A Step Forward for Foster Care

Commentary by Pete du Pont

People working in the nation's government-operated foster care system finally have gained permission to give a foster child's safety and well-being priority over anything else.

That may seem like common sense, but for the past 17 years federal law has required emphasis on reuniting the biological family, no matter how abusive conditions were likely to be -- even if a parent had killed another child.

That is one of the changes in foster care policy brought about by the new Adoption and Safe Families Act. The act makes other improvements intended to move children out of foster care and into adoptive homes more quickly.

For example, a "permanency plan" -- for reuniting the foster child with the biological family, or preparing for adoption or another outcome - is required for every child within 12 months of entering foster care, down from 18 months before the new legislation. If a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months, a state must start the process of terminating parental rights -- the first step toward making the child legally free for adoption. And if a state places more foster children in adoptive homes than it averaged placing in the last three years, it gets a $4,000 or $6,000 bonus (depending on the characteristics of the child) for each adoption that exceeds the average.

There are other provisions of the new law that are designed to give states incentives to move more children out of foster care more quickly. Unfortunately, though, there are also a host of loopholes allowing states to continue getting federal money for foster care even if they aren't doing their job well.

Conna Craig, president of the Institute for Children, evaluates the new law as "five steps forward and two steps back, which is a net gain - but federal law doesn't yet fully meet the needs of the children."

Ms. Craig's institute surveyed the nation and found that while adoptions of 22,491 foster children were finalized in the fiscal year 1996, that left 53,642 foster children who were legally free for adoption still in foster care as fiscal 1997 began. And that was a typical year, she said.

The new law still requires too little accountability on the part of the states, and there are still a host of ways states can wait years before they act aggressively to free a child for adoption. For example, even if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months, a state can claim that there is a compelling reason that filing to terminate parental rights would not be in the child's best interest. Or a state can simply say that it hasn't provided the biological family the necessary services that might have made it possible to return the child safely to the home. But there are hundreds of thousands of children already in foster care to whom the law doesn't apply right away.

At any one time, there are about half a million children in foster care nationwide. The great majority do return to their biological families, but a substantial minority do not -- and too often they simply are trapped in the system. One of every 10 foster children stays in foster care longer than seven years. And each year about 15,000 reach the age of majority and leave foster care without a permanent family -- many to join the ranks of the homeless or to commit crimes and be imprisoned.

The Child Welfare League of America complained that the new law didn't include enough additional money for all the things that foster care workers need to do for training and for services to help reunite families. Money is indeed a big part of the problem, but not in the way the Child Welfare League means. Rather, many states are dragging their feet because they get federal funds according to the number of children in foster care.

"If the states don't do the job, they shouldn't get the money," contends Ms. Craig. She has a point. Still, we should offer about two cheers for the Adoption and Safe Families Act, applauding it as the first step in desperately needed reform of a system that still fails in great part to meet its requirements to take care of children who have no place else to go.