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New Hope for Kids in Foster Care

Thanks to changes in the law, more parents are taking another look at foster adoption.By Madelyn Freundlich

It is 1995, and four-year-old Timmy has been in foster care most of his life. He was removed from his mother’s care when he was only a few months old, after she had left him alone in their apartment for almost two days. Over the past four years, Timmy has been in three different foster homes, while his mother has been trying to resolve her problems. Even though his current foster parents want very much to adopt him, the agency’s goal is to reunite Timmy with his mother. When that might happen is not clear.

Fast forward to 2005. Another little boy named Timmy has entered care as a baby. His mother has continued to have employment, housing, and mental health problems, despite efforts to help her over the last year and a half. Unlike the other Timmy, who continued to wait as the agency attempted to help his mother, this Timmy will most likely be placed in a permanent home with a family who wants to adopt him.

How is it that, in 2005, Timmy’s chances are so different than they would have been in 1995? Since 1997, with the enactment of a new federal law, The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), adoption has become a possibility for thousands of children. This represents a radical change.

A New Approach
In the 1970s, the emphasis was on removing children from unsafe families and protecting them through placement in foster care. But at the same time, there was a general reluctance to free children for adoption. Although adoption came to be viewed more favorably by the late 1980s and early 1990s, the commitment to freeing children for adoption was replaced by a philosophy that families should be kept together. Reunification was the desired outcome, even if it took years to achieve. Adoption was often perceived as a “failure” because it denied the reuniting of a child and his biological family.

By the mid-1990s, it had become apparent that children were remaining in foster care far too long and that, in many cases, efforts to reunify children with their parents were to little or no avail. Criticism of the emphasis on family preservation began to mount. Increasingly, attention focused on the negative consequences for children who remained in foster care for indefinite periods of time. The ASFA made a number of significant changes, and among the most important were requirements that children in foster care either be returned to their families or freed for adoption within a relatively short period of time. Additionally, ASFA addressed the financial disincentives to states in moving children from foster care to adoption. The new law gives states incentive payments based on numbers of finalized adoptions of children in foster care.

Since the ASFA was enacted, far more children in foster care are being adopted. In 1999, 46,000 children in foster care were adopted, compared to 17,000 children in 1990. Currently, some 134,000 children of varying ages, races, and ethnicity are free to be adopted.

Though freeing children for adoption is a positive step, it is only a first step. More needs to be done to alert prospective families to these children and to inform them of the processes involved in adoption. Some agencies have moved on their own to provide such services; others have been forced to do so through external pressures, such as lawsuits brought on behalf of children by organizations like Children’s Rights Inc.

In fact, such a lawsuit has been brought against the state of Tennessee by Children’s Rights Inc., on behalf of children like Denise, who spent eight years in foster care before her foster mom, Pearle, was allowed to adopt her (see “How We Became a Family”). Because of ASFA, the lawsuit, and Pearle’s determination, Denise now has the love of a permanent family.

The opportunities for bringing children and families together through adoption now exist—the challenge is to fulfill the promise of a family for each waiting child in foster care.

Madelyn Freundlich, a lawyer and social worker, is policy director for Children’s Rights Inc. in New York City.

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