Escaping the Limbo of Foster Care A Shift in Federal Law and Child-Welfare Policies Prompts a Dramatic

Article excerpt

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 children.

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 student. …