Testimony to discuss the Implementation of Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997

Publication Date: April 8, 2003

                                                                                   

TESTIMONY OF

WADE F. HORN, PH.D.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR CHILDREN AND FAMILIES

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES

BEFORE THE

COMMITTEE ON WAYS AND MEANS

SUBCOMMITTEE ON HUMAN RESOURCES

U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

April 8, 2003

Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you to discuss the implementation of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 and the impact of this critical legislation on child welfare.  Within this context, I also am pleased to be able to present information on the Administration’s proposal to reauthorize the Adoption Incentives Program, one of the innovative and extremely successful changes made by the Adoption and Safe Families Act.

As many of you know, I am a clinical child psychologist by training, and I have devoted my professional career to improving the well-being of children.  I have a longstanding interest in child welfare policy and practice and, like you, I am committed to improving the delivery of child welfare services throughout the country.

It is particularly appropriate that this Subcommittee is taking a look at the implementation of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), because passage of ASFA represented a landmark in child welfare reform.  It set clear goals that helped to sweep away ambiguity and false dichotomies about the mission of child welfare services; it required as a condition of receiving program funds changes in State laws and policies, which in turn drove changes in front-line practice; it increased our national emphasis on results and reaffirmed the importance of accurate data collection and reporting to track results; it expanded resources for services; and it focused specific attention on promoting adoption. 

I appreciate the opportunity to discuss our work in implementing ASFA and some of the results we have seen since its implementation.  While there is evidence of positive change resulting from ASFA, there also are clear indications that the goals of ASFA remain illusive for too many children and families.  Therefore, it is important that we continue to work together to seek improvements in Federal child welfare programs.

The Federal Legal Framework for Child Welfare

To understand the importance of ASFA, it is useful to place it in the context of the history of Federal policy development in child welfare.  Much of the legal framework for today’s child welfare services system was established by the Adoption and Child Welfare Act of 1980.  This law laid out important principles and requirements to protect the rights of both children and families.   Among the key provisions were requirements that States make reasonable efforts 1) to prevent the unnecessary removal of children from their homes and, 2) for children who are placed in foster care, to reunify children with their families when possible.  The law also required individualized case planning for children in foster care and required periodic administrative reviews as well as a dispositional hearing before a court within 18 months of placement and every 12 months thereafter.

While the 1980 law made vital contributions to the reform of child welfare policy and practice, as time passed, concerns remained that:

  •  too often children’s safety was not the primary concern;
  • inadequate attention was being paid to services that could prevent abuse and neglect or resolve problems before they became a crisis;
  • efforts to reunify children went on for too long or were undertaken in instances that were clearly not “reasonable;”
  • children were remaining in foster care for too long without a decision being made about a permanent placement; and,
  • too little attention was being paid to the need to find adoptive families for thousands of children who were waiting for a permanent, loving home.

In response to these and other concerns, the 1990's brought a number of important reforms to Federal law, but the most significant and wide-reaching reforms were embodied in the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997.

The Importance of the Adoption and Safe Families Act

The Adoption and Safe Families Act, or “ASFA,” was significant for several reasons.  First, it clearly stated that the goals of the child welfare system are safety, permanency and well-being.   The law removed any ambiguity that safety of children is the paramount concern that must guide all child welfare services.  It also made clear that to address the developmental and emotional needs of children in foster care, decisions about permanency need to be made in a timely manner.  Foster care needs to be regarded as a temporary setting, not a place for children to grow up.   In advancing these goals, ASFA provided numerous tools to States and the Federal government to bring about systemic reforms regarding safety, permanency, promotion of adoption, improved services and accountability. 

  • Reforms in Safety - The law reaffirmed the importance of making reasonable efforts to preserve and reunify families, but emphasized the need to ensure children's safety in all such decisions.  It also clarified that there are instances in which States are not required to make efforts to keep children with their parents, such as cases in which a parent has been convicted of murdering another child, a parent has had his or her rights to another child terminated involuntarily, or a court has found that the child has been subjected to aggravated circumstances as defined in State law (such as abandonment, torture or chronic abuse).

The law also required States to conduct criminal background checks of prospective foster and adoptive parents (unless the State Governor or legislature explicitly opts out of the requirement).

  • Reforms in Permanency - The law also required significant systemic reforms to ensure decisions are made about children's permanency in a timely manner.  Permanency hearings are now required to be held no later than 12 months after a child enters care, six months earlier than had previously been required.  In addition, for children who cannot be returned home safely, a requirement was added that States make reasonable efforts to find an adoptive home or other permanent living arrangement.  The law further clarified that States could use concurrent planning, whereby they simultaneously work toward reunification and seek out potential adoptive parents or families in the event the child cannot be safely reunified.

