Safety and Stability for Foster Children

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Safety and Stability for Foster Children

The Policy Context

Journal Article

By: MaryLee Allen and

Mary Bissell

Date: 2004

Source: Allen, MaryLee, and Mary Bissell. "Safety and Stability for Foster Children: The Policy Context." Future of Children(2004).

About the Author: MaryLee Allen is director of the Child Welfare and Mental Health division of the Children's Defense Fund. She has played a significant role in child welfare and children's mental health reforms over the last two decades. Mary Bissell is a senior staff attorney in the Children's Defense Fund. She is a policy expert on child welfare and kinship care issues. Bissell has written extensively on the issue of child welfare in the United States.


The child welfare system in the United States involves a collaborative effort between multiple federal, state, and local government agencies; the juvenile and family courts; and community-based, private social services agencies. The primary responsibility to enforce legal and administrative policies related to child welfare lies with the local government of each state. However, the federal government establishes the framework for these policies.

The federal regulatory agency for child welfare programs (including foster care programs) is known as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In addition, there are other federal agencies such as the Department of Justice that also fund related programs.

Foster Care programs were first constituted in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1868, the Massachusetts Board of State Charities began a movement to place illegitimate, orphaned, or poor children in private homes rather than in institutions. The New York State Charities Aid Association, set up in 1872, was one of the first organizations in the country that formulated a specific child-placement program in 1898. A few years later in 1912, the United States Children's Bureau became the first federal body that addressed child welfare issues. By 1922, over 3,300 despondent children had been provided a safe haven, or in other words—a foster home. The Social Security Act of 1935, considered the foundation of subsequent social welfare programs, was then framed. It included various programs such as child welfare and provisions to aid disabled children, eventually leading to the expansion of foster care.

Federal funds were provided under this Act to children in poverty-stricken families, as well as those who were abused, neglected, and abandoned. Two years later, the Child Welfare League of America, which laid down minimum standards for adoptive and foster placements, was established. In the following years, several foster care programs were initiated across the country. Foster care, though beneficial, was not strictly regulated. Several concerns such as child abuse were also raised. Subsequently, in 1974, the U.S. Congress passed the Child Abuse Protection and Treatment Act that required states to enforce child abuse reporting laws. In order to further strengthen the child welfare system, Congress formulated the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act in 1980 to establish the framework for the modern child welfare system.

The number of children in foster care grew between 1980 and 2000. According to HHS, there were 260,000 children in foster care in the 1980s compared to 550,000 in 2000. Simultaneously, the number of child abuse and neglect cases also increased, and foster care programs that were mainly dependent on charitable donations experienced lack of funding. There were also several reports that not enough measures were taken to ensure that good families adopted children in foster care.

In November 1997, U.S. President Bill Clinton signed into law the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). This Act focused on three main issues— emphasizing the safety and well-being of children in foster care, the duration of stays in foster care, and increasing adoption opportunities for children who were abused and neglected. In the following years, many have recommended reforms to strengthen the ASFA further.



The Current Policy Framework

Federal law has had a major influence on the foster care and child welfare policy framework for more than 40 years. But there was no federal foster care program until 1961, when the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) Foster Care Program was established to care for children who could not safely remain with their families receiving AFDC. Nearly 20 years then passed before Congress undertook a comprehensive look at the general structure of federal funding for children who were abused and neglected. Congress was responding to both national and state reports documenting the crisis in child welfare systems and the disincentives in federal law to maintain or find new permanent homes for children and to hold states accountable for the care children received. Up until that time, there had been only perfunctory case reviews of children in care and little attention to tracking the progress of children. But in 1980, a new framework for foster care was created with passage of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (AACWA). Since then, several pieces of legislation building on this basic framework have been enacted—most notably, the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA).

Recommendations for Future Policy Reform

The impetus for the reforms in the foster care and the child welfare policy framework has been consistent over the years, with major policy changes being driven by the same four concerns: children languishing in care, child safety, the adequacy of services, and system accountability. Despite improvements, child welfare systems across the country are still in crisis, and barriers to reform remain. Why are more than 550,000 children currently in foster care? Why has there been so little progress in getting children and families the help they need? What are the barriers to real reform for these children? It is difficult to talk about reform of foster care without addressing reform of the broader child welfare system. Foster care is a key piece, but just one of many pieces, in the continuum of services and supports that must be in place as communities work to find safe and stable families for maltreated children.

