How Long Must They Languish in Limbo?

For a number of years it was the intent of our child welfare system that ALL efforts should be to reunify a family after a child was removed from their biological parent(s) for abuse or neglect. Because of this effort thousands of youth remained in foster care for a number of years without permanency. They languished in a state of limbo year after year; in many cases they simply in the end aged out of the system.

It was the intent of Congress and President Clinton that this would change with the passage and signing of ASFA (Adoption & Safe Family Act) of 1997. Some of the main parts of this act were:

Though reunification may still be an objective, if possible, it was no longer to be the all encompassing goal of the system; it was to just be one of many possibilities as an end goal plan

Termination of parental rights could commence when a child is in out of home care for a period of fifteen months out of the previous twenty-two month; unfortunately discretion of implementing this was left to the state and judge to determine

 An intent of this law is to move youth quicker through the system to some plan of permanency; in particular adoption

It is now ten years since the passage of this law and questions need to be asked:

Has the attitude of “reunification at all costs” been changed?

Are parental rights being terminated within a more reasonable period to allow for a plan of permanency to be established for foster youth; whether it is reunification, kinship care, guardianship or adoption?

From the government statistics available it appears that at first the new law may have helped. In 1997 there were 31,000 adoptions from foster care system wide. The numbers increased:

 1998: 37,000
 1999: 47,000
 2000: 51,000

In the years that have followed, through the last year government statistics are available, adoptions from foster care seems to have stagnated:

 2001: 50,500
 2002: 53,000 
 2003: 50,500
 2004: 52,500
 2005: 51,500 (last year available)

This is while the number of youth entering foster care has increased from fewer than 285,000 in 2001 to over 311,000 in 2005.

Though the number of youth entering care has increased the number of TPR’S has remained fairly constant at about 65,000 per year over the past five years.

This question was recently asked on a message board that I participate in, “How long have you had a child in your care awaiting reunification or termination of parental rights?”

Here are just a few of the replies that came back:

1. EIGHT YEARS for some friends of ours.

The Chancery Judge thought the druggie mom needed another and another and another chance. Bio mom finally volunteered TPR so the family that had had them for 8 years could adopt them.

Youth Court Judge does TPR’s. Chancery Judge finalized adoptions.

Hubby went to the adoption finalization. There were about 35 people there and the judge asked each and everyone why they were there. When it got to hubby he said he looked at her and said, “Judge, I mean no disrespect but it’s about damn time this happened. You made this drag out entirely too long.” He said the judge teared up.

2. Our little ones will be in FC for 35 months by the time we have TPR trial next month.

3. My friend has had her little boy for three years, since he was three months old. TPR trial has been going on for an entire year and isn’t over yet

4. I had my foster son for 4 1/2 years; they did TPR on bio mom, and then did separate TPR on bio dad. The judge did a suspended judgment on the TPR on bio dad, giving him 6 MORE months after the first 4 years, and then reunified him with the bio dad.

5. My adopted son both parents signed away their rights. But in Pa they have to have a hearing called a confirmation of consent. Anyways that hearing didn’t take place until my son was three years old. And we got him as a newborn. He was three and a half years old when he was adopted.

6. My foster son has been with us for over a year now. He went 6 years until TPR and now it has already been over a year for the appeal and we’re still waiting. I think lawyers get good at playing the system and coming up with delay tactics.

We’re just waiting till we can adopt our little man. Poor guy, can you imagine going 7+ years without permanence in your life?

7. My children were in care 40 months before TPR finally occurred.

Their former case worker has a case that she’s had for the last EIGHT years. The parents keep asking for extensions, and doing JUST ENOUGH to get them, but not enough to bring the child home.

8. Friends of ours boys TPR took over 4 years. BF was in prison and they refused to TPR while he was there and gave him a year after his release to work a plan. After all that time the BF ended up surrendering after making them wait for 4 years!!!

9. My former foster daughter was taken into care at 5 months old… her TPR was not completed until she was nearly 6.5 yrs old…..appeals were finalized at 7.5 yrs and adoption completed 6 months later.

10. We had our soon to be adopted son for 33 months before TPR was granted, appeals took another 5/6 months, then we sat in limbo for almost a year until we signed the adoption papers last week to get the finalization rolling. It was 4 years last Monday that he came to us – the same day we signed the papers!

11. Friends of mine just adopted three foster children they have had for SIX years. They had to hire their own lawyer because after five years in foster care the county was still trying to reunify. They spent tens of thousands of dollars but they finally got TPR.

From just the examples above it appears the attitude of “reunification at all costs” remains in the lexicon of social workers and judges.

Bear in mind; I am all for reunification if it is possible and it is able to be accomplished within a reasonable period of time. A youth should not be held in limbo year after year in hopes the bio parent(s) will get their act together.

It has been shown that the longer a youth remains in care, the more moves a youth experiences and the older the youth gets; the lesser opportunity for adoption.

While the number of adoptions has been fairly stagnant the past fiver years the number of youth aging out of the system has increased from 20,000 a year just a few years ago to over 24,000 last year.

