WASHINGTON—The child welfare system in the nation is overwhelmed.
If it is not possible for children to be reunited with their biological parents, their needs are best served by adoption in a loving family and a permanent home. Nationwide, there are roughly 100,000 children who are waiting to be adopted, but, unfortunately, the annual number of adoptions is about half that number.
The federal government has encouraged more adoption from foster homes with various monetary incentives to the states. But it is up to the individual, not the federal government, to make the life-changing decision and adjustment to adopt a child.
Adoption: Life-Changing Decision
On Feb. 12, the American Enterprise Institute hosted a panel discussion on “Connecting orphans with families: New insights from the frontlines.” The discussion centered on the need to move children placed in foster care into adoption homes.
“Most children who enter foster care are ultimately reunited with their parents,” states the Congressional Research Service (CRS). However, when rejoining the biological family is no longer possible or wise, adoption remains the best course for placing a child in a permanent family.
The panel discussed initiatives towards motivating more families willing to take the step to adoption.
Kathryn Edin is a professor of sociology at John Hopkins University, and has written several books on the impact of urban poverty on family structure and child wellbeing. Dr. Edin and her husband, both Caucasian, adopted two African-American girls who are grown now at 21 and 19 years old. Edin described several painful moments she endured—encounters with others when people couldn’t believe her children were actually hers.
On adoption, Edin said, “You will learn more about your country, your faith, and your family than you can imagine… Adoption made me a better person.”
Aaron Graham is a pastor at a local Christian church and he and his wife Amy have adopted two children. A social worker for the District of Columbia’s Child and Family Services Agency approached Graham and other church leaders for help in recruiting parents to adopt children from the 1,300 placed in foster care in D.C. They decided to help and they viewed caring for children in need as a calling.
There is an “enormous need,” he said. There are 300 children in D.C. waiting to be adopted, he said.
A little over a year ago, Graham launched an initiative he called DC127, a network of churches in the area committed to providing loving homes for children in the foster care system. He calculates that there are 600 churches in the area, and so with 300 children needing a permanent home, D.C. could potentially reverse matters and have more families willing to adopt than children in need.
Other “127” organizations have started in other states: Colorado, Oklahoma, and Arizona, according to Nation.time.com. Similar initiatives of churches assisting government welfare agencies in promoting adoption also exist, for example, in Virginia.
The District is particularly in need of adoptive parents. “One out of 100 children in D.C. are in the foster care system compared to one in 1,000 in Fairfax County,” Graham said.
Moreover, the District has not done well in providing for these children, according to the Foundation for Government Accountability. In 2012, it ranked the 50 states and the District of Columbia on multiple measures, including how well a state performed in reducing the time a child spends in foster care, and in increasing the number of children moving from foster care to adoptive families.
“The District of Columbia was dead last,” he said. It had dropped to 51 from near last place at 46 in 2006. The District was one of the four states—Illinois, Maryland, and New York—where it took an average of at least 40 months to move a child from an abusive home to an adoptive family, according to the Foundation.
Societal Costs to Foster Care
Jason Weber discussed the costs to society when children are passed around from foster home to foster home and eventually “age out” of the system, which in most states happens at 18 years of age. He mentioned a child named Kerry who was discussing with a social worker just before her 18th birthday the number of foster homes she had been in. They stopped counting after reaching 50. Kerry’s case is not all that abnormal, he said.
Weber is the national director of foster care initiatives at the Christian Alliance for Orphans, a predominant evangelical organization that promotes adoption. He and his wife have been foster parents and have adopted five children.
Weber cited statistics from “Becoming Home” (2013) by Jedd Medefind, which sampled 26-year-old youth who had aged out of the foster care system. Comparing these foster youth with their counterparts in the general population, the former were less likely to be employed (46 vs. 80 percent), less likely to have a 4-year degree or more (4 vs. 36 percent), more likely to earn less (median income: $8,950 vs. $27,310), and the female youth were much more likely to be receiving food stamps (68 vs. 7 percent).
The economic cost to society is staggering.
Congress has had a long-standing interest since at least 1978 in increasing the adoption of children in the foster care system. The CRS stated that a concern over the failure to move children from foster care to permanent families was a key motive in the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1997. Among its provisions was the Adoption Incentives program, which authorized financial bonuses to states that increased adoptions.
Through FY2012, this program has awarded more than $375 million, according to the CRS. The Obama Administration calls for reauthorization of the program in the FY2014 budget request, and Congress is likely to consider extending the Adoption Incentives program, which has expired, according to the CRS.
The Adoption Incentives program appears to have achieved great success, tempered by the failure to secure adoptive homes for about half of children waiting to be adopted.
The following data is from the CRS.
In 1997, 537,000 children were in public foster care, a public child welfare agency enabled 31,000 adoptions or an adoption rate of 6.1 percent. In 2011, the number of children in public foster care had dropped to 401,000, of which 50,500 found permanent homes, or a 12.4 percent—twice the rate of adoption. (A few of those placements did not originate in foster care but happened through direct adoption.)
A lot of hoops and paperwork must be passed through to ready a child for adoption. Today, the process to adopt a child is more efficient. In 2011, 104,200 children were “waiting for adoption,” and 46 percent were adopted. In 2000, 131,000 children were waiting and 39 percent were adopted.
The process has sped up too. In 2011, it took a median time of 29.2 months to remove the child, legally terminate the parental rights, and move the child to an adoptive home. In 2000, the median time was over three years, 39.3 months. That’s a shortening of the process time of nearly a year.
Evangelical Churches Controversy
Graham and Weber have made adoption of orphans an integral part of their faith. It should be noted here that Graham, Weber, and the other speakers on the AEI panel strongly agree that the best policy for children who have been separated from their biological parents is to return them if at all possible. This is important because evangelical churches have been at the forefront of a movement for transnational adoption where this policy has not always been followed.
While the intentions to help children without families overseas may be good, “the potential for fraud and abuse is high,” according to Kathryn Joyce in an op-ed to the New York Times, Sept. 21. “[Foreign] orphanages tend to be filled by kids whose parents want better opportunities for them, while the root problem—extreme poverty—goes unaddressed, a UNICEF worker in Ethiopia told me,” Joyce wrote.
Joyce also said that there are tragic stories of families, through misunderstanding, losing their child permanently, believing that the arrangement agreed to was only a temporary guardianship.
*Image of a foster family via Shutterstock