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

Policy Reports | Social

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

Many Would Adopt Foster Children

"71 percent of those polled said they would consider a foster child if adopting."

There is no shortage of Americans who would consider adopting a foster child. A survey commissioned by the Institute for Children and conducted by The Polling Company in Washington, D.C., found that 71 percent of individuals polled would, if deciding to adopt, consider adopting a child who had spent time in foster care.43 Support for adopting a child who had been in foster care was high among all groups, regardless of income, geographical location, race or political affiliation.

Among Generation Xers, 76 percent responded favorably. So did 73 percent of baby boomers. Even 71 percent of pre-retirees and 62 percent of senior citizens said if they were adopting, they would consider a foster child.

  • Those from high socioeconomic backgrounds and low socioeconomic backgrounds were equally likely to consider adopting a foster child (79 percent and 78 percent, respectively).
  • Middle-class respondents were still very willing to consider adopting a foster child, but at a slightly lower level of enthusiasm (69 percent).
  • Eighty-one percent of women under age 50 were willing to consider a foster child, compared to 68 percent of men under age 50.

"The 'special needs' designation has been broadened to become almost meaningless."

Some will argue that the reason foster children are not adopted is that so many of the children awaiting adoption have "special needs." This assertion paints an inaccurate and unfair picture of the children in foster care. Formal recognition of the need for adoptive placements for children with disabilities extends at least as far back as the 1955 National Conference on Adoption. Even 40 years ago, professionals recognized that some children were being subjected to "foster care drift" when they could instead be adopted.44 When the Title IV-E Adoption Assistance Program was authorized by Congress in 1980, its intent was to encourage adoption - rather than long-term foster care - for children with special needs. A child was to be so categorized only after the state had determined that the child could not be adopted without the federal funding triggered by categorization as having special needs. In part because states can garner extra federal funds for special needs children, the designation has been broadened to become almost meaningless.

  • In 1993, all but three states used "race" or "race plus age" as a trigger for special needs categorization.45
  • In the same year 20 states used "emotional ties to foster parents" as a trigger for labeling a child as having special needs.46 This means that if a child is growing up and forming attachments to the people who care for him, and he is a foster child, in 20 states he is classified as special needs.
  • Some states use religion as a trigger for special needs categorization.47
  • In 1993, Florida, Louisiana and Wisconsin reported that 100 percent of public agency adoptions were special needs adoptions.48

There are many consequences to this practice. More than two-thirds of all foster children awaiting adoptive placement at the end of fiscal 1990 had been categorized as having special needs.49 Special needs children are wrongly viewed as less desirable, sometimes even called "unadoptable." Prospective adoptive parents, unaware of the overuse of the term, may be dissuaded from the adoption process. Meanwhile, the needs of severely disabled children are downplayed, as they become included in the same category as a child who is biracial or has a sibling.

The notion that certain children are not adopted from foster care because would-be adoptive parents are interested only in healthy white babies is a myth. Evidence shows that no child is unadoptable. For example, Jim Jenkins of the Children with AIDS Project in Phoenix - a nonprofit group that takes no government funding - has recruited more than 1,000 parents to adopt AIDS orphans and HIV-positive babies. California's Child SHARE (Shelter Homes: A Rescue Effort) is an entirely privately funded nonprofit organization that works through a network of religious communities in Los Angeles County to recruit foster and adoptive parents. Child SHARE provides training workshops, parent-led support groups, emergency child care and baby-sitting. It also maintains church-based co-ops to provide clothes, toys and other supplies for foster children. With its comprehensive support mechanisms, Child SHARE achieves remarkable results that lead to stability and permanency for children: 70 percent of children in Child SHARE homes stay until they are reunited or adopted, eliminating the trauma of multiple placements; additionally, more than 15 percent of children in care are adopted by their Child SHARE foster family. The success of these private efforts makes the public child welfare bureaucracy appear by comparison even more ineffective.

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