The Future of Adoption for Children in Foster Care: Demographics in a Changing Socio-Political Environment (page 2)
According to recent national estimates, one million children in the United States have been adopted [Stolley, 1993], and between 2% and 4% of all families have adopted. [Mosher & Bachrach, 1996; Moorman & Hernandez, 1989]. Although there is no definitive source of data on the number or types of adoptions finalized, it is generally estimated that between 130,000 to 150,000 adoptive families are formed each year. [Hollinger, 1996]. Importantly, only about fifteen percent of adoptive families are comprised of children formerly in foster care who are adopted by unrelated adults, many of whom have been the children's foster parents. [Flango, 1995].
The future is likely to bring changes in the nature and scope of all forms of adoption. Infant adoption is likely to be affected by demographic, socioeconomic and technological forces that will coalesce to further diminish the supply of infants available for adoption and, conceivably, heighten the demand among infertile adults for adoption. [Mosher & Bachrach, 1996; Stolley, 1993]. Significant forces likewise will affect demand and supply with regard to the adoption of children in foster care. The demand- supply relationship, however, will likely present a mirror image of the relationship between demand and supply in infant adoption. Demand in relation to adoption for children in the foster care system is not the demand of individuals whose infertility drives them to adopt, as in the case of infant adoption, but the needs of children for whom adoption is the road to permanent family. Supply is the not the much sought-after pool of infants and very young healthy children available for adoption, but the pool of prospective adoptive families which consistently has not been adequate to meet children's needs for adoption.
The demographic, social and political forces likely to affect children in the next century suggest that demand for adoption among children in foster care will become even greater as the number of children in foster care continues to grow and, without significant changes in policy and practice, the supply of adoptive families will continue to lag seriously behind in relation to that demand. Absent careful planning for the future, demographic trends -- when combined with sociopolitical forces that are only beginning to take hold -- may well deepen the inequities apparent in the "harsh adoption marketplace" [Barth, Berry, Yoshikami, Goodfield & Carson, 1988] of this decade.
The Demand: Children in Foster Care Awaiting Adoption
As the number of children who are abused and neglected continues to grow each year [United States Department of Health and Human Services 1996], the number of children entering foster care likewise escalates. At the end of 1994, there were an estimated 468,000 children in foster care [Congressional Research Service, 1997], an increase of 70% since 1984. Although the number of children in foster care who need adoptive families is not known, many states estimate that 15% to 20% of the children in foster care need families through adoption. [McKenzie, 1993]. In Fiscal Year 1993, some 86,000 children in foster care needed adoption planning and services. [National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, 1996].
As the number of children in foster care has grown and the number of children needing adoption services has escalated, the numbers of children in foster care whose adoptions are finalized in any one year, nevertheless, has remained stable. The highest number of finalized adoptions occurred in Fiscal Year 1982 when between 22,000 and 24,000 adoptions were finalized. [Tatara, 1993]. Since that time, the number of adoptions finalized each year has ranged between 17,000 and 21,000 each year, reflecting increasingly smaller percentages of children in care. [Tatara, 1993]. In the most recent year for which data is available, Fiscal Year 1993, only 18,000 adoptions of children in foster care were finalized [National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, 1996], a figure that represents only about four percent of the total number of children in care that year and, based on the low estimate of 15% of children in care having a goal of adoption, only about 27% of the children whose plan was adoption.
As the numbers of finalized adoptions may suggest, there are growing backlogs of children who are awaiting adoption. Although somewhat limited in scope, a 1991 study of twenty states found that children for whom adoption was planned remained in foster care an average of 3.5 to 5.5 years and, in many communities, even longer. [McKenzie, 1993]. Data for Fiscal Year 1990 reveals that almost half [46.3%] of the children in foster care whose adoptions were finalized that year had spent two years or more awaiting adoptive placements. [Tatara, 1993]
Of the children's adoptions that are actually finalized, it is primarily younger children who are placed. In FY 1990, almost 55% of all finalized adoptions were of children between birth and five years of age. [Tatara, 1993]. As children age, the percentage of all adoptions representing the adoptions of children of each age group decline: in FY 1990, 37.4% of all adoptions were children between 6 and 12 years of age and 7.7% were between 13 and 18. [Tatara, 1993].
