The State of the Children: An Examination of Government-Run Foster Care

Studies | Social

No. 210
Friday, August 01, 1997
by Conna Craig and Derek Herbert


The Exit to Adoption Is Blocked


More than 50,000 foster children are legally free to be adopted, yet remain in the uncertainty of so-called temporary foster care. These are children for whom the TPR ("termination of parental rights") decision has already been made: they became legally free for adoption when a court terminated the rights of their biological parents.34 This process is so time-consuming that it can take the better part of a childhood to complete. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) estimated that in 11 states studied it takes, on average, from 12 months to 78 months between the point a child enters foster care and completion of the termination of parental rights.35 Once legally freed, a child will not return to his family of origin. Family preservation and family reunification services have ended, and thus the legal barriers to adoption are gone. However, other barriers remain.

  • In the states studied by HHS, children who are adopted from foster care leave the system between 3.5 and 5.5 years after they enter.36
  • Almost half (46 percent ) of the children awaiting adoptive placement in 16 states at the end of 1990 had spent two years or more waiting for a permanent family.37
  • Another 21 percent of children had waited for one to two years.38

The most troublesome obstacles to foster-child adoption are: (a) a federal funding scheme that compensates states for keeping children in care; (b) the failure of states, including the court system, to expedite adoptive placements; (c) overuse of the "special needs" categorization; and (d) a lack of public awareness about the number of children in foster care who are legally free for adoption but not in pre-adoptive homes.39

"The way the federal government reimburses states reward growth in program size instead of effective care."

The federal government reimburses states for foster care costs on a per-day, per-child basis ­p; even after children are legally free for adoption ­p; rewarding growth in program size instead of effective care. Additionally, federal law requires that in order to secure foster care funding through Title IV-E (this year states will claim an estimated $3.6 billion for Title IV-E foster care), states must meet "reasonable efforts" to preserve at-risk families and to reunify abused and neglected children with their biological parents.40 In practice, this is one of the factors that has resulted in a bias toward reunifying children with even the most abusive and neglectful biological parents.41

States are failing to expedite the adoption of foster children who are legally free for adoption. The federal government does not require states to finalize foster child adoptions expeditiously, and even its attempts to do so have proved impotent. For example, although the 104th Congress tried to eliminate adoption delays caused by race-matching, a social work preference for same-race adoption is still practiced in many jurisdictions.

While a few bellwether states use private adoption agencies, most states maintain a monopoly on the adoption process. The federal government does not require that states actively seek adoptive homes for all free-to-be-adopted children. Many of these children are often assigned instead to long-term foster care and/or the federally funded, $70 million per-year Independent Living Program. This program has been criticized by adoption advocates; as one put it: "To a kid in foster care, Independent Living means 'I'm homeless at 19.'"


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