We Can’t Help Kids by Destroying Families

Dana Mack is an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values, a New York-based family and social policy research organization. She is the author of "The Assault on Parenthood: How Our Culture Undermines the Family" (Simon & Schuster, 1997)

Growing concern for the more than 500,000 American children in foster care has prompted Congress to pass legislation intended to expedite adoptions.

On the face of it, the Adoption and Safe Families Act, signed by President Clinton last month, appears overdue. Child abuse is a serious and rising problem, so serious that today close to 125,000 children in foster care come from homes too dangerous to ever return them to. Yet of the 120,000 adoptions in this country each year, only 20,000 are from foster care. Unfortunately, the perverse structure of federal funding, which is uncapped, has encouraged child welfare agencies to “warehouse” children in the system indefinitely rather than freeing them for adoption.

The Adoption and Safe Families Act aims to correct the problem of warehousing and assure earlier permanent arrangements for children in foster care by obligating states to terminate parental rights in most cases if a child has been in the system for 15 months out of a consecutive 22-month period. It provides $4,000 in bonus money to states for every child adopted out of foster care above a certain base number, and requires states to develop a permanent plan for every child in the system within one year. Finally, it allows states to use family preservation and support services money for adoption planning as well as family reunification purposes, encouraging them to develop “standby” adoption plans from the moment a child enters foster care.

While these initiatives are well-meaning, they are bound to do as much damage as good. They could cripple child protective services’ already inadequate family preservation efforts, creating ever larger numbers of legal “orphans.” Worse, for every abused child offered the stability of an adoptive home under foster care reform, a family could be torn apart.


By all accounts, at least half the children in foster care have never been maltreated by their parents. They have been removed from their homes solely because their parents are poor. The child welfare bureaucracy evinces a pernicious tendency to confuse poverty with child neglect, probably because case workers’ checklists use tend to define “deprivation of necessities” in material rather than emotional terms.

In view of the high number of poor children removed to foster care from loving homes, the last message Washington should send to states is one that ultimately de-emphasizes the importance of family preservation efforts and pushes termination of parental rights. It is cruel enough that parents in straitened circumstances run a significantly increased risk of investigation for child neglect and removal of a child to foster care. Should they now be preyed upon by a system designed to dispossess them of their children?

What, then, is the answer to “warehousing” children? One answer would be to focus family reunification efforts on programs that effectively reunite salvageable families in short periods of time.

Unfortunately, the family reunification services funded by the Adoption and Safe Families Act mainly involve substance abuse and mental health treatment. Directed toward a minority of parents who are seriously dysfunctional, these services seldom work. And they miss the mark for the large number of impoverished but decent parents in the foster care system who need practical help, not therapy.


We need more programs like Homebuilders, a successful, intensive six-week crisis intervention program that includes in-home parent education, emergency financial aid, job training, child care referrals and even a hand with household tasks. This model has kept families together for less than one-third of the annual per-child cost of foster care placement.

Other answers to the warehousing crisis include capping federal foster care funds and setting limits on foster care reimbursements per child and forcing case workers to be more careful in making judgments about which children they place in foster care and how long they remain there. Only by capping foster care funds can we ultimately make adoption bonuses more profitable to child welfare agencies than retaining children in the system indefinitely.

In drawing up the Adoption and Safe Families Act, Congress has ignored some important opportunities to improve efficiency and public responsibility in the child welfare system. Instead, it has aggravated the alarming propensity of that system to put American families at risk.