Speeding Adoptions: An Evaluation of the Effects of Judicial Continuity
Festinger, Trudy, Pratt, Rachel, Social Work Research
This study investigated the effects of a New York City adoption reform project. Goals of the project were to change existing family court procedures in selected cases to shorten the duration of time between termination of parental rights (TPR) and adoption finalization. Randomly selected control cases received the usual procedures, whereas the service group received the expedited court procedures. The latter consisted of filing adoption petitions at the time of the TPR, thereby keeping cases on the court calendar and usually before the same judge from the point of freeing through to finalization. At the conclusion of data collection, more children in the service group than in the control group had been adopted, and survival analysis showed that they were adopted in a significantly shorter time.
Key words: adoption; court procedures; evaluation; foster care; survival analysis
Can keeping a case in the same county, before the same judge, and on the court calendar from termination of parental rights (TPR) through adoption speed up the adoption process for children in foster care? The study reported here sought an answer to this question. It did so by developing a project that implemented a little-used New York state law that permits the filing of an adoption petition while the TPR is pending. This allowed the adoption proceeding to remain in the same court and with the same judge who presided over the freeing.
National policies in child welfare have produced major changes in adoption practice over the past 25 years as the child welfare field and the public became more aware of children adrift in what so often has been called "the limbo" of foster care. These changes came after a number of studies highlighted the fiscal and emotional consequences of children remaining in out-of-home care for long periods without permanent plans (see, for example, Fanshel & Shinn, 1978; Maluccio, Fein, Hamilton, Klier, & Ward, 1980). Concerns about children lingering in foster care led to efforts to reduce impermanence and spawned the permanency planning movement (Rzepnicki, 1987; Smith & Howard, 1999).
The philosophy of permanency was codified at the federal level through passage of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (P.L. 96-272). In the years that followed, the emphasis on permanency planning resulted in the freeing, through TPR, of a growing number of children in foster care and their placement in homes likely to adopt. Adoption became the preferred outcome over long-term out-of-home care for children who could not grow up in their birth families (Barth, 1997; Berry, 1998). Although adoptions of foster children remained fairly flat between 1983 and 1993, since then the total number of such adoptions in the United States has risen (Freundlich, 2000; Maza, 2000).
With the emphasis on permanency came a desire that it be reached in a timely way. Concern about time frames led to passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) (P.L. 105-89) that called for the prompt establishment of permanency goals for children, emphasized the importance of reaching permanence without delay, and permitted an award of adoption incentive funds to states (Maza, 1999). Thus, ASFA focused a spotlight on accelerating permanency, including speeding the adoption process. To support permanency efforts, the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System routinely reports estimates of the average number of months between TPR and final adoption among children adopted from the public foster care system. Estimates for fiscal year 1999, based on 52 jurisdictions reporting on 46,000 adoptions, 64 percent of which were by unrelated foster parents, showed this average to be 16 months, and a median of 12 months (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000).
State efforts to speed adoptions range from Newark, New Jersey's system of reviewing all cases six months after TPR and scheduling hearings if adoptions have not yet been completed, to Portland, Oregon's "best interests hearings," held after the filing of TPR petitions in an effort to decrease the number of TPR appeals (National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges [NCJFCJ], 2000b). …