The US is making substantial progress on one of its most
intractable social problems - children languishing in foster care.
After decades of kids crowding the foster-care system, and often
shuttling from one home to another, a significant number are now
finding permanent, adoptive homes.
Adoptions from foster care rose 32 percent nationally last year,
reflecting a major shift in law and, just as important, attitude.
While progress has been uneven across the US, President Clinton is
expected to announce that most states have surpassed a federally set
threshold of improvement - qualifying them to receive millions of
dollars in government funds to speed adoptions for even more foster
Adoption specialists attribute the spike in permanent placements
to a confluence of factors, but above all, to a change in attitude by
politicians, courts, and child advocates.
In the past, they emphasized reuniting children with their birth
parents, sometimes waiting years for parents to change patterns of
abusive or neglectful behavior affecting their children.
Now the courts and child-welfare agencies work on a much faster
timetable. Under the Adoption and Safe Families Act passed by
Congress in 1997, court hearings to determine whether a child should
be permanently removed from the birth home must be held no later than
12 months after a child enters foster care.
Typically, children wait three years in foster care, often much
longer - an eternity of uncertainty in their eyes.
"Now, everybody is saying, you know, the time frames of kids are
important, and we've got to pay attention to that," says Joe Kroll,
director of the North American Council of Adoptable Children, which
did a US study.
About 520,000 children are in foster care, with 110,000 to 120,000
eligible for adoption. Once in foster care, children can wait years,
typically having to adjust to three different foster homes.
The cost of allowing children to remain in the system is severe,
say social welfare experts. According to the Center for Adoption
Research and Policy at the University of Massachusetts, 25,000 kids
turn 18 and "graduate" from foster care each year without ever having
had a permanent home. Of these, 66 percent do not graduate from high
school; 61 percent are unemployed; 34 percent end up on welfare; and
25 percent end up homeless.
"We are not doing ourselves any favor by keeping these kids in
foster care," says Marla Sheely, spokeswoman for the Texas Department
of Protective and Regulatory Services. Last year, Texas increased
its foster care adoptions by a whopping 76 percent compared with the
three previous years, placing 1,548 kids in permanent homes.
It's difficult to interest families in adopting foster care
children, because about 75 to 80 percent of them are "special needs"
cases. This can be as benign as being an older child or part of a
sibling group, or as challenging as suffering from severe emotional
or medical problems.
For instance, Belinda Hare, who recruits foster and adoptive homes
for kids in 30 counties of Texas, says she's trying to find a home
for a 12-year old black boy, who's a great athlete and an A and B