Thousands of American children spend more time in temporary foster care than they should because of state policies that slow the adoption process, a new study of foster care policies indicates.
The report, prepared by the Institute for Children, a nonprofit advocacy group with ties to a conservative think tank, suggests that many children are trapped in foster care because of policies aimed at preserving the family at all costs.
Children also are stranded by continuing debates over transracial adoption and a federal system that reimburses state foster care costs without any incentive to permanently place children, the study says.
“Foster care was supposed to be a temporary solution,” said Conna Craig, president of the Institute for Children. “For kids in care, far too often this is not temporary. It is our hope that this (study) will be the first step in finding these children a home.”
Last year, 526,112 children lived in foster care and of those, 53,642 were eligible to be adopted but weren’t, according to the study.
Washington, D.C., Illinois, Minnesota and California had the highest proportions of children in care - often more than 10 children per 1,000 children.
The study shows that Idaho, Arkansas, Florida and New Mexico had the smallest proportion of children living in foster care - often less than five children per 1,000 children.
The question of when and how to allow children to be adopted tears at the heart of the American psyche.
In a society where people believe families could be like the Cosbys or the Cleavers, the idea of adoption is painful. Complicating the problem is an anti-adoption backlash, sparked by national controversies over adoptions like Baby Jessica and Baby Richard where the natural parents attempted to reclaim their children.
“Balancing the rights of parents with the rights of children is one of the most difficult things we do in public policy,” said Larry Huff, children’s advocate for South Carolina Gov. David Beasley.
Earlier this year the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would immediately terminate a parent’s right if the child has been tortured, sexually abused, chronically abused or abandoned.
Children’s advocates say that is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done.
The Institute for Children, whose study is being promoted by the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis, a conservative group, recommends that children stay in foster care no longer than 12 months before they are either reunified with their biological family or adopted.
The group also emphasizes that the adoption can be by relatives, an option that is increasingly popular. Other recommendations include narrowing the definition of “special needs” children to kids with special physical or other handicaps and requiring states to publicly report adoption rates.
Placing children in permanent homes is imperative to their well-being and to society since children who turn 18 in foster care are overrepresented among welfare recipients, prison inmates and the homeless, Craig said.
Placing more children in permanent homes won’t be easy because of widely varying state and local policies governing adoptions.
“We not only have variations from state to state, we have variations from county to county, and within counties we have variations from court to court,” said Bill Pierce, president of the National Council for Adoption. “You have some who will terminate custody right away, you have some who won’t.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: STATES’ BREAKDOWN The study included a state-by-state breakdown of foster care adoptions. North Dakota ranked highest with a 96.7 percent adoption rate, defined as foster children within the state adopted in 1996 as a percentage of those available for adoption. Hawaii was the lowest with 9.6 percent. In the middle range were Michigan (36.6 percent), California (34.7 percent), Washington (32.4 percent) and Texas (28.9 percent). New York, with 12,000 children out of 52,000 available for adoption, did not provide data on how many foster care adoptions occurred in 1996.