Congress is considering bringing a teaspoon of stability to the lives of America's foster-care children.
The aim is to keep any child from living lives like David, Jonathan, and Clifford Williams. When the boys - who had been abused - were all under age four, the state of Michigan gave them to foster parents Jim and Pam Williams in Macomb County, Mich., for adoption.
But a year later, Michigan took them back, citing a 1980 federal law requiring it to make "reasonable efforts" to return foster children to their natural parents.
The boys had trouble after each visit to their mother, even becoming hysterical at the sight of the van that would take them to her. The Williamses did get the children back for good - but only after a court battle.
The legislation now moving through Congress was prompted by stories of children languishing in foster care for years or being returned to abusive families. The bills are part of a politically popular federal effort to reform the foster-care process. In December President Clinton, ordered a doubling of adoptions and permanent placements of foster-care children by 2002.
A bill sponsored by Reps. Dave Camp (R) of Michigan and Barbara Kennelly (D) of Connecticut passed the House of Representatives last week, sparking praise from Mr. Clinton. Sens. John Chafee (R) of Rhode Island and John D. Rockefeller IV (D) of West Virginia are sponsoring a similar bill in the Senate.
"This bill strikes the appropriate balance between parental rights and child safety," says Representative Camp. "It calls upon states to continue efforts to reunite families, but realizes that in some cases, reunification is not the child's best interest."
The number of children in foster care has ballooned in recent years, experts say, caused by teenage pregnancy and drug use.
Some 500,000 children were in foster care at the end of 1995, an increase of 89 percent over 1982, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Of these, only 17,000 are adopted each year.
"Too often ... [agencies] have felt their hands were tied by unrealistic requirements to make 'reasonable efforts' to reunite families," Representative Kennelly says.
Among other things, the House bill would:
*Require states to move children to adoption faster when they are removed from abusive homes.
*Shorten the adoption-hearing process from 18 months to one year.
*Pay states $4,000 for each foster child adopted.
Child-welfare advocates generally applaud the bills, but they prefer the Senate bill, which they see as more comprehensive. "We're concerned ... that there was not an allocation of resources" in the House bill, says Joyce Johnson of the Child Welfare League of America. She says more funding is needed to address family problems, training, and adoption aid.
Mary Lee Allen of the Children's Defense Fund agrees: "We're concerned that when you have accelerated time lines without accelerated services children will be rushed back to families or into adoption without the supportive preparation they need to make sure those placements are permanent."
Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas, himself an obstetrician, voted against the Camp-Kennelly measure. Dr. Paul supports adoption but opposed the measure because it advances "the federalization of adoption policies, which constitutionally the federal government shouldn't be involved in," says his spokesman, Michael Sullivan. Paul also opposes efforts to "coerce the states into following federal guidelines."