It’s been about 25 years now since the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) was adopted to combat perceived “foster care drift,” the problem of children lingering in foster care, moving from placement to placement without permanency, and exiting the system without strong family and community connections. At the time, the Washington Post described the law as the most significant change in federal child welfare policy in 20 years.
Statistics show the law has had an impact. In 1998, for example, there were 559,000 children in foster care, and 44% of them had been in care in excess of two years, with a 20.5-month median length of stay in foster care.1 By 2020, the number of children in care had dropped by 25%, the median length of stay had dropped to 15 months, and only 30% were in care in excess of two years. ASFA accomplished this by emphasizing a “fish or cut bait” approach: if the agency couldn’t reunify child and parents within those first two years or so, it needed to push for termination of parental rights and adoption.
Times have certainly changed. Now, the Family First Prevention Services Act — which emphasizes keeping children out of state custody — is the latest child welfare trend. And a number of critics have compared ASFA to the crime bills of the 1990s, claiming it unfairly targets and punishes poor, minority parents. “The foster system thrives on the narrative that it is saving children, yet communities, history, and evidence show otherwise,” argues The Movement for Family Power. “It is a system designed to punish, control, and contain our community, not disrupt intergenerational cycles of poverty or harm much less help families and communities thrive.” Professor Shanta Trivedi adds that ASFA’s shortening of the timeline for parents to complete a reunification case plan is arbitrary and unfair to parents who are incarcerated, who struggle with mental health issues or addiction, or who simply cannot complete reunification services offered by a child protection agency.
Is this criticism fair? First, one can argue that ASFA has helped keep more families together, especially black families. In 1998, 43% of children in foster care were black/ non-Hispanic; today, that figure has dropped to 21%. Efforts to place with relatives, either voluntarily or through foster care, have helped to keep many minority families intact. Back in 1998, only 26% of children in foster care were placed with relatives; today, that figure stands at 32%.2 In the District of Columbia, the child welfare agency is so dependent upon voluntary kinship placements that kin caregivers are suing the agency to force payment to these relatives3.
Second is the issue of permanency for children who experience foster care. Children who must be removed from their parents suffer disruptions in their ability to naturally attach to that parent. The effect of that disruption may depend on the child’s age when removed to foster care, the level of trauma, abuse, or neglect the child has already experienced, and the ability of the parent to continue the relationship.4 The ideal of ASFA — to force early decisions on either reunification or alternative permanency — can both enhance early attachments (to adoptive parents, relatives, or guardians) and diminish disruption (through early reunification and permanency).
Next week we’ll discuss whether ASFA has in fact helped advance children’s attachments to caring adults and how we might improve the law to do so.
This suit raises a separate issue, of whether our system adequately supports the needs of kinship caregivers, especially those who struggle financially to care for their relative children.
See generally Keli Iles-Hernandez, “The Ties that Bind: Attachment Theory and Child Welfare” (2015) 35 Buff. Pub. Interest L.J. 187.