NEW ADOPTION LAW
November 19, 1997
Despite the fact that the amount of children in foster care has doubled over the past decade to over a half a million, the adoption rate has remained steady at about 20,000 a year. After a background report, Elizabeth Farnsworth and guests discuss a new law that will speed up the adoption process for children in foster care.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Over half a million American children are in foster care today--twice as many as a decade ago. But the number of adoptions has remained steady, at about 20,000 a year. Today President Clinton signed a bill, which had been overwhelmingly approved by Congress, aimed at speeding up the adoption process for foster care children.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
An Online Forum about opening adoption records.
January 15, 1997:
Lee Hochberg looks at the controversy over opening adoption records.
The NewsHour coverage of Youth issues.
Adoption.com seeks to provide a central location for all adoption information.
A new law.
The legislation modifies a 1980 adoption law, which required states and child welfare agencies to make "reasonable efforts" to reunify foster children with their biological parents before pursuing adoption. Only after children had been in foster care for 18 months could the adoption process begin. The new law retains the "reasonable efforts" provision but allows states to identify "aggravated circumstances," where reunification efforts need not be pursued. The safety of foster kids, not family reunification, should be of "paramount concern." And the law allows adoption proceedings to be begin after 12--not 18--months. President Clinton praised the bill at a White House signing ceremony earlier today.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: With these measures we help families stay together, where reunification is possible, and help find safe homes for children much more quickly, when it is not. We've come together in an extraordinary example of bipartisan cooperation to meet the urgent needs of children at risk. We put our differences aside and put our children first. We have put in place here the building blocks of giving all of our children what should be their fundamental right--a chance at a decent, safe home, an honorable, orderly, positive upbringing; a chance to live out their dreams and fulfill their God given capacities. Now, as we approach Thanksgiving, when families all across our country come together to give thanks for their blessings, I would like to encourage more families to consider opening their homes and their hearts to children who need loving homes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Joining us now to discuss the new law and its implications are Gloria King, the executive director of the Black Adoption Placement & Research Center in Oakland, California, and William Byars, a family court judge in Camden, South Carolina. At the White House today he received an award for improving the nation's child welfare system. Thank you both for being with us.
Judge Byars, what were you seeing in your courtroom that made you press so hard for these changes? What was wrong with the system before?
Judge Byars: "Every child deserves a family...."
JUDGE WILLIAM BYARS, 5th Circuit, South Carolina: In South Carolina, we ended up having children in care for an average of 40 months. We had--we figured we had--they were not going to new homes. They were stuck in the system that we had designed, that we were implementing at that time. And children--it just came down to a belief of need to look at the system through the eyes of a child. That's the person who was the victim. That's the person who was being hurt. Every child deserves a family, and that was what our effort is based upon.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Gloria King, you also favored these changes. What have you been seeing that made you favor them?
GLORIA KING, Black Adoption Research Center: Well, any time that we put the child's safety first, then we're headed in the right direction, and we want to make sure that we have the right family for that child. We were pleased about that. We were also pleased that the time for children to reunify with their families has decreased because children deserve earlier in their life a chance for permanency.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Ms. King, why are there so many more children in the foster care system now than there ever have been? I read it's up 89 percent since 1982.
The reasons behind the increase of children in foster care.
GLORIA KING: With the increase of drug abuse by parents, incarcerations, things that are beyond the child's control, we will see an increase. Many of the children are coming from poverty, and with that, comes all of the ills of society. And until we really address those issues, I think we will see that number continue to increase, unfortunately.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Judge Byars, the new law really represents a change in child welfare philosophy, doesn't it?
JUDGE WILLIAMS BYARS: Yes, it does.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Explain that for us.
JUDGE WILLIAMS BYARS: Well, under the old rule that the primary thrust of the law was to reunite the family, often times we spent a lot of time trying to get the parents to grow up to become parents. Meanwhile, the child just sat in the system. They were taken from one foster home into another, to another. They're the victim, and yet, they were on a time frame that was designed to help the perpetrator of the ills against them. This law says the first thing you do is you protect the child. You take care of their health and safety. And once you do that, then you work with a reasonable interest in most circumstances to get the parents into being good parents, but if they don't do that on a child's time frame, if they don't do that within the period of a year, the child can't wait anymore, and we want to find that child a family that will love and protect it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But, Judge, am I right, the majority of kids will still go back to their families, right?
Judge Byars: "100,000 children in the United States...are stuck in the system going nowhere."
JUDGE WILLIAMS BYARS: The majority of children--that part has not changed--the majority of children now will go back to their families. It doesn't really try to affect that. What it does try to affect is the 100,000 children in the United States that are stuck in the system going nowhere.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell me, how will it affect what you do? You have an agency that places children who are currently in foster care, right?
GLORIA KING: That's correct.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And I might also add you just told me that you yourself had over 100 foster sisters and brothers in your own family.
GLORIA KING: That's correct. My--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So this is something you really know about.
