Children need stable, caring homes. Few would dispute that. But some states are doing a better job than others at making it a reality for the thousands of children who continue to languish in foster care.
The number of foster children who are ultimately adopted varies widely from state to state, according to a recent study by the National Center for Policy Analysis and the Boston-based Institute for Children. The study also finds that children in foster homes are far more likely to end up on welfare or in jail later in life than children raised in adoptive homes.
The numbers are discouraging. Of the approximately 500,000 children in foster care in this country, about 53,000 are eligible for adoption but remain in temporary homes. To be eligible for adoption means the biological parents are no longer living or missing, have been found unfit, or have surrendered their right to have their children returned. Adoption rates of eligible children in California, for example, are about 35 percent; in Texas, 29 percent; and in New York, 25 percent.
But there is reason to be hopeful. Last summer, when the House passed legislation featuring a $5,000 tax credit for adoptive parents, we cheered - but also said Congress and the rest of us should continue to look for ways of helping children find homes. Slowly, that is happening. In December, President Clinton asked for a doubling of the number of adoptions from foster care by 2002. In April, the House passed a bill that would, among other things, shorten the adoption-hearing process from 18 months to 12, and pay states $4,000 for each foster child adopted. (The Senate is expected to consider similar legislation this fall.)
That $4,000 is important. Both the National Center for Policy Analysis and the Institute for Children say because the federal government currently reimburses states based on the length of time a child stays in foster care, there is little incentive to move that child into a permanent home. As a result, the report says, 1 in 10 foster children remains in the system for more than seven years. A maximum of one year is considered the ideal.
Equally important is the focus on children's safety. As Rep. Dave Camp (R) of Michigan told the Monitor recently, the legislation calls on states to continue efforts to reunite children with their biological parents - but also to recognize that reunification isn't always the best answer.
Children badly need stability and the love of a family - if not a biological family, then a permanent, adoptive one. Congress and the states should continue efforts to make that happen.