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


Reshaping the Foster Care System

"Both federal and state government must reduce the barriers to adoption of foster children through private agencies."

With more than 50,000 foster children legally free for adoption, a favorable attitude by a preponderance of Americans toward considering the adoption of a foster child and a large number of families seeking to adopt, why are more foster children not adopted? Why are so many reaching age 18 and exiting the system, still without a permanent home?

The system itself must bear much of the blame because of the flaws cited previously in this study. Both federal and state governments must reduce the barriers to adoption of foster children through private agencies. Further, the system must reward efforts to increase adoptions and penalize laggard performance.50 The federal government should:

  • Base payments to states on program efficacy, with emphasis on how effectively the states secure safe, permanent homes for children - either in the biological or an adoptive family.
  • Require states to follow a 12-month timetable from the day a child enters foster care until he is either reunified with his biological family (with a one-time extension to 24 months) or adopted, and grant funding accordingly.
  • Redefine "special needs" to mean children with physical or other types of handicaps that would either require ongoing medical attention or otherwise result in increased costs to adoptive families.
  • Require states to report publicly each year the number of foster children in state care, the number free to be adopted but not in pre-adoptive or guardianship placements and the number of state-approved adoptive families who have been recruited and are seeking to adopt.
  • Give greater autonomy over foster care to the states to encourage more initiatives in the private, voluntary sector.

States in turn should:

  • Enact policies and practices that have as their goal a 12-month maximum stay, so that foster care is viewed as a truly temporary form of caring for vulnerable children.
  • Grant biological parents no more than 12 months to prove their fitness to resume custody of their children.
  • Give unwed noncustodial biological parents 30 days from the birth of a child to formalize their parental rights or forfeit the right to contest adoption.
  • Prohibit race-based delays in adoption.
  • Terminate parental rights for abandoned children after 30 days and allow adoption through private agencies without placement in foster care.
  • Require Departments of Social Services (or equivalent agencies) to practice concurrent planning from the first day a child enters foster care; this way, by the time a child has been freed for adoption, an adoptive home should have been identified.
  • Require Departments of Social Services (or equivalent agencies) to secure adoptive homes for children within 30 days after the termination of parental rights or contract the adoption process out to a private agency.

"The focus should be on the well-being of children rather than the growth of state-run programs."

Child welfare policy must shift away from reliance on government programs, toward an expanded role for the private, charitable sector. The focus should be on the well-being of children, rather than the growth of state-run programs. Since no program can ever replace the love and commitment of a caring family, the ultimate goal must be a permanent home for every one of America's children.


The authors express their gratitude to Ted Kulik, Shamim Nielsen, Amory Downes, Angelica Marin, Kirby Files, Marya Klugerman, Adriana Best and Tim Cull for their valuable contributions to the two-year Institute for Children study of public child welfare agencies. The Institute for Children gratefully acknowledges the dedication and attention to detail of The Polling Company, Washington, D.C.

NOTE: Nothing written here should be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the National Center for Policy Analysis or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress.


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