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.
Any child waiting for a loving home is one too many. Although the number of children waiting for adoption has shrunk considerably over the past decade, it is still far too large. About 102,000 children are listed as “waiting” nationwide. And while Clinton’s law freed younger children up for adoption earlier, giving them a better shot at being adopted, it hasn’t helped harder-to-place older children nearly as much.
While imperfect, the law is still a clear improvement. Perhaps the most striking trend in the data is the persistent decline in the number of kids entering foster care in the first place. Adam Pertman of the non-profit Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute attributes the drop in foster children to better support for struggling families. The 1997 law played a role in that development as well, by mandating that states make a reasonable effort to provide services to preserve a family before terminating a parent’s rights. At the end of the day, that mandate might turn out to have the biggest impact of all.