Failure to Protect
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OVERVIEW: The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997

The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA), which The Washington Post in January 1998 called "the most significant change in federal child-protection policy in almost two decades," ushered in a series of changes to the foster care system, many of which are still hotly contested today. The law states that the system's "paramount concern" is for children's health and safety, which some critics say endorses a tilt away from family preservation and reunification efforts. Some of the law's provisions:

  1. Agencies and courts may forgo the "reasonable efforts" mandate previously in force -- where states were required to make "reasonable efforts" to prevent the removal of children from their homes and to reunite those who had been removed -- if a parent has abandoned their child, committed murder or voluntary manslaughter, been convicted of a felony assault, or previously had their parental rights terminated.

  2. States must file a termination of parental rights (TPR) petition if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months. Courts can exempt cases from this requirement if the child is in a relative's home, if "reasonable efforts" at reunification were not made, or if there is a compelling reason that TPR wouldn't be in the best interests of the child.

  3. As an incentive to move more children out of foster care, states are eligible to receive up to $4,000 in federal funds for each foster child adopted beyond a baseline number, and $6,000 for each additional special needs child who is adopted.

On the right are links to two book excerpts by experts with widely divergent views on ASFA, its provisions, and its effects. Dorothy Roberts, a professor of law at Northwestern University and author of Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, argues that ASFA is a wrong-headed assault on family preservation that goes far beyond its goal of ensuring children's safety and establishes "a preference for adoption as the means of reducing the exploding foster care population." Elizabeth Bartholet, on the other hand, argues that ASFA has many loopholes and that, in fact, it does not go far enough to ensure children's safety. A professor at Harvard's law school and the author of Nobody's Children: Abuse and Neglect, Foster Drift, and the Adoption Alternative, Bartholet writes that "ASFA may have left too much room for those in the child welfare system who are committed to family preservation to resist and evade [the law's] apparent purpose."


» ASFA: An Assault on Family Preservation
An excerpt from Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (2002) by Dorothy Roberts. Reprinted by permission of Basic Civitas Books, New York, N.Y.

» ASFA: Filled With Loopholes and Exceptions
An excerpt from Nobody's Children: Abuse and Neglect, Foster Drift, and the Adoption Alternative (1999) by Elizabeth Bartholet. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston, Mass.

related links

» The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997
Text of the legislation, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

» GAO Report on ASFA (PDF)
This June 2002 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office gives a comprehensive overview of ASFA and concludes that while the annual number of adoptions has increased by 57 percent since it was enacted, "changes in other foster care outcomes and the characteristics of children in foster care cannot be identified due to the lack of comparable pre- and post-ASFA data."

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