Fiddling with Foster Care

The feds want to play, too.


One doesn't have to spend much time in Washington to discover that our governing elite comprises many people who are more interested in favorable media mentions than in policy that actually addresses a problem. This is particularly true when it comes to children. And no group, except perhaps the tobacco industry, fears negative public perceptions more than the once revolutionary Republicans who still nominally control Congress. The confluence of these two factors promises to give Americans federally driven foster care reform.

America's foster care system is certainly a mess. A half million children were wards of the state in 1995, up from 400,000 children five years earlier. Four in 10 of these children can expect to remain in foster care for more than two years; many will experience multiple placements. Worse yet, while 120,000 children were free to be adopted at the end of 1990, the last year for which data are available, only 17,000 adoptions were completed. Meanwhile, organizations that specialize in private adoptions, such as Adopt a Special Kid America, have waiting lists of frustrated couples eager to provide nurturing homes.

Last December President Clinton, citing such statistics, called for a doubling of adoptions by 2002. This, in turn, has prompted a burst of bipartisan legislation. In late April, the Adoption Promotion Act of 1997, sponsored by Reps. David Camp (R-Mich.) and Barbara Kennelly (D-Conn.), passed the House in a 416-5 landslide and is expected to emerge in the Senate in July. In addition, Sens. John Chafee (R-R.I.) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) have introduced the Safe Adoptions and Family Environment (SAFE) Act.

These bills, while not noxious, indicate how little the federal government can do to solve some of the nation's intractable problems. They also demonstrate how far the Republican Congress, which once professed to recognize this limitation, has regressed from its devolutionary rhetoric of 1992. (See "Spinal Tap," April.) Instead of increasing its role in foster care, the federal government, short of getting out of the child welfare business altogether, should block-grant the money to the states with very few, if any, strings attached. This happens to be the approach the Republicans took in 1996.

Consider the legislation's goals. Both bills aim to increase adoption and clarify what "reasonable efforts" must be made in pursuit of family preservation.

There is rightfully a pro-family bias in family law. When in doubt, social service agencies attempt to preserve families. This was made explicit in a 1980 law that required states to make reasonable efforts to preserve families before terminating parental rights. Critics of the system complain that agencies have misinterpreted this statute to mean that they must go to extraordinary lengths to restore families. This pro-family bias, critics charge, means that kids languish in foster care longer than they should and often are returned to violent homes where they are further abused.

The bills attempt to address this by clarifying what "reasonable efforts" means and by shortening from 18 to 12 months the time social workers and judges have to design a long-term plan for the child. In addition, the Camp-Kennelly bill attempts to bribe state officials into focusing on adoption with a $4,000-$6,000 bonus for each child adopted.

But there is a trade-off. The converse of making every effort to reunify a family is rushing to break up families whose only crime is offending someone who made an anonymous tip. The Home School Legal Defense Association is fending off four to five such intrusions on its members a week.

In other words, there are two types of errors the system can make: failing to remove a child from an abusive home and removing a child from a nonabusive home. The challenge is to create a system that strikes an acceptable balance between these two errors.

The states, which actually run or directly oversee foster care programs, are better suited than the feds to make these tradeoffs. Consider the 12-month cutoff provision. Eighteen states already have adopted this time frame. Two states have shortened it to six months, and six states require a hearing within 18 months. Even in the absence of federal direction, states often do address their problems. It doesn't, however, follow that the other 24 states
a) suffer from the same problems as the states which have adjusted their laws or
b) should have to adopt the same policies even if they do.

As far as adoption in concerned, it is hard to see how a $6,000 payment overwhelms all the other federal money that comes from keeping a child in foster care: monthly payments ranging from $200 to $3,000 to caretakers and separate funding for family preservation programs. The state of Kansas recently privatized its entire system, adopting a managed care model under which private providers are paid a one-time fee per child regardless of how long the child stays in out-of-home care. In just six months, adoptions have increased by 80 percent. If states had a lump sum of money, rather than an endless stream of federal dollars attached to children in foster care, they would quickly come to their own conclusion on what constitutes "reasonable efforts."

The promise isn't that each state will develop a perfect system. That won't happen. Given the tragedies the system exists to address–drug-addicted mothers, sexually abused children, etc.–a perfect system is unimaginable.

Rather, the case for block grants rests on three pillars: First, the states, which actually run the systems, are better situated to recognize the children's needs. Second, since state officials must deal directly with the fallout from the system's failure, they have a greater stake in the outcomes than any Washingtonian, no matter how compassionate. And third, freed from federal regulations on how they must spend their money, state bureaucrats would lose their favorite excuse for failure: The federal government tells us how to spend our money. Suddenly, state officials would be accountable for outcomes. Accountability improving outcomes–that is something conservatives once championed.