The number of children waiting to be adopted from state foster care has fallen by about 10 percent in recent years -- a trend that most likely is a result of child-welfare reform passed in 1997.
"There's a good news story here," said Wade F. Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
In the 1990s, Congress learned that abused, neglected and abandoned children removed from their homes often spent three or more years in state care. In 1997, Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) to speed up decisions about these children's futures "so they wouldn't languish" in state care, Mr. Horn said.
Since ASFA was enacted, the number of children in foster care has declined steadily, from 567,000 in fiscal year 1999 to 523,000 in fiscal 2003, new HHS data show.
The number of "waiting" children -- those who are either free for adoption or who have adoption as their goal -- also has fallen, from 131,000 in fiscal 1999 to 118,000 in fiscal 2003. Part of the reason for this decline is that the overall foster care caseload has shrunk, Mr. Horn told The Washington Times.
It also is likely that states -- which can receive per-child adoption bonuses for increasing their adoptions -- have stepped up their efforts to find homes for waiting children, he said.
"Recruitment efforts [for adoptive parents] are being successful," said Courteney Anne Holden, executive director for Voice for Adoption, a group that monitors adoption issues.
The annual per-child adoption bonus was one of the most pivotal parts of the ASFA legislation. Under this policy, a state receives between $4,000 and $8,000 for every foster-care adoption above the state's previous number of foster-care adoptions.
In October, HHS announced that $17.8 million was awarded to 31 states and Puerto Rico for increasing their number of foster-care adoptions between fiscal 2002 and fiscal 2003. Locally, Virginia received $386,000.
More than $195 million in adoption incentives have been awarded to states since 1999, when the first bonuses were issued, HHS officials said.
Not surprisingly, the number of children adopted from foster care has risen from about 28,000 in 1996 to about 50,000 a year in recent years. The overwhelming majority of these foster-care adoptions appear to be permanent, according to a recent study from a private adoption institute.
"Research shows what tens of thousands of adoptive families already know -- adoption works, and it works even in the tough cases," said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, which last month released its study of adoption success rates.
The Donaldson study looked at adoptions that "disrupt" before they are legalized or "dissolve" after they are legalized. Few states keep such data, but the handful that do showed that 5 percent or fewer of completed adoptions "dissolved," and 8 percent or fewer of continuing adoptions were "disrupted."
One thing that would benefit these children and families is more post-placement adoption services, Mr. Pertman said.
In another report, however, state officials said their top adoption headaches involve terminating biological parents' rights to their children, deciding the best permanent placement for children, finding adoptive homes and managing their cases through the courts.
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