The Adoption and Safe Families Act encouraged adoptions – not families


Twenty-five years ago, President Bill Clinton signed the Adoption and Safe Families Act. Passed in 1997, with broad bipartisan support, ASFA reflected a genuine commitment to the well-being of children and concern for them spending long months and even years in multiple foster homes. Adoption was positioned as a positive and permanent solution for children in temporary shelters.

Today, adoption is in the news again, especially at the Supreme Court Dobbs decision, which ended the legal right to abortion. After all, the debate about adoption has long been intertwined with debates about abortion. Conservatives have positioned adoption as a twofold common priority. Democrats also embraced adoption, eager to support children in need of homes but also eager to promote a non-controversial “answer” to the abortion problem.

Yet this focus on adoption has put parental rights at risk. With the arrival of ASFA and a renewed focus on child welfare, more children were removed from their parental home and placed in new homes permanently. ASFA, as many lawyers and activists have argued, has destabilized families and communities, often with the greatest harm done to poor families and families of color. By adapting the key positions of anti-abortion pro-adoption activists and sidestepping unpopular debates about how to effectively tackle poverty and addiction, a broad coalition of policymakers and advocates for children has formed a system that devalues ​​families.

In the 1970s, increased reporting requirements and expanded definitions of abuse helped pave the way for a growing number of children who were hastily removed from their homes and placed in foster care, where they were often abused. The process was expensive, inefficient and often dangerous for children.

The 1980 Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (AACWA) was designed to reduce the number of children in foster care, through family preservation efforts at the front of the system and support for adoptions at the back. Foster care roles fell only briefly. The implementation was especially difficult. In the mid-1980s, as the Reagan administration cut funding for family social programs and shifted its focus to the drug wars, child relocations increased and support for preserving the family declined. Family preservation opponents argued that it had been tried and failed.

In the 1990s, the Clinton administration passed Republican-inspired job eligibility requirements for benefits, sparking debates about the fate of children in struggling families. Infamously, in 1994, then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) suggested that some children born to poor mothers would be better off in orphanages, suggesting that institutional care could be an important part of Social Security reform. to be. Softened with focus group-tested words, the Republican idea of ​​removing children from poor families would help lay the groundwork for ASFA’s passage.

Adoption advocates seized the moment as an opportunity. The National Council for Adoption (NCFA), a powerful adoption advocacy organization often described as a “trade association” for private adoption agencies, worked to broaden support for adoption as an important part of the child welfare system. Between 1993 and 1995, the NCFA co-organized a series of conferences that emphasized adoption as a solution to the foster care crisis. This was a marked departure from previous approaches that emphasized family preservation as the goal of child welfare intervention. NCFA explicitly portrayed these conferences as a response to Republican policy goals articulated in the 1994 “Contract with America” ​​and to ongoing debates about orphanages and adoption.

NCFA’s Vice President for Policy, Carol (Cassie) Statuto-Bevin, testified on behalf of NCFA and shared key conference recommendations during congressional hearings on child welfare in February 1995. She subsequently became the lead congressional aide for ASFA and the lead in developing the House version of the ASFA bill and popularizing an adoption-focused view of child welfare.

Thus, ASFA’s key components began with a blueprint of Republican policy priorities, developed into professional language by child welfare experts, published in a Statuto-Bevin report, and then endorsed by bipartisan lawmakers and a Democratic president.

Adoption became a top priority for the Clinton administration. In 1996, Clinton announced his Adoption 2002 plan to double the number of adopted children from the public child welfare system by 2002. Clinton also embraced adoption tax credits, which had been a Republican priority in the “Contract with America.” First lady Hillary Clinton, a staunch supporter of child welfare, avidly supported adoption initiatives, clearly stating, “instead of yelling at each other about abortion, we should be expending our energy on facilitating adoptions.”

Many of those who contributed to ASFA’s passage have been passionate advocates for children. Some were shocked by how long children had to wait in foster care, how they were sent back and forth between placements and sometimes experienced abuse or neglect. Many believed that adoption was a positive solution, especially for children who had already left home and needed care.

But without regard to children’s birth parents—and without their testimony at hearings—parents were portrayed as expendable barriers to adoption rather than key partners in child care.

Only one Democrat voted against the bill to create the ASFA. Representative Patsy Mink pointed out that Clinton’s 1996 Social Security reform would clash with ASFA and leave many more children vulnerable to being removed from their families. Without a robust social safety net, she warned, more families would become impoverished and child welfare agencies would be forced to take these children away and place them in foster care. Mink warned that it is unfair that “the national government makes adoption as a punishment because of parental poverty”.

But ASFA became law – and had elements that did just that. It required states to proceed with the termination of parental rights if children spent 15 of the previous 22 months in care away from home, whether or not child abuse or neglect occurred. The timeline was an arbitrary compromise between lawmakers, with dire consequences for families. Contemporary memos indicate that ASFA was specifically designed to place the burden of proof on states to justify why they did so not terminate parental authority.

A quarter of a century later, the impact of ASFA is clear. Parents, predominantly black, poor, and many struggling with addiction, have experienced the ultimate loss, or what advocates call the “civil death penalty”: the permanent severing of legal ties with their children. The timelines for termination do not reflect what is currently known about addiction, and do not provide parents with an opportunity for redemption.

ASFA increased the number of adoptions from foster homes, but it did not address the main reasons children end up in foster care – a system that blames parents for their struggles and offers few material resources and support. Terminations of parental rights are practically commonplace; one in 100 children will experience this parental loss. It also created an unknown number of legal orphans: children who lost their parents due to the termination of parental authority, but were also not adopted, and may never be.

ASFA has become an important part of a system that disproportionately targets poor families and families of color, leading to excessive investigations, removal of children, placements in foster care and culminating in the termination of parental rights – what proponents have dubbed the family policing system .

It is imperative to remember the bill’s origins and recognize that it was designed to serve an anti-abortion, pro-adoption political agenda supported by private adoption agencies and boosted by federal adoption grants. These interventions have done real harm to families and children. On this anniversary of ASFA, we should get rid of outdated notions about providing “new families” for children, and instead work vigilantly to support communities and families in which all children can thrive.

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