A bipartisan and bicameral child welfare bill to restructure adoption incentives, require tracking of failed adoptions and limit long-term foster care is headed to President Obama’s desk for signature.
The Senate passed The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (H.R. 4980) in the late hours of its last session before the November elections. The House has already approved the bill.
The bill, if signed by Obama, will effect major change on federal adoption programs in three areas:
New Adoption Incentive Awards
H.R. 4980 reauthorizes the federal adoption incentives program, which awards states for exceeding certain benchmarks in the finalization of foster youth adoptions.
It replaces the old measurement – which compared current-year adoptions to a state’s performance in 2007 – with a formula that gauges expected adoptions for a year based on recent-year performance. The incentives are paid out based on how far states exceed the expected figure.
The new incentive structure in H.R. 4980 also offers higher incentives for finalized adoptions of older teens ($10,000), and for the first time includes guardianship arrangements with kin as part of the incentive calculation.
Click here for a complete explanation of the new incentive structure.
Tracking Adoption Disruption
H.R. 4980 requires states to track and report disruptions to finalized adoptions and guardianships, one of the biggest blind spots in research on the child welfare system. The few sample studies on the subject suggest that up to 30 percent of adoptions fail.
No method of tracking failed adoptions currently exists. The bill instructs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop a method for collecting data on youths who “enter foster care under supervision of the State after finalization of an adoption or legal guardianship.”
States would also have to spend 30 percent or more of their incentive money on post-adoption and post-guardianship services.
Reining in APPLA
Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA) is an allowable permanency goal. It was created in the 1990s as an exception for youths for whom there was little or no chance at family reunification or adoption. But recent data suggests that at least 10 percent of foster youth are designated for APPLA.
“We wanted it to be a last resort,” Sen. Chuck Grassley said at a 2012 roundtable discussion about permanency. “Over time,” it has become “an obstacle to reunification or adoption.”
If the president signs off on H.R. 4980, APPLA will only be an allowable designation for foster youths above the age of 15. For those older teens, case workers will need to demonstrate “unsuccessful efforts made by the state agency” to find another permanent option for the youth.
The bill will also require states to develop “normalcy” standards, aimed at assuring foster youths a childhood experience not limited by system rules, and step up federal requirements for tracking child sex trafficking.
H.R. 4980 was pre-negotiated by leaders in both chambers, and includes language from six separate bills filed by senators and representatives from both parties.
Senate managers had attempted to pass the bill before the summer recess by unanimous consent, but a hold was placed on it by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.