November marked the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act, or ASFA. Throughout the month, advocates joined personally impacted children and parents to decry its harm. The critiques are damning: the profound racial injustice that animated and perpetuates ASFA’s approach, the way that artificial timelines compel unnecessary family separation, the indifference to meaningful enforcement of reasonable efforts to preserve families, and the alarming financial incentives that reward our system for keeping families apart but not for keeping them together.
One generation in, it’s time that we finally reckon with what ASFA’s design has meant to children.
As a family defense attorney representing parents in child welfare cases, I have spent my career as an eyewitness to the devastating aftermath of our approach. My clients are the children of ASFA. It has decimated their lives. So very many of my clients are the products of a system that devalued their connections and took them away, forever, not only from their parents, but from their brothers and sisters. From their grandparents. From their aunts and uncles. From their neighborhood, their community, their culture. I have seen the trauma of this approach ripple across generations as the system that ripped children from their natural family supports seeks to take away their own children as they move into adulthood.
We all are hard-wired to seek connection and belonging in the context of our own families. To disrupt a child’s sense of belonging is to do something profoundly unnatural and often inhumane. There is a growing consensus that children experience removal from their parents as a life-altering trauma, and many leaders in the child welfare field are rightfully calling for a significant reduction in our reliance on foster care.
But we cannot ignore that ASFA’s insistence on the termination of parental rights only doubles down on the harm of family separation. When we terminate parental rights, we are sentencing children to a lifetime of lost connections.
When I listen to my clients, I hear about the anguish we have caused. And I see it in their struggles. As a result of living in the age of ASFA, when they encounter the child welfare system as parents, many of my clients are plunged into crisis without the buffer of family connection. Intergenerational patterns of family destruction are the predictable and devastating result of depriving children of the connections they need to weather life’s storms and find stability as adults. My clients carry the grief, loss and instability caused by broken family connections for the rest of their lives, whether they found the so-called happy ending of adoption, or the well-documented harm of aging out as legal orphans.
As the calls to repeal ASFA rightfully grow, I hope we will take this opportunity to reorient our system to one that fiercely prioritizes lifelong family connection for children. In our daily practice, we can all work today to implement the past administration’s policy memo urging the field to prioritize connections over rigid adherence to ASFA’s termination timelines.
And as Congress hopefully begins to reckon with the need for an overhaul of the law, we must eliminate the permanency hierarchy’s presumption for adoption and incentivize and prioritize custody options that preserve family ties, like reunification, guardianship or custody with a relative. Our approach to permanency has permanently caused harm to an entire generation of children. I pray that 25 years from now, we can say that we took action to spare the next generation. But so long as we remain devoted to a statute designed to take away children’s right to belong to their own families, we truly do not deserve to call our system “child welfare.”
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