The US is making substantial progress on one of its most intractable social problems - children languishing in foster care.
After decades of kids crowding the foster-care system, and often shuttling from one home to another, a significant number are now finding permanent, adoptive homes.
Adoptions from foster care rose 32 percent nationally last year, reflecting a major shift in law and, just as important, attitude.
While progress has been uneven across the US, President Clinton is expected to announce that most states have surpassed a federally set threshold of improvement - qualifying them to receive millions of dollars in government funds to speed adoptions for even more foster children.
Adoption specialists attribute the spike in permanent placements to a confluence of factors, but above all, to a change in attitude by politicians, courts, and child advocates.
In the past, they emphasized reuniting children with their birth parents, sometimes waiting years for parents to change patterns of abusive or neglectful behavior affecting their children.
Now the courts and child-welfare agencies work on a much faster timetable. Under the Adoption and Safe Families Act passed by Congress in 1997, court hearings to determine whether a child should be permanently removed from the birth home must be held no later than 12 months after a child enters foster care.
Typically, children wait three years in foster care, often much longer - an eternity of uncertainty in their eyes.
"Now, everybody is saying, you know, the time frames of kids are important, and we've got to pay attention to that," says Joe Kroll, director of the North American Council of Adoptable Children, which did a US study.
About 520,000 children are in foster care, with 110,000 to 120,000 eligible for adoption. Once in foster care, children can wait years, typically having to adjust to three different foster homes.
The cost of allowing children to remain in the system is severe, say social welfare experts. According to the Center for Adoption Research and Policy at the University of Massachusetts, 25,000 kids turn 18 and "graduate" from foster care each year without ever having had a permanent home. Of these, 66 percent do not graduate from high school; 61 percent are unemployed; 34 percent end up on welfare; and 25 percent end up homeless.
"We are not doing ourselves any favor by keeping these kids in foster care," says Marla Sheely, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services. Last year, Texas increased its foster care adoptions by a whopping 76 percent compared with the three previous years, placing 1,548 kids in permanent homes.
It's difficult to interest families in adopting foster care children, because about 75 to 80 percent of them are "special needs" cases. This can be as benign as being an older child or part of a sibling group, or as challenging as suffering from severe emotional or medical problems.
For instance, Belinda Hare, who recruits foster and adoptive homes for kids in 30 counties of Texas, says she's trying to find a home for a 12-year old black boy, who's a great athlete and an A and B student. "His biggest challenge is that he's a 12-year-old black boy," says Ms. Hare.
These kids, meanwhile, are in competition with overseas adoptions, as well as with private adoptions in the US. In going overseas, parents can more easily find infants and they don't have to be concerned about birth parents reclaiming their children - which foster care workers counter is an overblown worry.
In 1990, there were about 7,000 international adoptions. That more than doubled to almost 16,000 last year. No statistics are kept on private, domestic adoptions.
Meanwhile, about 37,000 foster kids were adopted last year - most of them by foster parents themselves or by relatives of the birth parents.
Much of the surge in foster adoptions should be credited to Mr. Clinton, says Mr. Kroll of the council on adoption. Clinton spotlighted this issue in 1996, when he set a goal of doubling US foster care adoptions by 2002.
After that, Congress passed legislation that set financial incentives for states to speed up the adoption process, eliminated cross-county and cross-state barriers to adoption, and ensured continued medical coverage for special-needs kids. This was in addition to a 1996 law that provided substantial tax credits for families who adopt and eliminated racial barriers to adoption.
But several states were out in front of the federal government, radically overhauling their systems. Illinois was one of them, adding courtrooms and setting performance standards for its child welfare employees. It tackled the front end of the problem by working more closely with families in trouble, reducing the caseload of families from 30 to 80 per state worker, down to 6 to 10.
"After decades of not seeing success, now we're seeing performance," says Jess McDonald, who directs Illinois's child and family welfare program.
Still, some adoption workers like Hare, in Texas, wonder if the system is now just a little too hasty. She and others are concerned that some kids are being yanked too quickly into permanent homes, and that some unprepared families are being pushed too hard to adopt foster children.
And while much of the process of foster care adoption is being streamlined, there's still the big barrier of breaking down myths of foster care adoption to find permanent families.
Certainly, foster kids are far less costly to adopt. In fact, they come with financial incentives and support services. And child welfare specialists stress the resilience and flexibility of these children - and the fact that you know much more about the history of their birth parents than you would with an international adoption. The Internet is one new tool being used to spread this message.
Eventually, the level of foster care adoptions will level off, but Kroll still sees plenty of growth ahead. And while he's concerned about the possible dangers of moving quickly, he feels the benefits far outweigh them.
"I believe that looking at this time frame through the eyes of children offsets any mistakes that might be made. The overall outcome for these kids is much better."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society