Recently I listened to a documentary on Minnesota Public Radio produced by American Radio Works entitled, “Wanted Parents.” It was a program dedicated to the need to finding adoptive families for eligible teenagers before they age out of the system.

One statement during the program caused me to call in after the documentary aired to participate in the discussion program which followed.

The statement was:

An adoption recruiter for The Homecoming Project in Minneapolis arrives at the group home to meet a new client, and tell a worker why she’s there: 

“My goal is to find this teenager an adoptive home.”

“He’s 17,” the worker says. “Why bother?”
 
Having spent my youth in foster care and being very familiar with this type of attitude caused my blood to rush to my head in anger towards this worker…no wonder an adoptive home was never found for me!

I however loved the response of the adoption recruiter.

She calmly says to the worker:

“Let me ask you something: do you still have family that you talk to, family who are important to you, family that you visit with or call when you have a problem that you’d like to talk to someone about?”

She sees a light bulb go on inside the worker. “Well, of course I do,” she says softly.

The recruiter finishes, “You say to me ‘He’s 17, why bother?’ and my answer to you is this: because he’s only 17.”

During the discussion program that followed I called in and said how the group home worker’s comment truly bothered me. The recruiter said it obviously did her as well and unfortunately this is an attitude she finds still very prevelant within the system.
The text of the entire documentary (not the discussion) may be found at:

http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/fostercare/index.html

How many times have workers said, “Teens are too old to be adopted.” “Don’t get his/her hopes up.” “No family would want to adopt a teen.” “Don’t disturb her foster home placement.” “Let’s leave him in the treatment center until he isn’t angry anymore.”

What will happen to these youth when they turn eighteen if they don’t have an adoptive family? Because the truth is, most teens skip around from placement to placement like stones across water. Eventually they turn 18 and age out of the system.

For teens that age out, research tells us that their future is bleak: many don’t finish high school, become homeless, jobless, addicted, incarcerated, pregnant, pregnant again and many times their own children end up in foster care repeating the vicious cycle all over again.

It is wrong that these teens are moved around, ignored, unprepared for adulthood, and then bounced out of the system at an age when most kids are still either living at home or financially supported by their parents.

It appears the system today continues to allow youth to languish in limbo and to move children from one home to another with no apparent reason. This does not take into account the emotional costs to the child of being raised in a non-stable environment. They also separate siblings, often allowing no contact between those siblings.

You can quote the Adoption and Family Safety Act of 1997 and get a totally blank look from the people who are supposed to be in charge of enforcing the act. They need to get “all their ducks in a row” and follow the intent of the act which is “the best interest of the child is uppermost”. As it stands now, it’s the rights of the parents.  Their “civil rights” have to be protected no matter how much further damage is done to the children already scarred by the placement in the system.

Overall it appears to me that ASFA of 1997 has been a failure!

Too much discretion has been left to states and judges to determine when a TPR may occur or whether it occurs at all. Youth are being allowed to languish in the system year after year with permanence being no more than just a word in their vocabulary.

When a child is removed from their home and placed in care after all other alternatives were researched I believe that the ASFA law should be changed as follows:

1.If the reason for removal was neglect: the parent(s) should be given a case plan which MUST be accomplished within ONE YEAR otherwise TPR MUST proceed. Biological parent(s) cannot be allowed chance after chance after chance while the youth remains in foster care.

2.If removal has been for severe physical abuse or sexual abuse: the person allegedly responsible MUST be charged. If convicted TPR MUST begin immediately. No child should be placed in the position of the offender having yet another opportunity to harm the child

3. Red tape Must be streamlined to make it easier for foster parent(s) or others to adopt youth from care. This is one of the main complaints from those who end up adopting overseas rather than domestically.

4. More effort needs to be concentrated toward finding adoptive homes for teenagers.

I am sure there are other changes that need to happen with the law but these are the few primary ones I will address in this blog entry.

According to most childcare experts, children need four things:

1) Connectedness; “children need to feel that someone is there for them and they are a part of someone’s life”

2) Continuity; a sense of continuous belonging with another person

3) Dignity; all children are worthy of respect caring, love, thought, and courtesy

4) Opportunity; children need an opportunity to grow and develop- need to be able to explore and express their capabilities-access to quality education, recreation, and leisure appropriate to their developmental levels

The best way to achieve all the above is a permanent, stable, loving family rather than years of languishing in limbo within the system moving from one temporary home to another!

They need someone to adopt them and treat them as their own son or daughter long before they face aging out of the system and possible destruction of their lives!

Today there are 114,000 youth eligible for adoption across the country. Many of them are teenagers who have been in foster care five years or longer…far too many of them face the prospect of aging out of the system. 
 
All must be done to make a youth’s time in foster care short and with as few moves as possible. Any decision made MUST be made in the child’s best interest…this needs to become the reality rather than the myth it is today!

The sooner youth have permanency in their lives the better the opportunity for them to become stable, productive members of society as they reach the age of maturity.

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