Adoption and Safe Families Act
Most provisions of the new federal law governing child welfare cases took effect in November. The legislation:
Establishes that the paramount concern when decisions are made about a child will be the child's health and safety. Previously, it was family reunification.
Mandates that states conduct a hearing after a child has been in foster care 12 months to determine whether the goal for the child should be changed to adoption. The initial goal almost always is return to the parents.
Requires states to petition judges to terminate the rights of any parent whose child remains in foster care 15 months. The clock begins ticking on this 15 months at the time a judge determines that the children were abused or neglected or 60 days after the children are removed from the parent. The earlier date is the one to be used. So, actually, it may take 17 months before petitions are filed.
This applies to all children, including those who had spent 15 or more months in foster care before the law was passed in November. Termination petitions for them must be filed within 18 months after conclusion of the state's current legislative session.
States don't have to file for termination at 15 months if: the child is being cared for by relatives (25 percent of foster children nationally are in the care of family members; it's nearly 50 percent in Allegheny County); the state can document a compelling reason why termination would injure the child; or the state has failed to help the child's birth parents reform themselves within a reasonable amount of time.
Relieves states of the obligation to try to return a child to a parent who has lost the child due to "aggravated circumstances," which states are free to define, but which may include abandonment, torture, chronic abuse and sexual abuse. States may file for termination of rights immediately when a parent has murdered, tried to murder or seriously injured one of his own children. And states don't have to try to reunify a parent and child if the parent has lost rights to another child as a result of involuntary termination.
Extends for three years federal funds for family reunification. The money also may be used to prevent child abuse and promote adoption. The money increases from $275 million next year to $305 million in 2001.
Assures that once a child has been deemed eligible for federal adoption subsidies based on birth parents' income, the child always will be eligible. This subsidy is like a foster care payment.
Provides $20 million each year until 2003 as bonuses for states that increase the number of foster children adopted. For each child adopted over the previous year's total, states would be paid $4,000 per child ($6,000 for a child who has special needs, such as mental or physical disabilities). If the average payment is $5,000, the funds would provide bonuses for an additional 4,000 adoptions nationwide each year. There are 110,000 children awaiting adoption.
Requires states to document their efforts to get children adopted.