Landmark adoption bill, now nearly 10 years old, has huge impact

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WASHINGTON, D.C. —  Zachary, an active little boy from Tennessee, turns 10 in November, which is also National Adoption Awareness Month. But Zachary is already well aware of adoption: As a foster child who needs a permanent home, his profile and picture are featured on the Tennessee Department of Children's Services Web site, along with other foster children waiting to be adopted.

Zachary is one of more than half a million children currently in the foster-care system in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Caseworkers aim eventually to reunite nearly half of those children with their families or principal caretakers.

Another 80,000 children will enter long-term foster care or live with relatives or a guardian. That leaves more than 100,000 children in the foster-care system available for adoption each year. DHHS estimates that about half will find permanent homes.

Caring for half a million children with individual backgrounds and needs is a dizzying task for the state agencies that oversee foster care, and children in the bulging population face the danger of languishing in a complex system.

Congress addressed that danger in 1997 with the Adoption and Safe Families Act, a bill hailed as landmark reform. Nearly a decade later, adoption advocates and government officials examining whether the bill has improved foster care are coming up with mixed answers.

The act's core provisions address how long to allow a child to remain in the foster-care system before permanently removing him from his parents' care and allowing him to be adopted. The bill says courts may terminate parental rights for a child who has been removed from his home for 15 of the past 22 months.

The law also allows courts to bypass efforts to reunite children with their parents in high-risk situations, such as cases of chronic or severe physical abuse or abandonment.

The legislation also includes financial incentives. Initially, states that exceeded their previous year's foster adoptions received $4,000 for each additional adoption. Congress amended the law in 2003 to focus on incentives for adoptions of older and special-needs children, the most difficult group to place in adoptive homes. The law requires states to pour the federal dollars back into their foster-care systems.

U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, the bill's chief proponent in Congress, called the legislation a key tool for rescuing children languishing in foster care for years.

"No child should linger in the foster-care system because the government does not make a good parent," DeWine said. "Children need permanency."

Nearly 10 years later, DeWine and other cheerleaders of the law are celebrating the bill's successes. Foster adoptions have increased 64 percent nationwide, from 31,000 in 1997 to 51,000 last year. The federal government has awarded more than $160 million in adoption bonuses to help struggling state agencies.

But the law isn't without its critics.

Some say courts now terminate parental rights too quickly. Others say foster-care agencies aren't pouring enough funds into preventative and rehabilitative services for parents, like substance-abuse programs and parenting classes.


Benefits outpace flaws
Tom Atwood, president of the National Council for Adoption, said those problems may exist in individual cases, but they don't represent a trend.

He points out that terminating parental rights is a lengthy process that "judges don't take lightly." Parents have months to work toward reunification, and the law applies to children who have been out of their homes for 15 out of 22 months.

"That's a long time," he says.

Overall, he argues, the act has been "a real boon to children," with tens of thousands of adoptions attributed to the bill's provisions.

Still, Atwood says there's always room for improvement, and NCA hopes to see more emphasis placed on raising awareness and "inspiring parents to consider adoption and foster care."

In the meantime, Zachary in Tennessee waits for an adoptive family with thousands of other children around the country. According to his Department of Children Service's profile, those who know Zachary say he's "smart and bright" and "very loving." They also say this: "Zachary would enjoy having a father-son relationship. ... He wants to be someone's son."