The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 was a milestone in American child welfare. Within three years of passage, the number of children adopted from foster care literally doubled, from 25,000 each year to over 50,000, where it has remained stable for a number of years. Still, we have much work to do. In 2009, nearly 30,000 youth “aged out” of foster or group home care, reaching the age of legal maturity without having the safety, security and love of a permanent parent as they move on with their lives. These youth are disproportionately likely to end up homeless, incarcerated, abusing alcohol and other substances, and pregnant.
In 2009, the latest year for which we have complete data, 114,556 children in the system had a goal of adoption – yet only roughly half were adopted. This adoption gap is not due to lack of interest on the part of families; research has documented that there are more than enough interested families to adopt all children freed for adoption. Listening to Parents, with other national adoption leaders and child advocates, have identified a number of areas where reform can translate directly into permanent families for children in foster care. These include ensuring that child welfare agencies are responsive to prospective parents, improvements in agency and caseworker practice, and increased adoption and post-adoption support for families. One area in greatest need of reform are policies that undermine interstate adoption. It’s here that Listening to Parents is first focusing its attention.
The inability to adopt children across state lines is critical in large urban areas that straddle state lines such as the New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Barriers to interstate adoption hinder kinship adoption, the preferred option for placement.
How strong are the barriers? According to the Department of Health and Human Services 480,560 children were adopted from foster care between 1998 and 2007. Only 3,104 of these children-less than one percent, were adopted across state lines. These include both kinship families and non-kin. In the most recent year for which we have complete data, only 460 children were adopted from foster care across state lines. Removing the key barriers to interstate adoption would greatly increase the number of children adopted from foster care. These reforms include:
Standardized Home Study: All families seeking to adopt must have a written “home study” describing their fitness and preparation to be adoptive parents. This home study is the central document in matching waiting children with potential parents. The quality, amount, and type of information on families interested in adopting vary greatly from state to state. While 20 states and five Canadian provinces use the SAFE (Structured Analysis Family Evaluation) assessment, other states and private agencies use different methods for gathering data on potential adoptive families. Because questions asked in home studies and the comprehensiveness of those home studies are not standardized across state lines, many child welfare agencies distrust the information they receive on families outside their areas of jurisdiction. In contrast to the way each state recognizes drivers licensed by other states, some states will not always accept the home studies of other states or private agencies.
Standardized descriptive information about children waiting to be adopted: Just as the information on families varies by jurisdiction, so does the information on children and youth available for adoption. In particular, adoptive parents often report that they receive little information on the mental health, health, and educational needs of the children they adopt. While one state may have a comprehensive format for describing a waiting child, another states may have far less information on children available for adoption. In contrast to the SAFE format for describing parents, there has been no comparable standardized format for describing children. This is a significant issue both in the process of matching children and parents, and in understanding which placements will be most successful.
Removing the financial disincentives that discourage interstate adoption: In a system where each state is only interested in the well being of their children, states have very strong incentives to keep their families. Each state pays the cost of recruiting and preparing their own families with no compensation if the family adopts a child from another state. In other words, each interstate adoption has a “winner” (the state that sends the child) and a “loser” (the state that receives the child).
Over the coming months LTP will be recommending national policy to address these issues. We welcome your feedback.