The data is even more dramatic for children awaiting adoption. In FY 1990, 4% of the children awaiting adoption were under the age of one, 36.2% were between 1 and 5, 43.2% were between the ages of 6 and 12 years of age, and 15.3% were between 13 and 18 years old. [Tatara, 1993]. Perhaps most telling is the difference in the median age between children who are actually adopted and those awaiting adoption: in FY 1990 the median age of children actually adopted was 4.6 years compared to a median age of 7.4 years for children awaiting adoption. [Tatara, 1993].
These data suggest that the longer children wait for adoption, the longer they will continue to wait. At the same time, research suggests that the longer children wait for adoption, the more vulnerable their adoptions are to disruption. Research has consistently shown that adoption disruption increases with the child's age at placement. [Barth, Berry, Yoshikami, Goodfield & Carson, 1988]. In a recent study of adoption disruption among older children, the researchers found a very low disruption rate [4.7%] among 3 to 5 year old children, a higher rate for children between 6 and 8 [10.4%] and increasingly higher rates for children between the ages of 9 and 11 [17.1%], between the ages of 12 and 14 [22.4%], and between the ages of 15 and 18 [26.1%]. [Barth, Berry, Yoshikami, Goodfield & Carson, 1988].
Poverty and Adoption Demand in the Future
The number of children entering foster care and, of that group of children, the number who will need adoption planning and services are likely to continue to escalate as the next century unfolds. Although factors such as parental substance abuse are likely to affect this trend [Albert & Barth, 1996], poverty, including the poverty-related effects of recent changes in family support policies in this country, will have, in all likelihood, the most significant effect on the number of abused and neglected children needing adoption planning and services.
The Role of Poverty in Child Abuse and Neglect
Poverty has consistently been identified as a key factor in child abuse and neglect. The United States Department of Health and Human Services recently reported that children from families with annual incomes below $15,000 were over twenty-two times more likely to experience maltreatment than children from families whose incomes exceeded $30,000. [United States Department of Health and Human Services, 1996]. Poor children were found also to be eighteen times more likely to be sexually abused and over twenty-two times more likely to be seriously injured. [United States Department of Health and Human Services, 1996]. These findings suggest that poor children are far more likely to need foster care than children who are not poor, and the data validates this relationship: research consistently shows that poverty is a critical variable in foster care entry. [Lindsey, 1994]. A number of studies, in fact, have found that the major determinant of children's removal from their parents' custody is not the severity of child abuse but unstable sources of parental income. [Lindsey, 1994; Pelton, 1989]. These findings suggest that if poverty rises in the future and affects more families and children, it is likely that there will be corresponding increases in referrals to the child welfare system and in the numbers of children who enter foster care, some proportion of whom will need adoption planning and services.
Trends in Poverty Rates
According to the Census Bureau, between 1994 and 1995, households in the US experienced an annual increase in their income -- for the first time in six years. [United States Bureau of the Census, 1996]. The Census Bureau, however, also reported that despite this positive turn in poverty rates in general, children in the United States continue to be overwhelmingly poor. Children currently represent 40% of the poor in this country even though they constitute only 27% of the total population. [United States Bureau of the Census, 1996]. The poverty rate for children, which continues to be higher than for any other age group, has remained at or above 20% since the early 1980s. [United States Bureau of the Census, 1996]. In 1995, some 14.7 million s in the Supplemental Security Income [SSI] program. [Waxman & Alker, 1996]. Under the legislation, federal funding for these and other programs has been reduced by $54 billion over six years [Waxman & Alker, 1996], representing a dramatic decrease in the level of support the federal government has traditionally provided to poor children.