Eliminating Child Poverty

Any serious effort to strengthen the policy framework for child welfare and foster care first must acknowledge the overriding importance of eliminating child poverty. Poor children are more likely than higher-income children to be reported as abused and neglected. Because of the enormous stresses on their families, families' difficulties in obtaining appropriate services such as health care and housing, and families' increased interaction with public systems, these children are more likely to come to the attention of the child welfare system. Poor children are also disproportionately children of color, who are overrepresented in the child welfare system and are more likely to stay in the child welfare system for long periods. Advocates, providers, and policymakers must pursue reforms that will eliminate child poverty and provide all children the health care, early childhood experiences, educational opportunities, and safe homes that they need to grow and thrive. Achieving these goals will have a major impact on the challenges facing the child welfare system and the children and families it serves.

With the elimination of child poverty as an overarching goal, the driving force behind any future policy reforms in child welfare must be to establish a policy framework that will support a child-centered, family-focused, community-based approach to keeping children safe and in permanent families. Within such a framework, several additional policy reforms in the broader child welfare system could have a positive impact on the future of foster care, as discussed below.

Redirecting Funding Incentives and Increasing Funding Levels

Major alterations in current funding patterns are needed to support important reforms such as enhanced safety and permanence for children. Although federal and state dollars are generally available to keep children in foster care, the dollars often are not there to support children safely within their own families and prevent foster care placements, to serve children in foster care and their families, or to move children into permanent placements in a timely fashion. Consequently, as noted by the Urban Institute, which regularly reviews child welfare spending, "The federal system is not in alignment with the goals of protecting children and providing stable, permanent placements." The federal foster care program provides open-ended funding for the room and board of certain eligible children in foster care, but only very limited funding for the development of alternative services for abused and neglected children and their families, both before a child must be placed in foster care or after a child returns home following placement. As a result, out-of-home care is often the easiest option for workers besieged with large caseloads and few other resources… Further efforts are needed to redirect the funding incentives within foster care. The lack of sufficient funding at both the federal and state levels for ongoing services for children at risk of entering foster care, those in foster care, or those preparing to leave foster care makes it impossible for states to fully comply with the expedited timelines required by ASFA. Changes must involve both increased resources for states and Indian tribal organizations and increased flexibility. Any new funding patterns must accomplish at least three goals:

  • Expanded services to keep children safely at home, to facilitate more timely decisions about reunification or other permanent placements, and to prevent children from returning to foster care after they are returned to their families, adopted, or placed permanently with kin.
  • Expanded permanency options for children in care through federal support for subsidized guardianship programs and enhanced adoption assistance payments
  • Eligibility for federal foster care funding and related services based on children's risk of abuse or neglect rather than their parents' financial status.

Improving the Quality of Care for Children and Families

In too many states, neither the child welfare agencies nor the courts have the trained staff, skills, or resources necessary to make decisions about the care and treatment that is appropriate to meet the individual needs of children and their families. A recent General Accounting Office report on the implementation of ASFA found that judges and other court staff were in short supply, training was not available, and judges were somewhat reluctant to move forward as quickly as required under the law. In particular, the lack of appropriate substance abuse treatment programs was identified as a barrier to meeting the ASFA timelines for parents. Some of the biggest service gaps are in the areas of treatment and services for the substance abuse, mental health, and domestic violence problems that so often bring children to the attention of the foster care system and keep them there. These gaps exist because of both the lack of funding for specialized services and the lack of coordination among child-serving systems. They are exacerbated by the failure of agencies to engage families and communities as partners in their mission to protect children. In one national survey, about one third of state agency administrators cited the lack of resources as a barrier to meeting ASFA's time frames. The lack of substance abuse treatment for parents and the fact that child welfare agencies were dependent on outside agencies for needed services were noted as particular problems. Often, families are not asked what they need or are not treated as partners in helping to keep their children safe. Caseloads are overwhelming, procedural timelines are tight, and families' needs are complex. "One size fits all" is too frequently the solution, despite a policy framework that encourages more individualized services.

Services and supports needed to find adoptive families for children in foster care and to ensure that adoptions are permanent are also lacking. With ASFA's new emphasis on termination of parental rights, there is serious concern that many more children may end up as "legal orphans." For example, as of September 30, 2000, some 131,000 children in foster care were waiting to be adopted; 75,000 of these children had had their parental rights terminated and had waited an average of almost two years for adoption. Once children are adopted, there is continuing concern that they will bounce back into foster care without adequate postadoption services to ensure that their needs are met.