GLORIA KING: That's right. My family--my parents dedicated their life to helping foster children, so for the 14--I'm sorry--for the 19 years that they did foster care I wasn't only a natural sibling to nine brothers and sisters; I was a sibling to a hundred and fifty children. And that's really what attracted me to this bill because I know that dedicated parents are out there, and we can make a difference, especially the African-American community, because across the states it's our children that are disproportionately represented.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us the proportion.
The percentage of African-American children in foster care.
GLORIA KING: In California there is over 100,000 children in foster care and African American children represent over 40 percent. In Alameda County locally here in California the number is even higher. It's 67 percent. So everywhere that you look our children are the ones that are disproportionately represented, and so we must sound the alarm that good families are needed, and we need to do this quickly.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How will the law help you do that? How will it help you place these kids, get ‘em from foster care into families? And some foster care families are fine, I know, but where you want to get them out of foster care and into an adoptive home, how will this help?
GLORIA KING: This law really helps us when the plan can't work for reunification; that it will expedite the time frame, so instead of waiting for 18 months, it will be decreased to 12 months. And in the case where families already have children in the system it will be less time than that. And what that does is opens up an opportunity for forever family, sooner for a child.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Judge Byars, how will it work for you specifically? Give me an example of how this will change what you do in your courtroom, for example?
JUDGE WILLIAMS BYARS: Well, in South Carolina, we've already changed our law. We've shortened it down to a one-year time frame about a year ago. What you end up having to do is you have this back-log of kids that haven't been addressed, and now the time frames are shorter, so you've got to move forward and do more on the new cases coming in and more on the old cases that were already there. It requires then a great deal of effort on the Department of Social Services, the Guardian Ad Litem programs, and the judges. And in South Carolina we got that as a united effort from the judiciary, from the Department of Social Services, and we have managed in a period of two years to double the number of adoptive placements in South Carolina. That can be replicated all across the country.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you've had this experience already. What problems did you face in South Carolina even with the changes that you already made? There was some resistance, for example, to taking tips from their families that soon.
JUDGE WILLIAMS BYARS: The children really are already from the families, and we found that about 90 percent of the families did not fight the termination. The termination is a hard thing for social workers to recommend. It's a hard thing for judges to do, and it just floods the court, and the courts have to devote the resources to move these children. We've got to realize that getting a child into a safe environment with a permanent family is very, very important. There are no cases more important than taking care of a child who's been abused and neglected. That's our job.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what about in your experience, do you think that this law will really propel the process forward, or do you think there will be some resistance? Is it going to be hard to implement?
GLORIA KING: I think it will be somewhat hard to implement until we re-educate social workers, so our practice has to change. We do not want expediency without competency of understanding the cultural issues that face many children when terminating parental rights.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you mean? Tell me what you're talking about here specifically.
GLORIA KING: What I'm talking about is that at child protective services usually the organization that will separate a child from its birth family. The individuals that make that important decision need to understand how to assess family's strengths and needs, and they need to understand the families that they're working with, and across the nation, even though the disproportionate number of African-American children, less than 10 percent are African-American social workers, so we need to do a lot in terms of educating those that make the decision, so that the family is right, when we make the decision for permanency.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Judge, there are more than half a million kids in foster care right now in this country, as I understand it. What more needs to be done? Where do you go from here with your efforts to reform the system?
JUDGE WILLIAMS BYARS: Well, I think as she was saying, one of the things we've got to realize is that Americans will adopt the children. One of the things that I've heard is these children cannot be adopted, and yet, Americans--we're people with a great deal of love in our heart. Our people go all around the world to Korea, to Nicaragua, to Bulgaria, to Romania, to Africa, to adopt children, and yet we have 100,000 of our own children that we have not allowed to be adopted. We will adopt those children. There are people out there who will do that. We just have to make it possible. Every state has got to go back and look at its law, look at the new law, bring ‘em in line, look at bringing the judicial resources and the DSS resources to bear on this problem, and we can free these children up, and we can place them in homes, and we don't need to go all around the world to adopt. Our people will adopt within our own country, take care of our children.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Judge, you're using the figure 100,000. Is that the number that are now ready to be adopted, as opposed to the 1/2 million which are in foster care?
JUDGE WILLIAMS BYARS: That is the estimate of the number of children who are in foster care drift. In other words, they really are not headed back home, and they're not headed to a new family either. You have to do TPR, termination of parental rights, and a lot of folks view that as the death of a family. It is hard to do, but yet, TPR is really the birth pains of a new family that has to be done before these children get a new mama and daddy.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Ms. King, where do you think we have to go from here?
A step in the right direction.
GLORIA KING: I think we have to do a lot of education. We have to do more recruitment of families, but we also need to explain the profile of the children, so that families know that it takes more than love. It's going to take skill, patience, understanding the child's identity, preserving where the child comes from, because when we put children first, we have to remember, they come from families, and until we look back at the families, we really haven't resolved the problem. This is just a first step in the right direction, but there is much more work to be done.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you both very much for being with us.