The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) was passed in 1999 to minimize foster care drift and shorten the stay in temporary care. Recognizing that one year is already a very long time in the life of a child, the intent was to set a limit. After 12 months (or 15 of the past 22 months) with no permanent resolution, the law required that a termination of parental rights be filed.
Seventeen years and three presidencies have elapsed since ASFA’s passage. So how have we done at meeting the “child time” deadline? Following is a report card of sorts on the changes since ASFA passed.*
Population: Today’s foster child is generally younger by one year or more. The overall number of children in foster care has dropped dramatically, from 567,000 in 1999 to 415,000 in 2014. The average age of a foster youth has dropped from 9.9 years to 8.7 years while the median age has decreased from 10.1 to 8.0 years.
Time in Foster Care: In 1999, the average number of months spent in foster care was 31.8 months. By 2014, the average was down to 19.5 months. The median time spent in foster care went down from 19.6 to 13.3 months.
The data shows a significant decline. That is good news. The implicit goal of ASFA, however, was to find a permanent home for each child within 12 months. We still have a ways to go.
Waiting for Adoption: 130,000 children were still waiting for permanence in 1999 after parental rights had been terminated. The average delay was 20.5 months, and the median delay was 12 months.
By 2014, those figures had decreased to 108,000 waiting children with average and median wait of 12.0 and 8.7 months, respectively. Very good news. And yet, parking them in temporary care for yet another nine to 12 months while a search for an adoptive home begins is ineffective.
We need to cut bureaucratic delays and locate a permanent family sooner. The obvious remedy is to begin the moment the child is taken from the birth home. Have a “rainy day plan.” Make every effort to reunify, but engage in concurrent planning. More than anything else, that would shorten the waiting time for the child once parental rights have been terminated.
Outcomes: Not much change over 15 years. The reunification rate has slipped from 53 percent to 51 percent. Placements to kinship care have risen from 7 percent to 9 percent. Adoptions have stayed the same at 21 percent, and emancipation to “independent living” has edged up from 8 percent to 9 percent.
Only guardianship placements, now supported in some states with federal funds, have notably increased as a permanent outcome. The percentage of youths in guardianships tripled from 3 percent to 9 percent.
Summary: I would give us a grade of C-plus in our efforts to reunify or find adoptive homes within “child time.” We are moving in the right direction, but ever so slowly.
While the child waits in temporary care, attachments are formed and broken. Experiences multiply. New brain synapses are formed that can be as lasting and shaping as genes. Every child has the right to a permanent home. Limbo is a dangerous place for a developing child.
*The above data is taken from the annual reports of the federal Adoption and Foster Care Reporting System (AFCARS).