Three states are taking the lead in overhauling the way they oversee babies, children and teens whose parents cannot or will not care for them.
A report released this month has found that in Michigan, Texas and Kansas child-welfare reforms have led to more adoptions, better case management and improved tracking of child-abuse cases.
Reforms "are proving more effective and thus, more humane, than the traditional system as a whole," said the report from the Reason Public Policy Institute (RPPI). "It also shows that there's no one-size-fits-all solution" for foster-care reform, said Conna Craig, a former foster child who wrote the report with colleagues at the Institute for Children in Boston.
Privatization of child-welfare services has attracted its own criticisms, though. Caseworkers in Kansas, for instance, are burning out under the pressure and stress of the new system, one insider said. Reforming foster care has been an ongoing priority with the Clinton administration and Congress.
Most of the 500,000 or more abused, abandoned or neglected children who live in foster care each year will eventually return home to their families.
But significant numbers of children cannot be reunited with their parents. One of the most damaging complaints about the child-welfare system is that it fails to find permanent homes for the estimated 54,000 children who are now freed for adoption.
Another major concern is that children spend years cycling between their abusive parents and the system, only to be freed for adoption when they are teen-agers - an age that few adoptive parents are eager to tackle.
If no one adopts these children, they stay in the system until it ejects them at age 18. Many of these unattached children cannot navigate adulthood and fall back into social services as single mothers on welfare or prison inmates.
The Adoption and Safe Families Act passed last year set tighter standards for when - and how long - states should try to help abusive or neglectful parents mend their ways so they can care for their own children.
The act also clarified when the state should cease such "family preservation" efforts and pursue alternate permanent arrangements for children, such as guardianship or adoption.
Today, the Child Welfare League of America says that at least 20 states are pursuing reforms of their child-welfare systems through internal overhauls or hiring outside private contractors to handle their services.
The RPPI report looked at three of the most progressive reforms and found that:
* Michigan, which has relied on private adoption agencies for a decade, has almost doubled the number of foster-care adoptions since it implemented a financial reform in 1992. Many of these adopted children were "older," disabled or considered by some as hard to adopt.
* Kansas, which privatized almost all of its child-welfare system two years ago, now finalizes 44 percent more adoptions. Inquiries from prospective adoptive families have tripled.
* Texas, which until recently tracked the nearly 8,000 children in its child-welfare system by index cards and nine independent computer systems, has automated and centralized its system.
As a result, foster children in Texas are not getting "lost" in the system as often, the authors said.
Before Texas revamped its data system, "if someone moved across a county line, there was a good chance [the state] would lose their records," added Susan Orr, a child-welfare expert at RPPI who worked on the report. …