"It returns foster care to its original purpose - temporary shelter and care for abused and neglected children," says Patrick Purtill, director of government relations for the National Council on Adoptions. "Kids aren't like books. You can't put them on the shelf until you feel like reading them."
Pizzigati says that advocates and lawmakers agree on essentials of moving children to permanent homes and have a common understanding that support services are necessary to make it happen. Still unanswered, though, are the questions of where the money's going to come from and how the rapidly changing foster care and adoption system should be structured.
States, with limited resources, must make their own decisions about post-adoptive services. Although some are moving to reform child welfare systems, a 1994 Search Institute study reported that support systems, whether due to lack of money or organization, are not there. A majority of parents surveyed - most had adopted in the 1970s - knew little about support groups and workshops about adolescence. More than half wanted workshops and counseling for their teenagers provided by the adoption agency, and almost half wanted personal help coping emotionally and socially with adoption.
- Jennifer Durrence contributed to this article