“There is not a single place that has said, ‘We don’t want to be all in for foster adoption,’” Johnson says. She specifically praises the work of Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu—whose state has only 43 foster children available after adoptions tripled between 2016 and 2019.
Johnson’s message to governors also includes encouragement to seek out and work with faith-based groups—to find both foster care and adoptive homes. She says during the last decade she watched as faith-based groups in Colorado were defunded and boxed out due to their beliefs and the religious component of their programs.
“These kids just went on to the streets because no one else wanted to deal with them,” Johnson says. “By bringing nonprofits and faith-based together, we build a bigger team.”
Some of that team-building has occurred in concrete ways: Last year HHS issued a waiver for a South Carolina ministry with a long-standing commitment to work only with Protestant families, a policy that came into conflict with a nondiscrimination regulation the Obama administration enacted in its final days. This year HHS proposed a rule to remove that regulatory burden from all 50 states.
(A Catholic woman is suing the state and federal governments for allowing Miracle Hill Ministries to work only with people who share its Protestant beliefs. This fall the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case in which Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia is challenging the city’s right to cancel the agency’s contract because it will not place foster children with same-sex couples.)
The Taylor family has felt the effects of Johnson’s effort to create a more friendly environment for faith-based organizations. “I have seen that change,” said Pam Taylor, Trent’s mother. She says the most important part of their ministry is the hope and healing found in Christ, but they had seen doors close if they included it in their work.
Earlier this year they changed their organizational structure to incorporate their Christian faith more clearly. “There are a few agencies I assumed would no longer work with us, but they were very, very willing,” Pam said.
The net result has been compelling: In addition to the number of children in foster care dropping, adoption numbers are rising. Foster care adoptions have consistently totaled 50,000-plus per year, but the last two years saw 63,000 and 66,000 adoptions—the highest numbers since data collection began in 1995.
“The degree of emphasis Assistant Secretary Johnson has put on adoption has been greater than her predecessors,” said Nate Bult, senior vice president for government affairs for Bethany Christian Services, the nation’s largest evangelical adoption agency. “It’s not that previous assistant secretaries were hostile, but Johnson has put it at the top of her agenda.”
“When a child floats around in the system for five years, it affects their ability to trust and attach to people.”
IN JUNE, President Trump signed an executive order that does little now but encourages improved data collection about public-private partnerships, support for caregivers, keeping siblings together, and eliminating bureaucratic barriers to adoption. “The executive order is a long-term solution,” AEI's Naomi Riley said. It also mandates a study of the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 (which aimed to remove barriers to interracial adoption) and emphasizes the need for faith-based organizations. Nancy Kay Blackwell with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute said the latter two objectives are directly related: “A lot of faith-based partners led the way in interracial placements and adoptions.”
Much of the order’s success will hinge on the better data collection it requires from states. Right now most states don’t know exactly how many foster families they have or the retention rate among the families they do have (between 30 percent and 50 percent of foster parents quit in the first year). Most states also don’t have a good profile of the most successful foster families, preventing them from launching targeted recruitment efforts. Most foster recruitment consists of a broad call for help using mediums such as TV, radio, and billboard ads. “The data is hugely important, because it can be used to do more targeted recruitment of potential families,” Riley said.
Even with better data, the challenges appear daunting. More than 120,000 children are waiting on a family to adopt them, and each year about 20,000 age out of the system with no permanent support—which makes them much more likely to experience a range of negative outcomes as young adults. Critics said the executive order did not provide “tangible supports” (i.e., funding for things like housing and day care) for low-income families or sufficiently address racial disparities in the foster care system: “The administration could achieve greater impact by researching front-end inequities—such as reporting and investigations—which could shrink the universe of youth considered for care,” the left-leaning First Focus on Children said in a statement.