For Sake of Kids in Foster Care, Remove Bureaucratic Bars to Adoption

September 10, 1995|By PATRICK FAGAN

America's out-of-wedlock birthrate is heading toward 40 percent by the year 2000, and 50 percent around 2012. Alarmed lawmakers are increasingly looking to adoption as the solution to an expected increase in the number of abused and neglected children.

Unfortunately, they're finding that adoption is in big trouble.

There now are close to 500,000 children in the America's foster-care system. Nearly half of those who "graduate" from foster care, that is, those who turn 18 without having been placed in an adoptive family, will wind up on the welfare rolls.

Yet, the welfare bureaucracy continues to clear only about 50,000 kids for adoption each year.

Numerous studies show that adopted children do at least as well in life as their peers from intact, two-parent families, and in many cases they do better. But a series of obstacles erected by the social welfare bureaucracy keeps many foster children from finding permanent, loving homes.

Some 40 percent of pregnancy counselors treat adoption as if it didn't even exist -- they don't raise the issue with their pregnant clients -- and an additional 40 percent provide inaccurate or incomplete adoption information.

Child welfare agencies, unnecessarily saddled with the often contradictory tasks of keeping families intact and protecting children from abuse, are mired in endless red tape.

Some children die before the bureaucratic machinery can resolve these issues. The cases of some 30 percent to 50 percent of children killed by their parents or caretakers in 1991 were already familiar to child protective services.

Despite such harrowing facts, many foster parents wishing to adopt the children they are caring for are prevented by welfare bureaucrats from doing so.

Adoptive parents must contend with a hostile welfare system, no longer as concerned with maintaining the confidentiality of the identity of the birth parents -- a matter the professional literature shows to be an essential element in the child's bonding with the adopting family.

These obstacles, plus the "race-matching" philosophy of the social service community -- the misguided notion that a child must be matched with parents of his or her own race -- keep thousands of children, especially black children, languishing in foster care, many times for the duration of their childhoods.

The quickest, simplest solution to these problems is for states, -- which have primary responsibility for regulating adoption, to place the job of finding suitable parents in the hands of private adoption services.

Private adoption services are more efficient and effective than state agencies, which frequently are so busy with other tasks that they can't handle their caseloads.

Private adoption agencies are accountable to boards of directors; state agencies are not. Private organizations may be sued, which increases their accountability to the children and parents they serve. By contrast, state agencies often cannot be sued.

Public welfare agencies receive more money to keep children in foster care than they do to clear them for adoption. States should make public funds available to these agencies only if they meet a one-year deadline for deciding whether a child will go back to the birth family or will be adopted.

Children not returned to their families should be adopted within three months or handed over to a private agency for adoption.

When no "same-race" parents are available, states should not hesitate to place children with families of other races.

States should prohibit the removal of a child who is eligible for adoption from foster parents who are willing to adopt him, unless the child is being returned to his legal parents.

For its part, Congress should give adopting parents a tax credit of up to $5,000 to pay for the substantial costs involved in the process of adoption. Congress should require pregnancy counselors to provide clear, accurate information on the benefits of adoption. And it should prohibit the use of race or ethnicity in denying or delaying placement of a child in foster care or adoption.

Adoption works. It increases the emotional, physical and cognitive capacities of children, improves life chances of biological mothers, and saves money for the taxpayer.

Any welfare reform worthy of the name must include adoption reform.

Patrick Fagan is a William H. G. FitzGerald senior fellow in family and cultural issues at the Heritage Foundation. He is a former family therapist and clinical psychologist.

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