Could Plan to Speed Adoptions Have Unintended Consequences?

The Administration for Children's Services' (ACS) recently released strategic plan places a heavy emphasis on speeding up the pace at which young people move out of foster care and into permanent homes. But some attorneys and parent advocates are urging caution, worried that proposed new financial incentives tied to federal adoption timelines could have unintended results. There's no denying that many New York City kids are spending a very long time in foster care. More than one-third of New York City foster children aged 18 and younger have spent at least three years in foster homes, according to city data. That's better than it used to be: Today, half of the children entering care for the first time are back home within six months, down from 11 months in 2007.

Nonetheless, those on the adoption track still wait more than four years, on average, before leaving foster care. The long length of stay for would-be adoptees has hardly budged in recent years even as the size of the foster care system has shrunk. "Children are growing up without families, and there's nothing more devastating I could imagine than for a child to grow up without a family," says Marcia Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights.

The new ACS plan includes popular ideas to deal with these long lengths of stay, such as streamlining practices in the city's notoriously slow and backlogged Family Court. But Bloomberg administration officials have proposed another strategy that is proving controversial: giving foster care agencies financial incentives to meet a timeline set by the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA).

ASFA, the sweeping 1997 federal law that attempted to cut lengths of stay in foster care, requires that agencies seek to terminate parental rights as soon as a child has been in foster care for 15 out of any 22 month period. But as of last summer, officials say, more than 95 percent of the approximately 3,300 New York City children who reached 18 months in foster care that year had not been the subject of a Family Court petition to free them for adoption.

"Federal timeframes and New York State statute must serve as guidance in our practice with children in foster care," says ACS Commissioner Ron Richter. "Children's timeframes are different than an adult's, and we have an obligation to achieve timely permanency planning for children in our care. Our foster care agency partners must make efforts to reunify families where possible, and when reunification isn't possible, another plan must be obtained."

Parents' rights advocates contend that financial incentives would have the opposite effect of what the city intends. Nonprofit agencies that run the foster care system for the city are paid a per diem rate for each day a child spends in foster care, and adoptions generally take much longer to complete than reunifications. This means there's a built-in incentive for foster care agencies to favor adoption, explains Mike Arsham, executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project, a parent advocacy organization.

"Setting a goal of adoption is going to drive up the average length of stay," says Arsham. "If you can set a goal of adoption for a significant number of children in your care, then you can ensure a cash flow."

Many children spend longer periods in foster care while their parents try to kick an addiction, finish a prison sentence or complete programs required to prove they're ready and able to safely care for their children. "Say a person has a drug problem and goes into drug treatment, and they have a couple of relapses before they are able to retain sobriety, and it takes two years rather than 19 months," says Chris Gottlieb, an attorney with New York University's Family Defense Clinic. "To speed that case to adoption doesn't serve the best interest of the child." In such a case, she adds, "it would not be appropriate to file a termination of parental rights."

Eric Nicklas, chief operating officer at the foster care agency Forestdale, Inc., says that because the foster care system has shrunk in size, a higher portion of its families present difficult challenges that take longer to resolve. "If you have a system that works to keep kids out of care, then the ones that are left are the ones for whom there is no easy solution. This is how it should be," says Nicklas, who worked at ACS for more than 10 years in its office of research evaluation and its foster care division. "But there needs to be a recognition that it takes more investment to get the kind of outcomes for these families we all want."

Nicklas says there's a danger in putting incentives only on adoption milestones, adding that ACS should keep financial incentives on actual permanency outcomes, including when a child is returned home.

Many of the city's 14,000 foster children are already exempt from ASFA's timeline, including the nearly 35 percent who live with relatives, whose homes are considered stable placements. Others, including some children with parents in prison or drug treatment programs, have been exempted.

"There's such a huge percentage of those kids there at 18 months who should go home," says Gottlieb. "It'd be much better to focus on the ones who have been in care three years and four years. Those are the ones who won't come home. And then let's talk about why they're not [moving out of foster care] more quickly."

Sandra Killet, a parent advocate at the foster care agency Children's Village, says that terminations of parental rights can have dire consequences for teenagers who end up as "legal orphans" because they have been legally separated from their parents but never adopted. Today, there are more than 550 young people in New York City who are neither legally tied to their parents nor living with a family who plans to adopt them. "Should we really be doing this? Is this in the best interest of the child?" asks Killet.

But others point to the long periods of time infants and toddlers spend in foster care, months that can add up to the better part of their short lives.

"For kids in foster care, every month matters. You only get to be 5 years old or 8 years old or 10 years old once," says Jim Purcell, chief executive officer of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies. "I want to see our agencies, ACS, and the courts bring a greater urgency to the decision-making so things move along, but I'm not necessarily in favor of rigid timeframes that might not work for some of our families."

" We will work collaboratively with our foster care agencies to develop strategies that will help us meet ASFA timelines, with an awareness that one-size-fits-all is never an appropriate approach," adds Richter. "Each family's challenges are different and each child's needs and interests their own."