Safety and Stability for Foster Children: The Policy Context

Article excerpt

SUMMARY

Even though federal laws have had a major influence on foster care and child welfare policy for more than 40 years, additional reforms are needed to ensure safe and stable families for children in care. This article describes the complex array of policies that shape federal foster care and observes:

* A number of federal policies addressing issues such as housing, health care, welfare, social security benefits, taxes, and foster care reimbursement to the states, form the federal foster care policy framework.

* The Adoption and Safe Families Act significantly altered federal foster care policy by instituting key changes such as defining when it is reasonable to pursue family reunification, expediting timelines for making permanency decisions, recognizing kinship care as a permanency option, and providing incentives to the state for increasing the number of adoptions.

* Courts play a key and often overlooked role in achieving safety and permanency for children in foster care. Efforts to improve court performance have focused on increasing the responsiveness and capacity of courts.

The article concludes with policy recommendations that are needed to improve the lives of children in foster care, such as increasing investments in children and families, redirecting funding incentives, addressing service gaps, and enhancing accountability.

The national policy framework that influences the placement, care, and protection of children in foster care, and that helps ensure that these children end up in safe and stable families, continues to evolve after more than four decades of development. The foster care policy framework, as discussed here, includes the complex constellation of federal and state laws, regulations and administrative guidance, and the funding structure that impacts how these policies are implemented. The framework is influenced by how courts and agencies interpret laws and regulations and how grassroots advocates, lawyers, and other key stakeholders see these laws and regulations fitting into larger systemic reforms. In assessing the many pieces of the policy framework and their impact on safe and stable homes for children in foster care, it is especially important to look at the interaction of these various componenets.

The purpose of this article is to describe the policy framework that shapes foster care, its impact on key decisions about safe and stable homes for children, and the major policy carriers that remain to improving foster care. The article concludes with a discussion of what further policy reforms are needed to keep maltreated children in safe and stable homes.

The Current Policy Framework

Federal law has had a major influence on the foster care and child welfare policy framework for more than 40 years. (1) But there was no federal foster care program until 1961, when the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) Foster Care Program was established to care for children who could not safely remain with their families receiving AFDC. (2) Nearly 20 years then passed before Congress undertook a comprehensive look at the general structure of federal funding for children who were abused and neglected. Congress was responding to both national and state reports documenting the crisis in child welfare systems and the disincentives in federal law to maintain or find new permanent homes for children and to hold states accountable for the care children received. (3) Up until that time, there had been only perfunctory case reviews of children in care and little attention to tracking the progress of children. But in 1980, a new framework for foster care was created with passage of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (AACWA). Since then, several pieces of legislation building on this basic framework have been enacted--most notably, the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA). (See the Appendix at the end of this article for a chronology of major child welfare legislation. …