A quiet revolution in children's services in the United States over the last decade has resulted in greater emphasis on the "right" of youngsters to a decent home.
This stress on meeting children's needs first -- rather than the desires of childless couples -- has opened the door to finding permanent homes for thousands of those who previously were not eligible for adoption or were considered hard to place.
Landmark legislation now provides substantial federal funds to help states develop special programs for children with special needs and provides matching funds for adoption subsidies. A model state adoption law is being written by the US Children's Bureau, and states are expected to follow closely its recommendations.
"The whole adoption process has become more realistic," explains Jane Quinton , director for Region 1 Adoption Resource Center in Boston. Analyzing a prospective "home" prior to an adoption is now an educational process, not just an evaluative method. And parents who already have adopted children are helping prospective adopters understand the process.
"We're finding there are families for every type of child," says Claire Berman, director of Public Education for the North American Center on Adoption. These include, older families, many with their own natural children, single parents, minority families, and foster parents who decide to adopt.
Regular newspaper columns, with pictures and short stories about children in need of adoption, are "the best" recruitment possible, Ms. Berman says. The columns are appearing in several major daily newspapers.
However, there are still more than 102,000 youngsters waiting for adoption in the US. These are primarily older children viewed as hard to place because of age, race, handicaps, or because they did not want to be separated from sisters and brothers.
The emphasis on the rights to a permanent home also is affecting foster care. More than 500,000 children are still without a permanent home in the US. Many have lived with more than one family. Their average stay under foster care is 2 1/2 years.
"Many children are placed in foster homes because it is the easiest thing that can be done," explains Beverly Stubbee, foster care specialist for the Children's Bureau.
The new emphasis on permanency begins when a child is first brought to an agency's attention because of difficulties that make it impossible for the child's own family to care for him or her.
Immediately, agencies try to work with the family. One of the key questions they face is whether the child really needs to be taken from the home.
Greater importance is being placed now on training and counselling foster parents. Also, there are strengthened efforts to help the child's natural parents, with the aim of reuniting families if at all possible.
Another adoption issue touched by the emphasis on permanent family ties is that of sealed birth records.
Before 1940, adoption records were not sealed.But with the emergence of social theory that held that by keeping such data confidential might remove the stigma of illegitimacy, birth records were sealed for most adoptees.
"Adult adoptees are not looking for mommies and daddies, but are searching for their heritages." explains Joanne Small, director of Adoptives In Search (AIS), a nonprofit, self-help organization in Bethesda, Md.
Despite strong opposition from adoptive parent groups and others, there has been some movement toward in opening records. Currently, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Alabama, and Montana allow adoptees access to their original birth records. Minnosota has an intermediary law, but all parties have to first give their consent before adoptees are shown their original birth records.
"Biological parents of adoptees are given rights [that of anonymity] that no other parent has," explains Florence Anna Fisher, director of Adult Liberty Movement Association, a nonprofit organization to assist adoptees in their search with headquarters in New York City. "Adoptees just want to be treated equally, not more than equal."