The 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act

“The 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act”

A Refresher for Foster Parents, GALs, CASAs, Foster Care Review Board Members

and Child Advocates Everywhere!

By June S. Bond and Jacqueline Valentine Bond

I recently sat in the Foster Care Review Board Room at the monthly meeting and listened to the recommendation for Deonte and his sister.  This review was the sixteenth for the siblings.  Deonte and his sister are now fifteen and sixteen years old respectively.  They were taken into DSS custody in 1998, eight years ago.  The current recommendation was for the siblings to remain in foster care until they reached eighteen because the siblings stated they no longer wanted to be adopted. (Both of these teenagers were allowed to seal their fate of never having a permanent family at the ripe old age of fourteen since South Carolina considers the wishes of children at that age).  As review board members, there was little that we could do to change the children’s situation after eight years in the state foster care system.  However, I had to go on record to voice my opinion that our local DSS and family court system failed these two young people.  The 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) had been signed and was in force. Yet, these children are still in foster care eight years later and are almost unadadoptable considering their age and attitude toward their adoption prospects.

The adoption community had high hopes for the 1997 adoption legislation.  Nine years later, however, there are still thousands of children languishing in the foster care system, aging out without a place to call home and loving stable parents to call their forever family.  What is happening and how can foster parents, GALs, CASAs, and foster care review board members become more educated to make changes?

First of all, they should have a copy of the ASFA in their daytimers, cerebral cortex, and hearts. This piece of legislation provides ammunition and a framework to advocate for children in foster care.  At each meeting for a child in foster care, the designated advocates for the child review:

  1. How many months has the child been in foster care? The state must move forward for termination of parental rights and permanency planning for any child that has been in foster care 15 out of the most recent 22 months, regardless of age.
  2. Under what circumstances did the child come into care? While states are required to make reasonable efforts to preserve and reunify a family in distress, there are circumstances where the state does not have to make reasonable efforts to reunify.  Special circumstances include abandonment, torture, chronic abuse, sexual abuse, murder of another child in the family, murder of the other parent of the child, felony assault that results in bodily injury of another child in the family, and/or the rights of the parent to another child have been involuntarily terminated.  If any of these circumstances exist, the advocates of the child should make a recommendation of termination of parental rights and permanency planning. If the state does try to make efforts to reunify families through a treatment plan, advocates for the child should ask the following questions in regard to the treatment plan and the parent’s efforts to provide a safe home for the child.
  • What parts of the treatment plan have been accomplished?
  • What parts of the treatment plan have not been accomplished and why?
  • What level of visitation has been accomplished between the parent and child?
  • Is the parent providing child support?
  • Is there another parent that has not been located? If so, what is the caseworker doing to find this parent and/or terminate this parent’s rights due to abandonment if they cannot be found? A child should not have to stay in foster care for added time, once the offending parent’s rights have been terminated in order for caseworkers to “find” the other parent. In today’s world of internet, there are many avenues to narrow down a missing parent’s location or where logical legal notices for the purposes of termination be filed.  Advocates should push for proactive status in these circumstances.
  • Is the parent providing material contributions to the child if child support is not being contributed?
  • Does the parent have a job, suitable housing, day care plans, and employment?

If the efforts at reunification are not progressing, child advocates should expect answers of why the plan is not completed.  Please remember there are no good excuses with the exception of the parents’ deathly illness, which is rarely the case.

In looking at the role of the foster parent, every foster parent should know their rights as outlined by their own state statute.  Far too often, foster parents must ferret out their legal rights on their own.  The GAL, CASA, and Foster Care Review Team should also be able to help the foster parent at hearings and meetings for them to advocate for the child’s permanency plan.  In addition, many foster parents are not aware they may retain an attorney on their own accord to work for an adoption plan for them and their foster child.

It is also critical that foster parents, GALs, and CASAs attend review board meetings. Input from these vital sources can put permanency planning at a high level of scrutiny. Suggestions from these resources can motivate good caseworkers and provide inexperienced caseworkers with added resources.  In addition, these advocates should not shy away from talking with casework supervisors and department heads if they feel that adequate energy from the caseworker is not being place on permanency for the child.

Speaking of permanency planning…. The child advocacy team must remember that PERMANENCY planning is really meant to be PERMENENT.  Most states have an order of priority for options for permanency planning.  This order may proceed in priority from reunification with the parent, adoption, permanent custody, placement with a relative and last on the priority list: another planned living arrangement. Caseworkers may choose to place the child with a relative, but not require adoption.  Unfortunately, when the child enters puberty, the relative may return to the foster care system since the permanency of an adoption was not achieved.  The 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act was designed to promote permanency, not the quick fix of finding a relative willing to take the child without a permanent arrangement.  Advocates must not allow the child’s options for permanency to end with a “quick fix” relative placement.

Caseworkers often state efforts are underway to find a suitable adoptive resources, but “none have been located.”  It is the time for child advocates to ask what efforts have actually been made.  ASFA addresses plans to remove geographic barriers to placement. If a caseworker is only utilizing their own state’s data base of resources, this is NOT enough. Child advocates should ask if the child is listed on www.adoptuskids.org.  The caseworkers should be mandated to place the child on other adoption exchanges and specialized programs such as Adopt America Network, as well as other media programs that expand the available adoption resources for a child.  Child advocates should take the attitude that there are no unadoptable children, only untapped resources.

Child advocates may sometimes find family court judges reluctant to terminate parental rights in spite of the federal legislation.  Voicing valid concerns about members of the bench is not inappropriate.  Judges are appointed by a higher authority and mounting concerns about a judge’s rulings are taken into consideration when reappointments are considered.

Finally, concerns to local legislators are also talking points for new child advocacy legislation. Legislation should not be created in a vacuum.  It should be started in fertile grassroots advocacy where practicality and realism can grow together into workable legislation.

The 1997 Safe Families and Adoption Act was created to make a difference in the lives of children. It must be living, breathing, caring humans that take this legislative framework into the courts and foster care review boards.  As advocates, we must be proactive when caseworkers and family court judges are not achieving the goal of permanency for the child.  We must offer our educated heads, tender hearts, and helping hands to the children to find forever homes.