New law meant to improve stability for foster care

By  | 

For many thousands of America's foster children, prospects for a permanent home and stronger support will be brighter under a new law that bridged Washington's partisan divide and is touted as the most significant child-welfare reform in decades.

Its title is a mouthful - the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act. And it has raised some questions: Will budget-strapped states embrace some of the options it offers? Why didn't it include initiatives to help curtail child neglect in the first place?

Nonetheless, the bill - signed with little fanfare last week by President Bush - is widely viewed throughout the child-welfare community as a remarkable achievement by a Congress often incapacitated by partisanship.

"This is a historic moment for foster children and families," said James Brown, president of the Child Welfare League of America, calling it the most significant foster-care legislation since 1980.

The act is striking for its breadth. Among its major provisions, it will:

-Provide more financial incentives for adopting children out of foster care, especially older youths and those with special needs. One example: federal adoption assistance for special-needs children will no longer be limited to those who come from low-income families.

-Allow use of federal funds to assist children who leave foster care to live as legal guardians of relatives - a step which will help an estimated 15,000 children. In the past, such "kinship care" - which experts view as preferable to foster care - was generally not eligible for federal aid.

-Allow direct federal foster care funding to tribal governments, so more American Indian and Alaskan Native children can receive services while remaining in their own communities. Previously, the tribes had to go through state agencies to seek this funding.

-Allow states to provide federally subsidized foster care services to young people up to age 21, instead of 18.

-Require child-welfare agencies to make "reasonable efforts" to keep siblings together when they enter foster care, and work harder to ensure that foster children receive a stable education and proper health care.

"It takes a comprehensive look at child welfare and what we can do to improve it, rather than just Band-Aids," said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.

On any given day there are more than 500,000 children in the U.S. foster care system, including about 125,000 waiting to be adopted. More than 25,000 "age out" of foster care annually after turning 18 without ever finding a permanent family to support them.

Under the bill, financial assistance could be available through age 21, provided the young person is working or in school. Richard Barth, dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, questioned this provision, suggesting that youths not meeting these criteria might be in even greater need of help.

The bill envisions about $3 billion in new costs over the next 10 years, notably for the enhanced adoption incentives. It won bipartisan support in part because congressional budget analysts determined that savings - for example, less spending on foster-care casework - would offset the added costs.

For the state and county agencies that directly oversee foster care, some parts of the bill are mandatory - for example, demonstrating greater effort to keep siblings together, improve foster children's health care and minimize the need for them to switch schools.

Other provisions will be optional for the states, notably participating in the new guardianship program for relatives and extending foster-care support past age 18. The level of state activity may hinge part on how their child welfare budgets weather the current economic turmoil.

"We're going to have a tougher time with implementation by the states then if we didn't have this crisis," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a key Senate backer of the bill. "It might add a couple of years to full implementation."

As encouragement to the states, the bill calls for doubling the per-child bonuses they receive for placing foster children in adoption. Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, says this could aggravate an already worrisome phenomenon.

"That means an even greater incentive for quick-and-dirty, slipshod placements, for placements more likely to disrupt, and for the creation of more legal orphans, as states rush even faster to terminate parental rights," Wexler said in an e-mail.

Adoption advocates acknowledged that mistakes can be made in placement, and said the bill's new provisions should be accompanied by effective vetting of prospective adoptive parents.

"Not all who volunteer for adoption or foster care have the most noble motives," said Chuck Johnson of the National Council for Adoption. "We need to do a better job screening them."

Despite its broad scope, the new act does not tackle the front end of the child-welfare problem - it contains no prevention initiatives to combat neglect and abuse so fewer children are removed from their families in the first place.

"Once again, America's child welfare establishment has refused to put its money where its mouth is," Wexler said. "In this big new bill they're all cheering about, there is not one new idea, not one new word, and not one new penny for keeping families together."