- - Monday, October 10, 2016

During this election season, a lot of fuss has been made about “fact checking.” I’m all for it. Over the years that I directed the Institute for Children, a think tank that focused on foster care and adoption policy, fact checking was one of the most important things the organization did. “Everything we publish has got to be air tight,” I told my staff, again and again.

When we’re talking about legislating for the well-being of children, it’s critical to get the facts straight. In child welfare policy, numbers are more than statistics: they represent children’s lives. There’s simply no room for anything but the facts.

This should also apply to presidential debates.

Others have already commented on Hillary Clinton’s claim during Sunday night’s debate that she worked with Republicans to develop and pass the Children’s Health Insurance Program “so that every child gets the health care they deserve.” I wasn’t there when this program was passed, but those who were say that she wasn’t a part of it. It was a program developed and passed on a bipartisan basis by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.

Mrs. Clinton wasn’t in the Senate at the time and no one involved in developing the program seems to have been able to find Mrs. Clinton’s fingerprints or footprints anywhere near it, but that didn’t stop her from taking credit for playing a major role in its development and implementation.

As if that weren’t enough, imagine my surprise when Mrs. Clinton went on to boldly describe her role in foster care reform. Sandwiched between her claims of how she reformed health care and helped first responders after Sept. 11, she stated, “Hundreds of thousands of kids now have a chance to be adopted because I worked to change our adoption and foster care system.”

Excuse me, Mrs. Clinton, I was there and that’s not exactly how it happened. At a White House conference on child welfare, a group of child advocates met to discuss how to create a better way to care for the half-million children languishing in American foster care, and strategies to help secure permanent, loving families for children who were legally free to be adopted, but still waiting for their “forever families.” It was the mid-‘90s, when you published your book, “It Takes a Village.” Reader’s Digest had just published my article, “What I Need Is a Mom.” I gave you a copy.

As I recall, your approach was entirely about the “village” — the idea that the right mix of programs, funding and support could meet the needs of children whose parents could not (or would not) care for them. My approach has long been the opposite: No amount of government programs could ever add up to a permanent, loving family.

I know, because I was a foster child in a family who cared for more than 100 children. We were never waiting for a village to save us. We didn’t need more programs to make us feel whole and safe from abandonment, because only love can do that.

But back to our meeting at the White House. I spoke about the research findings on adoption versus long-term foster care. I talked about what we were doing in Massachusetts to help facilitate adoption for children who were legally free to be adopted yet still waiting for a permanent home, largely due to reverse fiscal incentives. In Massachusetts, then-Gov. William Weld launched a plan called “Assignment Adoption: A Home for Every Child.” Foster child adoptions went from 599 to 1,068 in two years. We were making progress, I explained. You thanked me for “challenging” those at the conference with my views.

Shortly thereafter, President Clinton signed into law the Adoption and Safe Families Act (AFSA), which child advocate Richard Wexler has referred to as an “awful law.” Earlier this year, Mr. Wexler wrote, “I will vote for Hillary Clinton over any Republican.” Yet, about AFSA, he wrote, ” No one can say ‘that was Bill, not Hil — don’t blame her for what he did.’ This law was pushed by Hillary,” and that the law “was about demonizing impoverished women, especially women of color, and taking away their children.” Mr. Wexler pointed out that AFSA increased the foster care population, instead of reducing it. He wrote:

“There was one Democrat who knew or should have known at the time that the premises behind ASFA were false. And she certainly should have realized by now that the law has backfired. That is the Democrat who did more than any other to push ASFA through Congress: Hillary Clinton.”

There are elements of AFSA that could have helped countless children. These include some of the things that the Institute for Children advocated as common-sense approaches to child welfare policy, like allowing the courts to terminate parental rights when a parent commits murder. AFSA also, theoretically, placed a limit on the time that children would spend in care before returning to their biological family or becoming legally free to be placed for adoption. However, the law included far too many loopholes, and as a result the number of youngsters who spend years in “temporary” care, turning 18 with no family, continues to rise.

Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Bartholet points out that, because of these loopholes, “ASFA may have left too much room for those in the child welfare system who are committed to family preservation to resist and evade [the law’s] apparent purpose.”

On the other hand, advocates of family preservation say that the law went too far. An article in the Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy refers to the AFSA as the “federally mandated destruction of the black family.”

All of this leads me to question Mrs. Clinton’s broad, sweeping statement about the hundreds of thousands of kids who have the chance to be adopted.

According to the Administration for Children and Families, in 2014 there were 50,644 children adopted through public agencies (that is, typically, adopted from foster care).

Another 107,918 children were still waiting to be adopted, and only some of those were legally free for adoption — a process that, under AFSA, can take years.

This election year, more than 20,000 foster children will turn 18 in foster care with no permanent family, and nowhere to go.

To me, that doesn’t sound like something that any candidate should be proud of.

Conna Craig is the co-founder of the Institute for Children and a longtime advocate for reform of the nation’s foster care system.

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