Foster Care: Recent Legislation Helps States Focus on Finding Permanent Homes for Children, but Long-Standing Barriers Remain

GAO-02-585 Published: Jun 28, 2002. Publicly Released: Jun 28, 2002.
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In response to concerns about the length of time children were spending in foster care, Congress enacted the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA). The act contained two key provisions intended to help states more quickly move the more than 800,000 children estimated to be in foster care each year to safe and permanent homes. One of these provisions, referred to as "fast track," allows states to bypass efforts to reunify families in certain egregious situations. The other provision, informally called "15 of 22," requires states to file a petition to terminate parental rights when a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months. Although the number of adoptions has increased by 57 percent since the act 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. Although data on states' use of the act's two key performance provisions are limited, some states described circumstances that hinder their use. Survey data suggest that a few states used the fast track provision infrequently. In general, states are most frequently using the new adoption-related funds provided by the act to recruit adoptive parents and provide post adoption services. The states involved in the survey are addressing long-standing barriers to achieving permanency for foster children such as court delays and insufficient court resources, difficulties in recruiting adoptive families for children with special needs, obstacles and delays in placing children in permanent homes in other jurisdictions, and poor access to some services families need to reunify with their children. States are testing different approaches, but the data are limited on the effectiveness of these practices.

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Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Health and Human Services To obtain a clearer understanding of how ASFA's two key permanency provisions are working, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) should review the feasibility of collecting data in the most cost-effective way on states' use of ASFA fast track and 15 of 22 provisions. Information, such as the number of children exempted from the 15 of 22 provision and the reasons for the exemptions, could help HHS better target its limited resources to key areas where the states may need assistance in achieving ASFA's goals.
Closed – Implemented
According to HHS officials, the agency established a team to review data issues and evaluate the feasibility of including data on the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997's fast track, and 15 of 22 provisions in the AFCARS (Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting) system. As part of this process, the agency conducted an internal review of the system and sought comments from external stakeholders. This internal assessment of AFCARRS was completed in April 2003. HHS then sought external input and drafted regulations to revise the AFCARS data elements states are required to submit. HHS completed drafting the regulations and the final notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) will be published in October 2006.

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