Increasing Accountability for Children and Families

The child welfare system has had to struggle with the constant tension between state discretion, federal accountability, and the need for enforcement of basic protections for children.

Increased accountability is needed. It should build on the Child and Family Service Reviews and give states incentives to increase protections for children; improve services and supports for children and families, including those children in foster care; and promptly provide permanent families for children through reunification, adoption, or permanent placements with kinship caregivers. Specific changes should include:

  • Funding for Program Improvement Grants to states that are committed to achieving the goals in their Program Improvement Plans and are engaging parents; foster and adoptive parents; advocates; and representatives of the courts, multiple service agencies, and other stakeholders in their program improvement efforts.
  • A requirement that states document the steps they are taking with increased funds to improve outcomes for children; enhance the recruitment, retention, and training of staff; alter their service-delivery strategies to partner with families and engage communities in new ways; and address the disproportionate placement of children of color in foster care.
  • Incentives for states to develop improved administrative data systems to track the movement of children in and out of care. Such systems will help states monitor children in care over time and know more about who the children are, how long they are staying, what help they are getting, and what they really need to move on to permanent settings without returning to foster care.
  • External review bodies in the states, such as foster care review boards, child protection review committees, and courts, to report regularly to DHHS about barriers to safety and permanence that they see facing children in foster care and the child welfare system and to recommend solutions for addressing the barriers.

In its efforts to address specific concerns facing children in the child welfare system, Congress has repeatedly failed to fully understand the complexity of the system and the external and internal services and supports needed to fully realize its intended goals for children and families. A policy framework has been established, but significant gaps remain in services and funding levels and in balancing fiscal incentives. As we look forward to improving the quality of life for children and ensuring them safe and stable families, we must constantly assess what we are doing and what we still need to do to overcome the barriers to reform and to implement real change.


The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 is widely acknowledged to be a defining legislation that made significant changes to the existing child welfare provisions. Proponents of ASFA viewed it as an Act that would dramatically change the child welfare system by making the children safer and ensuring prompt permanent adoption. However, according to the critics, there are certain fundamental issues with the child welfare system that have been ignored by the Act. Some of these issues are interaction of the ASFA with the judiciary system, other child welfare laws, local and state child welfare authorities, and providing sufficient incentives to children and their families.

Additionally, there are issues such as continuing maltreatment of children in their families and subsequently in foster homes as well. According to the Department of Health and Human Services the cases of malnutrition in families, and in foster homes continues unabated. The ASFA has also been embroiled in another controversy. The Act introduced an incentive system for states—a state would receive four thousand dollars (in federal funds) for every foster care adoption that exceeded the base number of adoptions for a fiscal year. For instance, if the base number of foster care adoptions for a state was one thousand in a year, and if the actual foster care adoptions were 1,002, the state would receive eight thousand dollars as incentive. Subsequently, parents of children sent to foster care have accused state governments of encouraging adoption for monetary gain.

Nevertheless, the ASFA is deemed successful by most. According to the HHS, the overall child abuse and neglect incidence rate had declined to 12.9 per one thousand children, the lowest rate in ten years. U.S. President George Bush pointed out in 2003 that from 1998 to 2002, states placed more than 230,000 children in adoptive homes—about the same number that had been adopted in the previous ten years. Also, since the implementation of the Act, adoptions from foster care had increased nationwide by fifty-seven percent. Advocates of the ASFA state that the abovementioned statistics indicate that the act has been successful in addressing its key objectives—reducing cases of child abuse and providing more opportunities for children to be adopted from foster care.

Several proposals to restructure child welfare financing have been introduced since the ASFA became law. Lawmakers suggest that the ultimate aim should be to ensure that the child gets a safe and secure permanent home as quickly as possible. To this effect, recommendations have been made to streamline the process of adoption of children in foster care, to maintain their safety and well being, and to ensure their healthy transition into adulthood.



Reitz, Miriam and Kenneth W. Watson. Adoption and the Family System: Strategies for Treatment. New York: The Guilford Press, 1992.

Web sites

The Adoption History Project, University of Oregon. "Timeline of Adoption History." June 22, 2005. <∼adoption/timeline.html> (accessed June 5, 2006).

Court Appointed Special Advisors for Children. "Adoption and Safe Families Act: Has It Made a Difference?" September 2003. <> (accessed June 5, 2006).

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. "Foster Care: Numbers and Trends." 2005. <> (accessed June 5, 2006).