Foster Care:

States Focusing on Finding Permanent Homes for Children, but Long-Standing Barriers Remain

GAO-03-626T: Published: Apr 8, 2003. Publicly Released: Apr 8, 2003.

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Cornelia M. Ashby
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In response to concerns that some children were languishing in temporary foster care, Congress enacted the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) to help states move children in foster care more quickly to safe and permanent homes. ASFA contained two key provisions: (1) the "fast track" provision allows states to bypass efforts to reunify families in certain egregious situations and (2) the "15 of 22" provision requires states, with a few exceptions, to file a petition to terminate parental rights (TPR) when a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months. Representative Wally Herger, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources asked GAO to review (1) changes in outcomes for children in foster care since ASFA was enacted, (2) states' implementation of ASFA's fast track and 15 of 22 provisions, (3) states' use of two new adoption related funds provided by ASFA, and (4) states' initiatives to address barriers to achieving permanency

ASFA's goal was to increase permanent placements, such as adoption, for children in foster care, but determining ASFA's impact is difficult. The annual number of adoptions have increased by 57 percent from the time ASFA was enacted through fiscal year 2000; however, the lack of comparable pre- and post-ASFA data make it difficult to determine ASFA's role in this increase. In addition, states have improved their foster care data since ASFA, making it difficult to determine whether observed changes in outcomes are due to changes in data quality or changes in state performance. States have also pursued other child welfare reform efforts that may be contributing to outcome changes. HHS data on children who left foster care between 1998 and 2000 indicate that most were reunified with their families after spending a median of 1 year in care (although about 33 percent returned to foster care within 2 years). Children who were adopted spent a median of 39 months in care. In response to a GAO survey, very few states were able to provide data on the number of children affected by ASFA's fast track and 15 of 22 provisions. Survey data, as well as information gathered from the six states GAO visited, suggest that states use the fast track provision infrequently and exempt a number of children from the 15 of 22 provision. During GAO's site visits, state and local officials described circumstances, such as the reluctance on the part of some judges to allow a state to bypass reunification efforts, which made it difficult for these states to use fast track for more cases. In addition, these officials said that difficulties finding adoptive homes for certain children, such as adolescents, discouraged states from using the 15 of 22 provision for these children. States reported exempting children placed with relatives and children who were expected to reunify shortly with their families. States are most frequently using ASFA's two new adoption-related funds to recruit adoptive parents and provide post adoption services. Examples include purchasing advertisements on Spanish language television to recruit adoptive families for older Hispanic children and creating a statewide adoption resource center to provide support to adoptive families. The states GAO visited have implemented a variety of practices to address long-standing barriers--such as court delays and difficulties in recruiting adoptive families for children with special needs--to achieving permanency for foster children. To help address court delays, for example, Massachusetts has developed a mediation program to help birth families and potential adoptive parents agree on the permanent plan for a child. However, limited data are available on the effectiveness of these practices. In a related report, GAO recommended that the Secretary of Health and Human Services review the feasibility of collecting data on states' use of ASFA's fast track and 15 of 22 provisions.

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