Vol. 2, No. 2 Spring 1998
and Safe Families
Act of 1997 Signed into Law
|At a standing-room-only
ceremony on November 19,1997, President Clinton signed into law
the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (P.L. 105-89). The new
law, which passed in the House and Senate by an overwhelming margin,
was created after months of negotiation and compromise by bipartisan
groups from both houses of Congress. In its final form, the law
makes strides toward more quickly removing children from dangerous
situations, and providing states with incentives to find adoptive
or other permanent homes for foster children with special needs--goals
which President Clinton first announced in December 1996 in a national
"[T]he child's health and safety shall
be paramount." With these words, the Adoption and Safe Families
Act commits the federal government's resources to a child-centered child
welfare system. In amending critical sections of the Adoptions Assistance
and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (P.L. 96-272), the federal government
says it will place limitations on the reasonable efforts to reunite
families and make permanency decisions within 12 months.
What does the law mean for children who enter
foster care? To illustrate, consider the fictional case of James, age
6, and his sister, Judy, age 8. They entered care when their mother
Susan was reported for using crack and physically abusing her kids.
If a court were to determine that Susan had committed a serious crime--murdering
one of her children, or subjecting Judy and James to "aggravated
circumstances" like torture or abandonment--the agency assigned
to the case would not have to make "reasonable efforts" to
reunite the family.
Luckily, James' and Judy's situation was
not that extreme, so Susan was ordered into drug treatment and the children
went to live with a foster family. Within two weeks, Susan left the
treatment program, but still showed up for every scheduled visit with
Judy and James. As the one-year anniversary of the children's entry
into foster care approached, Darren, the children's worker, prepared
a permanency plan for Judy and James as required by the new law. Though
he could have chosen to pursue a plan of adoption or guardianship, Darren
decided to give Susan one more chance.
In the children's plan, Darren recommended
that they return to Susan after she completed a drug treatment program,
and attended violence control classes. Susan completed treatment, but
relapsed into her drug habit and started to miss visits with the kids.
When Judy and James had been in care for 15 months, Darren had no choice
but to file a court petition to terminate Susan's parental rights. No
relatives had agreed to take the children, and Susan had been given
repeated chances to receive treatment and reclaim her kids.
After Susan's rights were terminated, Darren
asked the children's foster parents if they would like to adopt James
and Judy. The foster parents--an older couple in their early 70s--were
very attached to the children, but believed the kids deserved a home
with younger parents. Because he had no other available adoptive families
in his county, Darren sent James' and Judy's profile to the state adoption
exchange. Soon after, he received a home study from a couple in a nearby
state who wanted to adopt the children.
Though Darren was concerned about placing
James and Judy so far away, he knew that P.L. 105-89 required him to
consider resources from other counties and states if he had no local
resources available. After careful review, Darren initiated a series
of visits between the children and the prospective adoptive parents
from out of state. Three months later, James and Judy moved in with
their new family.
In our story, about two years passed between
James' and Judy's first entry into care and their placement in an adoptive
home. That may seem like a long time, but under previous law and practice,
James' and Judy's case might have stretched out for five years or more;
the kids could have been teenagers before Darren even thought to terminate
Susan's rights. In addition, thanks to a new requirement that states
provide medical assistance to adopted children with special needs who
are not eligible for federal Title IV-E subsidies, James' and Judy's
adoptive dad can take a part-time job with reduced benefits and spend
more time with his children.
P.L. 105-89 appreciates the value of childhood,
and places children's rights and time frames at the forefront of child
welfare practice. It also puts states on notice that the federal government
will not tolerate the kind of foster care drift that results in multiple
placements, unnecessary continuances, and permanence plans that are
delayed, forgotten, or never made. It is not acceptable, says the new
law, for the system to allow abused and neglected 2-year-olds to grow
into disenchanted and defiant 12-year-olds with attachment disorders.
Joe Kroll is executive director of the
North American Council on Adoptable Children. From Adoptalk,
published by the North American Council on Adoptable Children, 970 Raymond
Ave., Suite 106, St. Paul, MN 55114; 612-644-3036.
2000 Jordan Institute for Families