“Family preservation services are an appropriate strategy for enabling some children to safely remain with their families while a crisis is being diffused.”
National Resource Center on Child Sexual Abuse News, March/April 1996
“If state agencies focus on preserving biological families, foster kids will continue to be shuffled around in the system.”
—Minnesota Daily, June 24, 1998
On December 14, 1996, former president Bill Clinton instructed the secretary of health and human services to develop strategies to move children out of foster care and into permanent homes. He set a goal to at least double the number of adoptions among foster care children in six years. In response to Clinton’s instructions, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) introduced the child welfare initiative known as Adoption 2002. This initiative was founded on the belief that every child deserves a stable, safe, and nurturing home rather than temporary placement in foster care.
The most significant result of Adoption 2002 was the enactment of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA). This law marks a shift away from the philosophy of “family preservation,” the belief that efforts should be made to reunite abused or neglected children with their biological parents, and toward “permanency planning.” The objective of permanency planning is to find permanent adoptive homes for abused and neglected children as soon as possible. Before the ASFA, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 shaped American adoption policies. This legislation emphasized family preservation and regarded adoption as an action that took place after reasonable efforts to reunify a family had failed. The term “reasonable efforts” has come to describe programs designed to help disadvantaged or troubled parents take care of their children. These include education, job training, substance abuse programs, and counseling. Other efforts that promote family preservation include kinship care arrangements, in which a child’s relatives are encouraged to become his or her legal guardians.
Architects of the ASFA claimed that the escalating number of children entering foster care highlighted the urgent need to place more of them into adoption. Furthermore, they maintained that unnecessary measures to preserve families had not only increased the number of children entering foster care, but had also extended their stays in the foster care system. At the time, the number of children in foster care had doubled in a decade, reaching 500,000. Responding to this trend, the ASFA implemented changes on a federal level that decreased efforts to reunify families and provided incentives for couples to adopt. For instance, child welfare agencies are no longer required to pursue “reasonable efforts” before terminating parental rights if the child was exposed to evidently extreme or life-threatening neglect or abuse.
Today, the impacts of Adoption 2002 and the alignment of adoption policies with permanency planning are evident nationwide. In 1996, approximately 28,000 children in the United States were adopted from foster care. In 1998, after the ASFA was initiated, the number rose to 36,000. The following year, 46,000 foster children were adopted, surpassing that year’s goal of 41,000. So far, the HHS has awarded financial bonuses to forty-two states for increasing their adoption of foster care children.
Many adoption professionals and advocates praise the changes the ASFA brought to adoption laws and practices. Some proponents insist that expediting the adoption process protects the future of troubled and disadvantaged children. The Search Institute, a public policy research organization, reports that teenagers that were adopted at birth are more likely than children raised in their own birth families to live in two-parent, middle-class families. In addition, according to the institute, adopted children perform better academically than children who are raised by single parents or grandparents.
Others assert that strategies to reunify families are gener- ally unsuccessful in attaining the goal of family stability. Conservative policy analyst Patrick F. Fagan states,
Because of their own high costs . . . family preservation services cannot be sustained for long periods; and because of high demand, caseworkers move quickly to take care of the next family in crisis. This approach did succeed in stopping the removal of children from the home, but not necessarily in preserving them from further abuse. . . . In New York City alone, during the 12 months of 1992, 21 children were killed by a parent or mother’s boyfriend after the Child Welfare Administration had intervened.
Although Fagan presents an extreme example, he communicates the growing concern among child welfare professionals that preserving biological relationships may come into conflict with the child’s best interest.
However, there is opposition to the shift of adoption philosophy from family preservation to permanency planning. Proponents of family reunification contend that the inherent value of biological relationships must be protected. Adoption expert James L. Gritter says, “Biological connection is no trifle. It is inherently meaningful, never something to underestimate or take lightly.” In addition, the Family Preservation Institute, an organization that develops family preservation services, contends that most children benefit from remaining with their biological families: “People of all ages can best develop, with few exceptions, by remaining with their family or relying on them as an important resource.”
Perhaps the most vocal opponent of the ASFA is the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (NCCPR), an organization that works ardently to preserve troubled families. The organization contends that when the ASFA was introduced, “the debate over ‘reasonable efforts’ had taken an Orwellian turn. Child savers began blaming it for their own failure to get children out of foster care.” Moreover, the NCCPR suggests that “reasonable efforts” were prematurely dismissed because “agencies typically made little or no effort at all to keep families together.”
In their mission to prove that “reasonable efforts” are effective, the NCCPR studied the Homebuilders Program. In this program, according to the NCCPR, the social worker “spends her or his time in the family’s home, so she can see the family in action” and addresses “the problems the family identifies.” Their underlying goal is to “combine traditional counseling and parent education with a strong emphasis on providing ‘hard’ services to ameliorate the worst aspects of poverty.” The NCCPR claims that the Homebuilders Program works. For instance, the coalition reports that when the state of Michigan adopted programs based on the Homebuilders model, only two children died during the first two years and none thereafter. In contrast, the NCCPR contends that when Illinois discontinued family preservation efforts, five children died of abuse in foster care in one year.
The initiation of Adoption 2002, particularly the enactment of the ASFA, has brought the most significant change to U.S. adoption practices in nearly two decades. Supporters of the initiative claim that the ideas of kinship and family must be reevaluated to serve the needs of children and that the HHS was justified in reducing the preference for biological connections. Nonetheless, organizations such as the NCCPR assert that if services to reunify families are unsuccessful, it is because they are either poorly planned or terminated before families are given the chance to succeed. The coalition concludes that deserting “reasonable efforts” may lead to the systematic separation of many disadvantaged families. Adoption: Opposing Viewpoints explores this topic and other contemporary adoption issues in the following chapters: Should Adoption Be Encouraged? Whose Rights Should Be Protected in the Adoption Process? Are Some Adoptions More Problematic than Others? Should Adoption Policies Be Changed? Addressing these questions reveals the diverse views on how the needs of dependent children must be fulfilled.