Few laws have had a more dramatic impact on America’s most vulnerable children than the Adoptions and Safe Families Act, signed by President Clinton in 1997. The act, which mirrored a Massachusetts law passed four years earlier, pushed for swifter termination of parental rights so that neglected children don’t languish in foster care indefinitely. It marked a sea change from previous decades, when the legal rights of biological parents trumped all else.
The law was controversial at the time. But recently released national statistics show that it worked. The number of foster care adoptions has nearly doubled. The new system was not without setbacks. In the early years, the glut of parental terminations vastly outpaced adoptions. In 2006, 80,000 children saw their parents’ rights terminated, but only 51,000 were adopted. Some 29,000 children became legal orphans, added to the already long list of kids waiting for permanent parents. But in recent years, parental terminations have declined, while adoptions have held steady. In 2012, only 59,000 children had their parental rights terminated, while 52,000 were adopted. That means only 7,000 children were added to the backlog, the smallest number on record.