Given the fact that two-thirds of the recipients of welfare benefits are 10 million poor children in this country [Kilborn, 1996], it is not unreasonable to predict that as a result of these fundamental changes in US family policy, more children will enter poverty, many poor children will become poorer, and children with disabilities will face increasing levels of poverty. Although some proponents of the new legislation have asserted that "welfare reform" would reduce birth rates and in effect, prevent children from entering the world in poverty and welfare-dependent, there is no evidence that the new policies will have such an effect. To the contrary, early welfare reform efforts had no impact on the birth rate of families receiving welfare benefits [Child Exclusion Task Force, 1996; Rank, 1989], suggesting that the measures now being implemented nationwide will not reduce unintended pregnancy nor the child bearing rates of the poor women who have been traditionally served by the AFDC program. Estimates are, instead, that the Act's provisions will result in one million more children entering poverty. [Waxman & Alker, 1996].
One of the key poverty-related measures of the new law is the withdrawal of the financial support previously guaranteed to poor families through the Aid to Families with Dependent Children [AFDC] program. The new law has abolished AFDC and, in its place, established:
- A block grant for the support of poor families, to be known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families [TANF], under which assistance is no longer guaranteed to all who qualify;
- Work requirements on families receiving TANF assistance, including single mothers with young children;
- Time limits on TANF which permit assistance for a maximum lifetime period of five years;
- TANF assistance to minor parents only if they are living at home or in another adult-supervised setting; and
- Options to states to deny assistance to children born to women while they are receiving TANF benefits.
The new law also reduces Food Stamp benefits which is likely to further erode the basic support available to families. These cuts are projected to have the greatest effect on families with children, who are likely to experience 70 percent of the reductions in the program. [Children's Defense Fund, 1996a]. Additionally, it is estimated that approximately 300,000 legal immigrant children will lose food stamps altogether. [Children's Defense Fund, 1996a].
At the same time, changes in the Supplemental Security Income [SSI] program, which has been a source of financial support for children with disabilities, will result in significant numbers of children losing eligibility for disability-based cash assistance. As a result of the new law's narrowing of the definition of child disability, at least 135,000 children will lose their SSI benefits. [Vobejda, 1997]. The change will most dramatically affect children with mental and emotional disorders and those with multiple impairments, and will have an impact on many children with such conditions as mental retardation, tuberculosis, and schizophrenia. [National Health Law Program, National Center for Youth Law & National Senior Citizens Law Center, 1996]. A significant portion of the children who lose SSI support also will forfeit their Medicaid coverage --an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 children [Waxman & Alker, 1996] -- which will result in a further increase in the already extraordinarily high number of children in the United States who are uninsured. [Pear, 1996a]
These changes in family policy, which reflect only a portion of the new law's impact on poor families, may well result in greater levels of poverty and increasing risks to the health and well being of many children. Early indicators, in fact, reveal that many states, because of the discretion given to them under the new law, are adopting stricter work requirements and shorter time limits than those set as minimum standards in the law. [Pear, 1997]. It is likely that some proportion of the families who previously were able to provide their children with basic care will no longer be able to do so. Parents will not be the only caregivers affected. The new law will likewise impact the grandparents of children who have assumed responsibility for grandchildren and relied upon the former AFDC program as a key support. It is estimated that approximately 65,000 grandparents currently receive AFDC cash assistance benefits on behalf of the grandchildren for whom they have assumed parenting responsibilities. [National Health Law Program, National Center for Youth Law & National Senior Citizens Law Center, 1996; Vobejda, 1996a].
Welfare Reform, Foster Care and Adoption
The effects of increasing poverty, at least some of which will be the result of changes in family policy, will likely include increasing numbers of children entering foster care; greater difficulties reuniting children with their poor families, including the likelihood that children will stay in foster care longer; probable growth in the number of children needing adoption planning and services; and greater complexity in the use of the "special needs" classification to promote the adoption of children in care. These factors, in combination, will place increasing fiscal demands on the child welfare system to serve children -- demands that may well translate into fewer and less timely services.
Growth in the Foster Care Population
It is reasonable to predict that foster care will be necessary for a growing number of children whose parents and relatives will find themselves without the necessary financial resources to support their children. It is difficult to project the exact number of children who will enter foster care because their families lose benefits and their ability to provide their children with basic care is undermined. It has been estimated, however, that if one percent of children currently on AFDC must enter foster care, there will be an additional 100,000 children entering care -- a 20% increase in the already burgeoning number of children in care whom the child welfare system is attempting to serve. [Kroll, 1996].
