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As she trudged along a four-lane highway in Clarksville, Tenn., Torina Arnold thought about suicide. Two of her children-Rebecca, 3, and Christian, 2-walked beside her. She cradled 10-week-old Johnny in her arms. As the little family headed toward the Highway 48 Bridge, Ms. Arnold pictured the long fall from it into the Cumberland River. Then a police cruiser rolled up. When officers asked Ms. Arnold where she was going, she told them: to throw her three children off the bridge first, then make the leap herself.
That was 1994, and police were able to talk Ms. Arnold out of her desperate plan. The Tennessee Department of Child Services (DCS) immediately removed Rebecca, Christian, and Johnny from their mother's care and placed them in foster care with Barry Stokes, a Tennessee financial planner, and his wife Pamela.
Meanwhile, a psychiatrist diagnosed Ms. Arnold with "major depression-recurrent, severe and with psychotic features." A DCS investigation revealed that the children had been exposed to drug abuse, and that Ms. Arnold was unable to hold a job or a place to live. DCS created a "reunification plan" for Ms. Arnold and her kids that included counseling and rehabilitation for Ms. Arnold.
Now, more than six years later, the children have grown with the Stokeses from diapers to elementary school. But despite attempts by the Stokeses to adopt them, Rebecca, now 9, Christian, 8, and Johnny, 6, still don't have a permanent home.
Trying to reduce the number of children consigned to such protracted limbo in the foster care system, Congress in 1997 passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). Lawmakers designed the legislation to speed the adoption process, sharpen regulations related to the health and safety of displaced children, and reauthorize funding for family preservation and rehabilitation programs. Since the act passed, the number of adoptions finalized for kids in foster care has increased by about 50 percent, from about 28,000 in 1996 to 42,375 in 1999. But despite the increase, adoption policy analysts say the legislation may not be shortening the length of time that foster kids spend without a permanent place to call home.
"We know that adoptions have increased. What we don't know is whether those kids were in the pipeline all along, or whether their adoptions were directly attributable to ASFA," said Cassie Statuto Bevan, a staffer with the House Ways and Means Committee whose research helped to shape ASFA. The Government Accounting Office tried to find out in 1999 through a 50-state survey of ASFA's early effects. Forty-seven states responded with some data, but only 12 states could readily provide information on specific actions taken on behalf of individual children. Adoption advocates are concerned that some state child welfare agencies have been slow to comply with-or may have even circumvented-key provisions of ASFA related to expediting adoption for kids.
"We're concerned that much of the states' movement on ASFA has been 'paper compliance,'" said Patrick Purtill, president of the National Council for Adoption. "They've changed the laws on the books to comply with the new federal requirements, but haven't changed much in practice."
He may be right. ASFA provided some bureaucratically palatable adoption-expediting incentives, like opening up adoptions across jurisdictional boundaries and giving extra money to states that show an increase in the number of adoptions. But it also mandated that states review all existing foster care cases-about half a million files in total-to determine a permanency plan for each child. In addition, the law required states to terminate the parental rights of parents whose children had been in foster care for 15 of the preceding 22 months. Termination of parental rights, or "TPR," frees a child for legal adoption by relatives or nonrelatives. It's a mandatory step for a child on the road to a permanent adoptive home.
By July 1999, all states had enacted laws to implement ASFA, according to the GAO. But only 27 were on pace to comply with ASFA's case-review timeline. And of the 12 states that could provide data on termination of parental rights, all but three-Arizona, Iowa, and Missouri-had exempted between two-thirds and three-fourths of all children from TPR petitions, thus keeping the kids in foster care. Vermont exempted 9 out of 10 children. The exemptions were legal, since Congress left states free to decide against TPR if they found "compelling reasons" not to pursue termination. But Mr. Purtill believes that "when the exception becomes the rule, you have to wonder what's going on. States have to have latitude to interpret and apply ASFA, but when latitude is exercised in a majority of cases, you have to wonder if state agencies are complying with the spirit of the law."
The law itself grew out of concern over America's mushrooming foster care system. Since the mid-1980s, the number of children in foster care has nearly doubled to an estimated 580,000 in 1998. More children entered foster care each year than exited; an increasing number of kids lingered there for five years or longer, an eternity in the life of a child. Years of such out-of-home displacement can result in lifelong feelings of insecurity, inability to form lasting relationships, and increased propensity for substance abuse.
Adoption advocates say some social workers have overlooked child safety and misapplied the federal mandate that states make "reasonable efforts" to prevent the removal of a child from home or to return a child home. The advocates say a "reunite families at all costs" ethos, along with flaws in the glutted foster care system, leads to children being returned to homes that are unfit or even dangerous.
Case in point: 23-month-old Brianna Blackmond, who died at the hands of her mentally retarded birth mother a year ago this month after Washington, D.C., social workers took her from a stable foster home. Brianna's mother's attorney had lobbied for Brianna and her eight brothers and sisters to be returned home, despite the mother's mental condition. The social worker handling Brianna's case didn't agree with the attorney, but missed a deadline to tell the judge why. The judge, who was aware of the birth mother's problems, didn't hold a hearing and sent Brianna home anyway. The social services agency in charge of Brianna's case didn't appeal the decision, even though the agency opposed it. Within two weeks of returning home, Brianna was beaten with a belt and died of blows to the head.
Tragic stories like Brianna's, coupled with TPR exemption statistics emerging from most states, may obscure progress in a handful of states. In Arizona, for example, nearly two-thirds of children who have been in foster care for at least 15 of the past 22 months have had TPR petitions filed. Those petitions, when complete, will free them for adoption.
Flora Sotomayor, program administrator for Arizona Child Protective Services, said her agency "really struggled with what would be reasonable in terms of a 'compelling reason' to keep a child in foster care instead of expediting adoption. Our philosophy was that every child is adoptable. We wanted to know how many kids had truly compelling reasons, and how many were cases that weren't being pursued because of a lack
of ... staff time or time to develop case plans. We wanted to know if everything that could be done for each child was being done."
Ms. Sotomayor said ASFA's faster schedule for TPR initiation and her state's team approach to case review is helping Arizona foster kids: "Having been in the field, I can tell you cases all start to run together. Sometimes as a caseworker, you're not sure what you should be doing and not be doing. The review process was a team approach that gave us an opportunity to take a closer look at cases, and gave case workers someone to help them decide what to do next."
Other states also seem to be making progress. Through its "Adoption Expediting Unit (AEU)," New York City Families for Kids of the Administration of Children's Services sought to decrease the time between freeing children for adoption and delivery of completed adoption packets to adoption attorneys. The AEU, which predated ASFA, streamlined case planning, added an additional worker to each case to expedite paperwork, and eliminated the interagency transfer of records that normally slows case processing. A study of the AEU's performance from February 1997 to January 1999 showed that about 90 percent of the 271 children handled by the expediting unit were adopted by their target date, while only 34 percent of children in a non-AEU group were adopted on schedule.
Which is more than can be said for Rebecca, Christian, and Johnny. Though a court terminated Ms. Arnold's parental rights in April 1998, clearing the way for the Stokeses to adopt the children, an appeals court overturned that termination in January 2000. Then, on Sept. 12, 2000, Tennessee DCS caseworkers went to the children's elementary school and, without prior notice to the children or the Stokeses, seized the kids and returned them to their biological mother. But the children still have no permanent home, because parties involved in their case still disagree as the children's best interests.
And six years later, the official DCS goal remains reunification.