by Charmaine Crouse Yoest
When 48-year-old Hillary Rodham Clinton confessed to Time magazine recently that she wanted to adopt a child, it set off a small tempest of controversy. Her comment was hailed by supporters as evidence of her bona fides as a child advocate and decried by detractors as yet another reincarnation of the First Lady as First Mother. Some dismissed the remark as an effort to minimize the fallout from her husband's veto of the bill to ban partial-birth abortions.
Interpretations aside, the incident highlights the unique position adoption occupies in our political firmament. Although many in the adoption community wish it were otherwise, adoption is closely tied to the abortion question. And as abortion politics grow more heated, adoption demands attention as the nearest thing to middle ground in a polarizing issue.
But adoption is enmeshed in politics of its own. It continues to suffer from the controversy over transracial placements and from the bureaucratic delays of the foster-care system. President Clinton, for example, says he will support a House bill that would prohibit states from denying adoptions based on race, but the proposal faces intense opposition from special interest groups attached to the Democratic Party.
This complex issue has two sides: infant adoption and adoption out of foster care. For many years now, only 1 to 2 percent of women faced with unwanted pregnancies have made adoption plans. At the same time, the number of couples waiting to adopt is usually estimated at around 2 million. The tragic paradox is that while many families desperately wait for children, many children wait for families. According to the Institute for Children, state welfare agencies have adoption plans for 100,000 foster-care children nationwide, and 50,000 are legally free to be adopted but are languishing in foster care.
The National Association of Black Social Workers has for years decried adoption of black infants by white families as "racial genocide." Accepted social-work practice holds that a child be held in foster care until an "appropriate" -- read "racially correct" -- family is found. This sometimes occurs even when a white family is waiting to adopt a particular minority child. In theory, race-matching of infants and adoptive parents makes sense; in practice, it means that minority children in some states typically wait two to three years longer for new homes than white children.
Meanwhile, children are often trapped in foster care by the false hopes of the "family preservation" philosophy. With misguided compassion, social workers and judges work to preserve families broken apart by drug addiction and physical abuse, when the children need loving, stable homes. Moreover, the foster-care system is sustained by monetary incentives to keep children in care: Federal money comes into the system based on each day a child stays in foster care. The hurdles to get a child into a permanent adoptive home are high, while the incentives are low. As a result, children can drift in the system for years, waiting for the elusive "family reunification."
Eva is one of those children. She last saw her biological mother 10 years ago, when she was eight. Her biological father is not involved in her life in any way. But 1996 was a year of exciting milestones for Eva. She graduated from high school, and a court finally approved her adoption by her long-term foster parents. It took the law a long time to sanction the family they'd already formed--eight and a half years ago.
Why the delay? Eva's biological father refused to consent to the adoption. Eva wants her story told because it isn't over. Her two younger brothers have been living in a residential placement center for nearly nine years, even though her new family would like to adopt them as well. Compassion and common sense say yes; red tape says no. Eva's story is much too common. The time that children spend in foster care before their situations are resolved can be excruciatingly long. Ten percent of children in foster care stay more than 7.4 years. And the number of children in state care keeps increasing. Between 1982 and 1992, the number rose 69 percent, from 262,000 children to 442,000.
Behind the statistics are thousands of Evas yearning for homes. Fortunately, reform is in the air. Frustration with lengthy stays in foster care, rising incidents of child abuse, and concern over persistently high abortion rates are helping to focus renewed attention on adoption.
Various efforts -- by private groups, state governments, and Congress--aim to reform the system to let needy children connect with a loving family. The following are some recent initiatives:
The Texas Model
Texas governor George W. Bush presides over one of 10 states in which 75 percent of the nation's foster-care population resides. Texas currently has 12,000 children in foster care, of whom 1,400 are available for adoption. But even the children ready for permanent homes may face a long journey: It usually takes the state two years after termination of parental rights to place these children in permanent adoptive homes. Most important from a child's view, foster care itself is a pretty bumpy ride: children average four different placements before they get a permanent adoption.
The 1996 annual report of the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services found that, since 1991, the average length of stay for children who were ultimately adopted was 40.8 months. It took 15 months to terminate parental rights after entering foster care, another 18 months to be placed for adoption, and another seven months to finalize the adoption.
Bush wants to cut the time kids spend in foster care in half, and has established the Governor's Committee to Promote Adoption to help make Texas a model of adoption reform. The 13-person committee includes several adoptive parents, pastors, and representatives of private adoption efforts such as One Church and One Child. It is due to hand the governor a report in September identifying state policies that hinder adoption. State adoptions, for example, are subject to challenge up to two years after the finalization of the adoption decree -- leaving families and children in a legal limbo.
So far the committee has targeted two areas for reform: judicial and administrative. Beverly Jimmerson, Policy Advisor to the governor, notes that courts waste a lot of time when they fail to schedule prompt hearings concerning a child's adoption status. In addition, the committee has discovered that state agencies providing social services to adults fail to prioritize parents who need mental services or addiction treatment. Parents may wait months, or even years, for treatment while their children languish in foster care. The committee's goal is to propose a legislative reform agenda for the 1997 legislative session.
