The new legislation is one of the most significant child welfare bills of the past two decades for it should mark a turning point in how we deal with children from troubled families. Designed to encourage states to move from reliance on foster care to helping children remain with their families or, if that is not possible, to be placed in adoptive homes, it asserts that the states must know what is happening to children in care and that they may no longer be allowed to drift in the system without resolution of their legal status and ultimate living arrangements.
The Act charts new paths for federal-state cooperation and assistance to families and, in fact, mandates improved services to them. It is a complex law, as the accompanying summary of highlights reveals. But there is nothing complicated about the positive firsts in child welfare legislation the law embodies. These include the following:
- For the first time, federal aid will be available for the adoption of children with special needs, including older, handicapped and minority children. Previously, all federal aid to families for care of a child who had to be placed outside the home ceased once the child was adopted. Now, for example, foster parents who wish to adopt their handicapped foster child, but who would need financial help in meeting the special expenses involved in raising such a child, will be able to do so. Children for whom federal funds for adoption subsidies will be available are those who are eligible under AFDC, AFDC-Foster Care and SSI funding programs.
- For the first time, all states will be required to establish an adoption assistance program, no later than October 1, 1982. Although 48 states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands have passed some form of adoption subsidy legislation, in only a few states have more than minimal funds had been made available to implement the programs.
- For the first time, federal assistance for foster care mandates provision of pre-placement preventive services to help children remain with their families.
- For the first time, federal assistance for foster care mandates increased services and procedures to achieve the goal of permanent planning for children.
- For the first time, the Federal Government offers financial incentives to states to redirect child welfare programs to a family orientation, rather than placement of children. Under the new law, for instance, under certain circumstances a ceiling will be set on the use of federal funds available to pay for room and board for children in foster care.
- For the first time, states will be required to conduct an inventory of all children in foster care under their supervision for six months or longer.
- For the first time, states will have to develop a service program planned to help children return to their families or, where appropriate, be placed for adoption or legal guardianship.
- For the first time, federal funding is provided to support the voluntary placement of a child without judicial determination. Now federal funds will be paid so that workers will be able to help families without a formal court proceeding. Previously, federal AFDC matching funds were not available for children placed in foster care without judicial determination. (Once a child has been placed in foster care for six months, the case must go to court to insure the voluntary nature of the placement or the child be returned home.)
- For the first time, federal payments are authorized for placement of children in public institutions which serve no more than 25 children. This means that there will be more opportunity to provide services, through such group homes, to adolescents who cannot remain at home or live with a foster family.
For the more than 500,000 children now living in foster care in this country, then, the new legislation offers the hope of a shorter time in foster care, fewer changes in living arrangements, earlier return to their own homes, or placement with adoptive families or in long-term living arrangements. It should also stem the appalling increase in the number of children entering foster care. In the years from 1961 to 1977, the number of children in foster care served by public agencies increased from 177,000 to 503,000.1 During the same period, the population of children under age 18 in the United States decreased by more than one and a half million.
The drift of children in foster care must be stopped. We know that nearly 25 percent of the children now in care have been there for more than six years. We also know that if children do not return to their own parents within the first year or two, the chance that they will ever be returned home decreases substantially.
For example, when the Child Welfare Information Services System (CWIS) was developed in New York
City, which has a foster care population larger than that in any other state except for California, an early finding was that 26 percent of the children then in foster care (over 7,000) were “destined to be discharged to their own responsibility.”3 In other words, many of the children were growing up in the foster care system, to leave only when they reached adult status. Even more shocking is the fact that there were several hundred children under the age of five for whom the social workers had specified “discharge to own responsibility” on their plan.
Other studies and statistics are equally disturbing. Turning to my own state of Massachusetts, a study conducted in 1973 showed that almost 30 percent of the parents of children in foster care felt that placing their child had been unnecessary.” More than 23 percent believed that placement could have been avoided if they had been able to receive quicker or more family counseling, and 43 percent reported that social workers did not talk to them at all about what foster home care would be like for their child. A majority-60 percent-felt excluded from participating in the placement process. More than half – 57 percent – had not seen a social worker from the foster home care agency for at least six months, while 31 percent said they never saw a social worker at all.
The incentives and requirements contained in the new legislation can help change these statistics and I am heartened by the conversations I have had with state child welfare administrators. All have been candid about their problems, all have admitted overuse of foster care, and all are eager to begin the reforms heralded by P.L. 96-272. Some have already begun the process of reform.
When persistent efforts are made to make the goal of permanency for children a reality, many more children do return home. Writing about a project in Alameda County, California, whose goal was “to increase continuity of care by offering intensive services to biological parents to achieve an early’ decision on their children’s future,” Kermit Wiltse reports:
“When asked, 95 percent of the parents of children in foster care who became part of our project…said they wished to have their children restored. There were instances … of parents who said that this was the first time they had ever really been asked this question. Similarly … when the caseworker moved on to establish precisely what the problem was that had necessitated placement in the first place, and what the current status of that problem was, there were instances again … where it developed that little or nothing now remained of the problem that had first precipitated placement. Both the agency and the natural parents … had settled into a condition of tacit acceptance of the placement status quo.”
Wiltse also reports the findings when an experimental group of cases for which permanency planning was being actively pursued were matched against a control group: “At the end of the 2-year project, only 21 percent of the children in the experimental group were designated as long-term foster care cases, as compared to 60 percent in the control group.” And 79 percent of the children in the experimental group were “either out or headed out of foster home placements,” compared to only 40 percent in the control group.
In attempting to protect and nurture children who were not or could not be adequately cared for in their own homes, society took on a most complex task. And the evidence is that almost as much harm as good has resulted from our past efforts.
The new legislation urges us to take another look at how we are treating children from troubled families-and their parents-and seeks to correct the ills created by the system in the past and to prevent more children and families from being caught in it in the future.
The law redefines the roles of the federal and state governments in relation to the administration and delivery of child welfare services by imposing greater accountability on federal and state units and mandating the utilization of information systems, including tracking mechanisms, studies, evaluations and program audits. It calls on the Federal Government to make an annual report to Congress on the voluntary AFDC-Foster Care placements and to collect and publish data on the incidence and characteristics of foster care and adoption placements, to evaluate state programs, to conduct special studies and to report to Congress on Title IV-E by October, 1983.
Specifically, the law charts new pathways toward improving the child welfare system. It makes the availability of new funds conditional upon the provision of certain safeguards and services for children and their families and allows states some funds “up front,” to develop those systems and services.
When I came to Washington last February, to be sworn in as Commissioner of the Administration for Children, Youth and Families, I identified two major priorities in the work of this Agency. The first was to seek permanent homes and families for all children.
John A. Calhoun is Commissioner, Administration for Children, Youth and Families
*Attribution line: *First Published in the September-October edition 1980 edition of Children Today, a publication of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.