Twenty-five years ago, I testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means to bring attention to the need for a new paradigm in foster care. The system needed to put a child’s need to love and be loved, to trust and to form attachments, as the paramount concern of a system that was established for children who were removed from their biological family due to abuse and neglect.
We succeeded despite loud opposition from those who would put the rights of parents over the safety of children. Today, a similar movement is threatening to roll back America’s progress on permanency.
A federal law passed in 1980 required states to make reasonable efforts at reunifying children with parents, and this had caused too many children to linger interminably in a system meant for short-term stays. With each move, the emotional, psychological and too often medical harm to the child mounted. With each foster family, the house rules changed and caseworker visits to check on the child’s welfare grew more infrequent. Children changed schools, doctors, diagnoses and medications with every new foster family.
Reasonable efforts to keep families together had instead become efforts at all costs. In my testimony, I cited a 1991 Inspector General’s Report showing that in New York City, 60% of drug-exposed babies were discharged from hospitals to foster care and were still in care three years later. Too many families were not helped. Too many children were not growing up in families.
Two years later, in 1997, the Adoption and Safe Families Act, or ASFA, became law with the goal of making child’s safety the paramount concern and limiting time in care to promote permanency. One of its core provisions is the requirement that with some notable exceptions, a system must move to terminate parental rights if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months. This would allow states to expeditiously move toward other permanency options like adoption.
Recent data reflects that ASFA has succeeded in its aims. The most recent federal statistics show that the majority of children return to parents or relatives after spending an average of 19.6 months in foster care. This is down from an average of 32.6 months in 1998, the year after ASFA took effect. Adoptions have steadily climbed to an all-time high, and the percentage of children living in the home of a relative is growing.
Now, a quarter century later, groups are calling for the elimination of ASFA.
These groups mistakenly believe that the requirement for reasonable efforts to preserve and reunite families was eliminated by ASFA. It was not. In fact, the law explicitly turns off the 15/22 rule if a judge decides that reasonable efforts have not been made to bring a family safely together.
There are real issues that need to be addressed. Most states are not tracking the use of the 15/22 months-in-care rule. Nor do federal statistics show how many states use the exception that allows them to bypass making reasonable efforts in cases of truly egregious abuse or neglect, such as murder, torture, chronic abuse. I believe we can build on the success of ASFA in ways that help parents and protect children. More recent legislation provides for the use of federal money for prevention services, including mental health, substance abuse and in-home parenting and for family reunification.
Given all of today’s political, racial and gender tensions giving rise to much needed protests and calls for reform, it is important not to lose sight of another set of rights – the child’s right to be safe. Families need to be empowered to take responsibility for the safety, permanency and well-being of children.
It is time for communities, states and the federal government to move in the direction of making children’s needs to be nurtured and safe within the family the paramount concern.
Calling for the elimination of ASFA will not address these needs. Rather, it would abandon the work already done to make them a priority.