Federal Adoption Initiatives Move Forward
Permanent families mean everything to children in foster care. If federal adoption reform is truly to benefit children, and double the number of foster children who find permanence by the year 2002, families must be enabled and empowered to provide homes for children who wait. Happily, several federal initiatives are giving rise to new hope.
NACAC has not officially endorsed pending legislation, but we welcome existing action, and applaud the direction in which the House of Representatives and Senate are heading. Below are highlights of three current plans from the House, Senate, and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that could make a significant difference to children in foster care.
"Reasonable Efforts" to Reunite Families
As amended in 1996, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) requires that "reasonable efforts" must be made to keep families together, unless a child's parents are found to have killed or seriously injured one or more of their children (or to have contributed to those actions). A conviction for murder, manslaughter, or serious injury is grounds for termination of parental rights (TPR).
While HHS has been working on administrative guidance for CAPTA (due out by April 14,1997), the House and Senate have developed legislation that also addresses issues of child safety. The Adoption Promotion Act of 1997 (H.R. 867), introduced February 27th by Representatives David Camp (R-MI) and Barbara Kennelly (D-CT), provides that efforts to keep a child in or return a child to his or her home are not required in cases involving "aggravated circumstances"--if, for example, the child has been abandoned, tortured, or chronically abused. Children's safety is also a theme of the Senate's Safe Adoptions and Family Environments (SAFE) Act (S.511), introduced on March 20th by a bipartisan group of Senators.
Funding for Reunification Efforts
In cases where reunification efforts are feasible, children sometimes spend unnecessary time in care while their birth parents await required services (and agencies await the funds to provide the service). To assure that local agencies can provide services in a timely fashion, the Senate's SAFE Act allows states to collect reimbursements for reunification services that occur within a year from the date a child enters care.
To address the most common problem that lands children in care-parental substance abuse-the Senate's new legislation also requires that states give priority to parents who are referred by the state or a local child welfare agency for substance abuse treatment. Timely provision of treatment should accelerate permanency planning decision-making (for reunification or another alternative), and consequently shorten the length of time that children spend in care. Because data suggests that many parents whose children are in care have abused drugs and/or alcohol, this provision is particularly important.
To speed the rate at which states make and review permanency plans for children in care, all three plans-H.R.867, S.511, and HHS recommendations issued earlier this year in response to the President's Adoption Initiative—set a time limit of 12 months after entry into care (versus 18 months) for states to hold dispositional or "permanency planning" hearings. Both HHS and the Senate bill also suggest that status reviews be conducted at 6 month intervals, instead of the 12 month timeframe set by the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (P.L. 96-272).
S. 511 language carefully emphasizes "permanency" in the planning process for foster children. If enacted, the bill would replace existing references to a child's "future status" (which include options such as short- and long-term foster care) with a list of "permanency plans" that specify if and when a child might return to his or her parent(s), be referred for TPR, be placed for adoption, or be "referred for legal guardianship, or other planned permanent living arrangement" (§ 302; 10-17).
When a state's goal for a child is adoption or another permanent placement, the Senate bill requires states to make "reasonable efforts" to place children "in a timely manner" and finalize all adoptions or legal guardianship arrangements. Some jurisdictions-like Jefferson County in Kentucky-already conduct post-TPR reviews every six months to make sure workers are actively pursuing adoption plans for children in their case load.
The House bill contains a more controversial provision to expedite permanency. If the current version of H.R. 867 were enacted, states would be required to initiate TPR actions for children under the age of 10 who have been in state care for 18 of the past 24 months. States could avoid initiating TPR actions under those circumstances only if the child were in a relative's care or a state court determined that TPR were not in the child's best interest.
Ideally, this House provision should apply to all foster children, not just those deemed "more adoptable" by virtue of their relative youth. Fortunately, both HHS and the House bill also endorse concurrent planning-a practice which allows for the simultaneous provision of reunification and alternative permanency planning services within a structured framework that gives birth parents fair opportunities to reclaim kin without robbing children of their chance for timely permanence.
The "bottom line" in the adoption initiative President Clinton announced late last year centers around dramatically increasing (doubling from 27,000 to 54,000) the number of foster children who are adopted from the child welfare system each year. To reach that goal, HHS has proposed that numerical adoption and guardianship targets be set by September 30, 1997.
Taking a slightly different tack, the House bill proposes that $108 million be allocated over five years to fund "adoption bonuses" for states that increase adoptive placements of foster children. For placements that exceed a state's annual "base number" of adoptions, each state would receive a $4,000 bonus for each foster child who is placed for adoption, and an additional $2,000 for every special needs child whom the state places in an adoptive home. States must then use the bonus monies to cover foster care expenses and/or fund adoption subsidies and other post-adoption services.
To help state agencies, courts, and communities reach heightened adoption goals, all three initiatives provide for "technical assistance" in the form of grants and/or guidelines. Both HHS and H.R. 867 call for a three-year period of assistance funded by an annual $10 million budget appropriation—during which HHS can issue adoption-related guidelines, training curriculum, and best practice models; facilitate information exchange; and/or award grants to collaboratives that promote special needs adoption. S. 511 includes a $50 million "innovation grant" allotment for projects that promote adoption (or other permanent placements) and child safety.
HHS also proposes a means by which to reinforce exemplary work on behalf of adoption: an annual awards presentation to coincide with the commemoration of National Adoption Month in November.
Title IV-E Amendments
Title IV-E adoption assistance agreements strongly impact adoptive families' ability to care for children with special needs. As currently written, the Senate's SAFE Act proposes two significant improvements to current adoption assistance practice. First, S. 511 would make it easier for families to qualify for adoption assistance by eliminating requirements that link a child's adoption assistance eligibility to his or her eligibility for AFDC (TANF) and SSI. If an adoptive parent dies, or a child is replaced f