"[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 Adoption 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 (see pages 9 - 12 for more about P.L. 105-89).
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 then 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. Shortly thereafter, he received a home study from a couple in a neighboring 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.
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