By Mical Raz / Special for the Washington Post
Twenty-five years ago, President Bill Clinton signed the Adoption and Safe Families Act into law. Adopted in 1997, with broad bipartisan support, the ASFA reflected a genuine commitment to the welfare of children and concern that they would spend long months, if not years, in different foster homes. Adoption was positioned as a positive and permanent solution for children in temporary care.
Today, adoption is again in the news, especially with the Dobbs decision of the Supreme Court, which put an end to the legal right to abortion. Indeed, the debate on adoption has long been intertwined with debates on abortion. The Conservatives have positioned adoption as a common bipartisan priority. Democrats also embraced adoption, eager to support children who needed homes; but also eager to promote a non-controversial “response” to the abortion problem.
Yet this focus on adoption has endangered parental rights. With the adoption of ASFA and a renewed focus on child welfare, more children have been removed from their original homes and placed permanently in new homes. ASFA, as many jurists and activists have argued, has destabilized families and communities, often to the detriment of poor families and families of color. By adapting key insights from pro-adoption anti-abortion activists and circumventing unpopular discussions about how to effectively tackle poverty and addiction, a broad coalition of policymakers and child advocates has shaped a system that devalues families.
In the 1970s, increased mandatory reporting and expanded definitions of abuse helped pave the way for increasing numbers of children being 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 Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (AACWA) was designed to reduce the number of children placed in foster care, through upstream family preservation efforts of the system and support for downstream adoptions. Foster care listings declined only briefly. The implementation was particularly delicate. By the mid-1980s, as the Reagan administration cut funding for social programs for families and turned its attention to the drug wars, child removals increased and support for family preservation efforts declined. Opponents of family preservation argued that it had been tried and failed.
In the 1990s, the Clinton administration adopted Republican-inspired work requirements for welfare eligibility, sparking debates about the fate of children in troubled families. In 1994, then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., suggested that some children of poor mothers would be better off in orphanages, indicating that institutional care would be an important part of welfare reform. Softened with focus group-tested words, the Republican idea of removing children from poor families would help lay the groundwork for passing ASFA.
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, has worked to broaden support for adoption as an important component of the child protection system. Between 1993 and 1995, NCFA co-hosted a series of conferences highlighting adoption as a solution to the foster care crisis. This was a clear departure from previous approaches that emphasized family preservation as the goal of child protection intervention. The NCFA has explicitly described these conferences as a response to Republican policy goals as set forth in the 1994 “Contract with America” and ongoing debates over orphanages and adoption.
NCFA Vice President for Policy Carol “Cassie” Statuto-Bevin testified on behalf of the NCFA and shared key recommendations from the conference at the February 1995 Congressional Child Welfare Hearings She then became the main congressional staffer for ASFA and the main force. in crafting the House version of the ASFA bill and popularizing a vision centered around the adoption of child protection.
So the key elements of ASFA began with a blueprint of Republican policy priorities, developed in professional language by child welfare experts, published in a Statuto-Bevin report, and then approved by bipartisan lawmakers. and a Democratic president.
Adoption has become a key priority for the Clinton administration. In 1996, Clinton announced her Adoption 2002 plan to double the number of children adopted through the public child welfare system by 2002. Clinton also passed adoption tax credits, which had been a Republican priority in the “Contract with America”. First Lady Hillary Clinton, a staunch supporter of child welfare, has enthusiastically supported adoption initiatives, stating clearly, “instead of yelling at abortion, we should focus our energy on making adoptions easier.” .
Many of those who helped ensure ASFA’s passage were passionate advocates for children. Some were appalled at how long foster children waited, how they were moved from one placement to another, and sometimes abused or neglected. Many thought adoption was a positive solution, especially for children already removed from their homes and in need of care.
But without consideration of the children’s biological parents – and without their testimony at the hearings – these parents have been presented as lasting obstacles to adoption rather than key partners in caring for the children.
Only one Democrat voted against the House bill to establish ASFA. Rep. Patsy Mink pointed out that Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform would clash with ASFA and leave many more children vulnerable to be taken from their families. Without a strong social safety net, she warned, more families would be impoverished, and then child welfare agencies would be forced to remove those children and place them in foster care. Mink warned that it was unwarranted for “the national government to establish adoption as a punishment because of parental poverty”.
But ASFA became law; and had elements that did just that. It required states to move forward with termination of parental rights if children had spent 15 of the previous 22 months in care outside the home, whether or not there was abuse or neglect. The timeline was an arbitrary compromise between lawmakers, with disastrous consequences for families. Contemporary memos indicate that ASFA was specifically designed to impose on states the responsibility of justifying why they failed to terminate parental rights.
A quarter of a century later, ASFA’s impact is clear. The parents, mostly black, poor and many of whom struggle with drug addiction, have suffered the ultimate loss, or what advocates have called the “civil death penalty”: the permanent severance of legal ties with their children. The notice periods do not correspond to what is currently known about addiction and do not allow parents to redeem themselves.
ASFA has increased the number of foster adoptions, but it has not addressed the main reasons why children end up in foster care; a system that blames parents for their difficulties and offers few material resources and support. Terminations of parental rights are almost commonplace; 1 in 100 children will experience this parental loss. It also created an unknown number of legal orphans: children who no longer had parents, due to revoked parental rights, but who had also not been adopted and who may never be. .
ASFA has become a key part of a system that disproportionately targets poor families and families of color, resulting in over-investigations, removal of children, foster care placements and culminating in the termination of parental rights; what proponents have called the family policing system.
It is imperative to remember the origins of the bill and recognize that it was designed to serve an anti-abortion and pro-adoption political agenda, supported by private adoption agencies and instigated by federal government grants. ‘adoption. These interventions have caused real harm to families and children.
On this anniversary of ASFA, we should let go of outdated notions of providing “new families” for children, and instead work vigilantly to support communities and families in which all children can thrive.
Mical Raz is a professor of health history and policy at the University of Rochester and a practicing physician.