Barriers to Family Reunification
Given the poverty-related factors that are likely to lead more children into foster care, difficulties may be predicted in reuniting children with their families. Analyses of length of time in foster care suggest that, even with AFDC supports in place, children have been remaining in care for extended periods of time. [Chapin Hall Center for Children, 1994]. In its analysis of five states that together represent almost half of the population of children in foster care in the United States, the Chapin Hall Center for Children  found that the median duration of first foster care stays for children ranged from a low of 8.7 months in Texas to a high of just under three years in Illinois. Length of stay for the new population of children who enter foster care is likely to be much longer. For many of these children, their families will have lost financial support under the TANF program, permanently in many cases, and will have lost or faced significant reductions in their Food Stamps benefits. Other children coming into care will have lost SSI benefits, and with that loss, will no longer have access to essential care and services which their families, on their own, will not be able to provide.
The current challenges related to reunification of children with parents will inevitably be exacerbated. It seems unreasonable to expect that the child welfare system will be able to create the stable sources of income that families will need to regain custody of their children. Nor can the system be reasonably expected to create access to health care and developmental services for children who no longer have health insurance so that their families can resume responsibility for them. The result is likely to be that children will remain in the system longer, and it will be increasingly difficult to help families reconstruct their lives in ways that allow them to regain custody of their children.
Growth in the Need for Adoption Services
It is probable that a larger percentage of children will not be reunited with their families and will need adoption planning and services. Assuming a continuing mandate for permanency for children in foster care, there may well be an increase in the percentage of children in foster care who ultimately will require adoption planning and services -- rising from the current estimate of 15% to 20% to what can reasonably be estimated at one-third or more of the children in care. Such growth, in connection with what is likely to be an increase in the foster care population by as much as 20%, would translate into almost 180,000 children needing adoption planning and services -- an astronomical figure given current resources in the child welfare system.
Complexities in Using "Special Needs"-Related Benefits
Changes in family policy will create greater complexity in the use of the "special needs" classification to promote the adoption of children in care. The majority of children in the system for whom adoption is the plan have _ated to establish: the new rules implementing "welfare reform" state that, in order to be eligible for Title IV-E, a child must have been eligible for AFDC under the AFDC eligibility rules that existed as of June 1, 1995. Stated somewhat differently, child welfare systems must attempt to qualify children for Title IV-E by applying eligibility rules that existed at some point in the past for a program that no longer exists. Given the inevitable problems that such a procedure will present, it is extremely likely that many children will not qualify for Title IV-E when they enter foster care, and, consequently, will not be eligible for adoption assistance at the time they are placed with adoptive families. At the same time, the changes in SSI will mean that a significant number of children with disabilities will no longer be eligible for SSI benefits, and with that loss of SSI eligibility, they will no longer have the SSI linkage they need to qualify for adoption assistance. The consequence is likely to be that the key resources supporting the adoption of children with special needs -- adoption assistance and accompanying Medicaid coverage -- will not be available to many children whose adoptions depend on these ongoing supports. It is reasonable to anticipate that the absence of these supports could affect the ability of many prospective adoptive families to assume full responsibility for children with special needs.
In summary, higher levels of adoption demand can be anticipated as a result of poverty related factors associated with changes in family support polices. As the number of children in foster care continues to grow, there will likely be increasing poverty-based barriers to reunification and a growth in the number of children who will need adoption planning and services. The demand, in terms of sheer numbers, will present formidable challenges to child welfare systems, challenges that will be exacerbated by the diminished availability of adoption assistance and ongoing Medicaid coverage for children after adoptions are legalized. The critical issue will become supply-side: marshaling sufficient numbers of adoptive families - who in the past have largely been families of modest means -- who are able to provide highly vulnerable children with the permanency they need.
Reprinted with the permission of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. © 2007 Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. All rights reserved.
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