1997 Law Speeds Foster Children Adoption
By Dale Russakoff
On Nov. 19, President Clinton signed into law the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, the most significant change in federal child-protection policy in almost two decades. Half the states already had enacted similar laws in response to public alarm over cases of gross child abuse in homes supposedly supervised by local child-protection authorities.
The law shifts the emphasis of child-welfare policy set by major legislation in 1980, when research indicated that many children had been placed in foster care unnecessarily in the 1970s. The 1980 law demanded that local authorities make "reasonable efforts" to preserve biological families before placing a child in foster care or freeing a foster child for adoption.
During the lengthy, contentious 1997 debate, lawmakers declared that local officials and judges had widely misinterpreted the 1980 law and were making unreasonable efforts to keep children with unfit parents. A consensus formed that children were wasting formative years in foster care; the median length of stay grew from 15 months in 1987 to more than two years in 1994.
The new law explicitly states that the "paramount concern" of all child-protection efforts must be the health and safety of children, overriding the reasonable-efforts requirement in some cases -- specifically if parents have grossly abused or abandoned a child.
Local agencies now must achieve "permanence" for foster children on aggressive timetables. The law shortens from 18 to 12 months the time parents have to rehabilitate. At that time, caseworkers and judges must decide whether a child can return home and whether parental rights should be terminated. Termination proceedings also must begin if a child has been in foster care for 15 of any 22 consecutive months. Judges have discretion to waive timetables for "compelling reasons." The time limits under many new state laws are even stricter. Maryland, for example, allows only 10 months.
During the congressional debate, some senators warned that the legislation would create a large pool of "orphaned" children whose troubled parents missed deadlines because there are not enough drug treatment centers and other rehabilitation services. The final compromise included the aggressive time limits but also extended a federal program subsidizing local efforts to preserve families. The law provides up to $100 million as incentives for states that significantly increase adoptions of children in foster care.
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