Adoption Policy in the United States: A Word of Caution

By Hollingsworth, Leslie Doty | Social Work, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Adoption Policy in the United States: A Word of Caution


Hollingsworth, Leslie Doty, Social Work


Recent public policies on adoption are aimed at expediting the termination of the rights of parents charged with child maltreatment, while making it easier for those who desire to adopt to do so. These policies are intended to protect the health and safety of children. This is an important goal, but this Commentary calls attention to the potential of the legislation for further disadvantaging poor children and families who are already disenfranchised and disadvantaged politically and economically. Recommendations are made for addressing these issues.

Adoption Legislation and Initiatives

Section 1807 (Adoption Assistance) of the Small Business Job Protection Act (1996) provided a tax credit of $5,000 to $6,000 for adoptive parents. The one-time credit was in addition to subsidies for adopting children with special needs. Also in 1996, President Clinton set forth his "Adoption 2002" initiative, the goal of which was to at least double the number of adoptions by the year 2002. Subsequently, the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (P.L. 105-89) became law. Among other elements, this legislation expands provision for the termination of the parental rights of biological parents, modifies provision for the involvement of relatives, and strengthens opportunity and support for adoption.

The Adoption 2002 initiative and the related legislation sought to make adoption easier and to get children adopted at younger ages so they are not damaged by further maltreatment or by long waits in the child welfare system. These are important aims. Three reasons for caution, however, are (1) that systemic factors, such as poverty and single female parenthood, are ignored; (2) that poor and single-parent families may be disadvantaged, whereas people desiring to adopt may be advantaged; and (3) that the comparative effects of terminating parental rights on children and their biological families are not addressed. Elements of the law that give rise to these concerns and contextual considerations related to them are discussed below.

Reasonable Efforts Requirement

Some amendments of P.L. 105-89 dilute the requirement of reasonable efforts to avoid a child's removal from or reunification with his or her biological parent(s). For example, these efforts are not required if they conflict with a permanency plan for the child, in which case reasonable efforts are to be directed to finalizing the child's permanent placement (Sec. 101). The requirement also may be eliminated when parental rights to a sibling previously were terminated. Moreover, adoption professionals may seek simultaneously to place a child for adoption or with a legal guardian and to prevent the child's removal or facilitate the child's return.

Several problems emerge here. First, these exceptions may be invoked even if the health and safety of the current child is not at risk. Second, because there are strong financial incentives to increase adoptions, practitioners may be compromised ethically if required to work for reunification and adoptive placement simultaneously. Finally, only adoption and legal guardianship, but not placements with relatives, require reasonable efforts at permanent placement. Although relatives who become legal guardians generally are not eligible for foster care payments, the Department of Health and Human Services chose not to recommend subsidizing guardianship as an alternative to adoption. Because many relatives want to avoid the adversarial relationship with birth parent(s) that legally adopting the children of kin may bring, non-relative adopters become favored in their eligibility for adoption tax credits and subsidies.

Relatives' Rights

This legislation adds the requirement that relatives who are providing care be given notice of and opportunity to be heard at any review regarding the child. However, they are not guaranteed the right to be a party in such a review. A relative who requests an opportunity to offer permanent (but not adoptive) care to the child would not have rights in the process (Sec. …

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