Kids and the Race Card
A significant reason for adoption delays in Texas and other states is the ongoing debate over leaving minority children in foster care until suitable minority parents can adopt them -- even though white families are willing and able to take the children in. That battle is now being waged in Washington in the form of the Adoption Promotion and Stability Act. The bill, which passed the House and remains in Senate committee, proposes three significant policy changes:
- Give a $5,000 tax credit to middle-class families that adopt children. The bill provides a tax credit for families with income under $75,000 to offset their expenses in adoption. Agency fees, court costs, and attorney fees can create an insurmountable hurdle for many families that might otherwise be able to adopt.
- Prohibit the practice of denying adoptions based on race. The goal is to stop state agencies from using racial considerations to delay or prevent adoption of children under their care. In 1994, former senator Howard Metzenbaum shepherded to passage the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act to eliminate racial barriers to adoption. In designing regulations to implement the bill, the Department of Health and Human Services under Secretary Donna Shalala essentially nullified its race-neutral intent.
- Amend the Indian Child Welfare Act to prevent tribes from nullifying adoptions. The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a federal law passed in 1978, grants Indian tribes the legal standing to contest the adoption of any baby with any Indian ancestry. At the time, the law was necessary to halt unethical adoption practices that preyed on Indian babies. But the act, which assigned the tribe a legal interest in the child "on a parity with the interest of the parents," has strayed into reverse racism.
A current Ohio adoption case illustrates how convoluted and damaging this mindset can be. The Rost family adopted two twin girls. Subsequently, the birth-grandmother decided she wanted the babies. Grandparents do not have standing to contest an adoption; under the ICWA, Indian tribes do. The grandmother then retroactively enrolled herself, her son, and the twins in the Pomo Tribe of California. The tribe is now contesting the adoption on the grounds that three of the twins' 32 great-great-great-grandparents were Pomo Indian. Courts have previously decided that as little as one-256th of Indian blood (that's one great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparent) qualifies a case for consideration under the ICWA.
The ramifications for adoption could be enormous. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado informed the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that, although there are just over a million people officially enrolled in tribes, at least 15 million Americans can claim Indian ancestry. Echoing the National Association of Black Social Workers, Congressman Don Young of Arkansas told the committee that adoption of Indian children outside the tribe amounted to "a form of brain drain and genocide." While adults argue over rights and racism, children are the ones who wait and suffer.
A new private project to promote both infant adoption and adoption out of foster care is the Fund for the American Family, founded last summer by former Pennsylvania governor Robert Casey. A prominent pro-life Democrat, Casey is marshaling his political clout to raise the profile of adoption, which he believes is a cornerstone in rebuilding the American family. He is lobbying heavily on adoption reform and recently testified before Congress in support of the adoption tax credit.
Making adoption a national priority is one of the group's top four projects. It has already sponsored two adoption summits, bringing together leading experts to discuss ways of breaking down the barriers to adoption. Casey expects to publish a set of reform proposals this fall to spur state and federal officials to reform the system.
"Our goal is to see 100,000 adoptions each year for the next five years," up from 50,000, says Chris Casey, the executive director of the fund. To realize this goal, Casey is trying to bring together all 50 governors for a summit similar to the 1989 governor's conference on education. Contact Chris Casey, 1555 Wilson Blvd., Suite 300, Arlington, Va. 22209-2405. Tel.: 1-800-420-8733, fax: 703-522-4969.
Institute for Children. A private, nonprofit group that works to reform the foster-care system and adoption policies at the federal and state levels. Contact Conna Craig, president, 18 Brattle St., Suite 211, Cambridge, Mass. 02138. Tel.: 617-491-4614, fax: 617-491-4673.
National Council for Adoption. A membership organization of 130 private, nonprofit, nonsectarian adoption agencies. Advocates for these agencies, as well as for adoptees, birthparents, adoptive parents, and adoption professionals. Publishes the Adoption Factbook, a 300-page guide to adoption issues. Contact Patrick Purtill, director of government relations, 1930 17th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009-6207. Tel.: 202-328-1200, fax: 202-332-0935.
In 1993, the Cambridge-based Institute for Children began Assignment Adoption to change foster-care and adoption practices in all 50 states. In the first 12 months after Massachusetts governor William Weld signed on to the initiative, adoptions from foster care increased by about 47 percent. The Institute is now working with Texas governor George Bush and recommended to his Adoption Committee the following plan for reform:
1. Make foster care a truly temporary form of caring for vulnerable children; enact policies and practices that have as their goal a 12-month maximum stay for children in substitute care.
2. Grant biological parents no more than 12 months to prove their fitness to resume custody of their children.
3. Give biological fathers 30 days from the birth of the child to formalize paternity, or forfeit the right to contest adoption.
4. Prohibit any race-based delays in adoption.
5. Terminate parental rights for abandoned children after 30 days, and allow them to be adopted through a private agency--without placement in long-term foster care.
6. Find adoptive homes for children within 30 days after the termination of parental rights or contract the process out to a private agency.
7. Make entrance requirements for foster families as stringent as those for adoptive families.
8. Hold the state Department of Human Services accountable for reporting its progress in finding homes for children in foster care.
9. Encourage private-sector involvement in improving components of the substitute-care system.