For children who have been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months, the law required States to initiate proceedings to terminate parental rights, except in specified circumstances such as when the child is being cared for by a relative, the State agency has documented a compelling reason not to file the requisite petition, or the State agency has not provided the services deemed necessary to return the child safely to the home.

  • Promotion of Adoption - In addition, ASFA created the first performance-based incentive in child welfare, the Adoption Incentives program.  This legislation authorized the payment of adoption incentive funds to States that are successful in increasing the number of children who are adopted from the public foster care system. The amount of the payments to States is based on increases in the number of children adopted from the foster care system in a year, relative to a baseline number.  I'll speak more about this provision later in my statement.

Other adoption improvements included removing inter-jurisdictional barriers and improving access to health care for adopted children. 

  • Services to Children and Families - The law recognized the importance of timely and quality services to families, including adoptive families.  It expanded and extended the program previously known as Family Preservation and Family Support Services, and required funds to be spent in four categories of services: family support services that strengthen families and alleviate crises before they become serious; family preservation services that prevent the need to remove children from home; time-limited family reunification services to facilitate the safe return of children in foster care, when appropriate; and adoption promotion and support services.
  • Emphasis on Accountability and Innovation - In addition to requiring States and the Federal government to track the number of adoptions each year under the Adoption Incentive Program, the law required the Department of Health and Human Services, in consultation with State officials and other child welfare experts, to develop child welfare outcome measures and to prepare an annual report showing each State's progress. 

Finally, recognizing that greater innovation is needed to achieve positive outcomes for children and families in the child welfare system, ASFA expanded the number of demonstration projects that the Secretary may award, and gave the Secretary the discretion to extend projects beyond their originally approved period.  This authority enables States to test new approaches to child welfare services delivery and financing, while requiring a rigorous evaluation and cost-neutrality.

Implementation of ASFA      

Since the passage of ASFA, the Administration for Children and Families has worked diligently to fully implement its reforms.  We have worked with the States to bring their laws and policies into compliance with ASFA; we have implemented the new Federal programmatic authorities authorized by ASFA, such as the Adoption Incentive Program, the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program, and the expanded child welfare waiver demonstration authority; and we have woven the goals and requirements of ASFA into other ongoing work. 

As a result of these efforts and the commitment of States to better the lives of these vulnerable children, we have seen several indications that ASFA is having an impact on children and their families.  I would like to discuss some hopeful signs of change, based on an analysis of national data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS). 

Changes in Outcomes

One of the strengths of ASFA is its emphasis on tracking results for children and families.  As required by ASFA, the Department consulted with State officials, advocates, researchers and other experts and developed a set of national child welfare outcome measures to track State performance.  We have issued two annual reports on State performance on these outcome measures and expect to be able to submit a third report very soon.  While these reports show some areas of progress, they also point to areas that deserve more attention.

We also have continued to work with States to improve information systems and increase the quantity and quality of data that States collect and report.  We have, for example, made significant investments in Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information Systems (SACWIS).  Spurred by Congress’ approval of enhanced funding from FY 1994 - FY 1997 and through ongoing financial support and technical assistance, 29 States now have operational systems that are comprehensive and capable of supporting both improved case management and required data reporting.  An additional 8 States have systems that are partially operational and 9 more have taken steps toward planning or implementing SACWIS.

In addition to making strides toward developing the infrastructure needed to track performance -- the development of measures, modernized information systems and improved data reporting -- we are also seeing some positive trends in results, most notably in the area of adoption.  The number of children adopted from the foster care system grew from 31,000 in FY 1997 to 50,000 in FY 2001.  We expect that the final number of adoptions for FY 2002 will exceed last year's impressive results.

We are committed to continuing to track results and will use this information to shape our ongoing efforts to improve child outcomes focused on safety, permanency and well-being.

Child and Family Services Reviews

Our new system for monitoring child welfare services, the Child and Family Services (CFS) Reviews, is the cornerstone of our efforts to review State performance and ensure compliance with key provisions of law, including many requirements of ASFA.  It also is our means to partner with the States in identifying areas that need improvement and in working with them to bring about those improvements.   I would like to take a few moments to describe the reviews and what we are learning from them. 

The CFS reviews began in FY 2001 and to date we have reviewed 32 States.  We will complete the first round of reviews for all 50 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico by the end of March 2004.

This is the most comprehensive and far-reaching Federal review of State child welfare services ever conducted.  The review covers all areas of child welfare services, from child protection and family preservation, to adoption and positive youth development.  The review requires that State child welfare agencies, in collaboration with a range of other State and local representatives, engage in an intense self-examination of their practices and analyze detailed data profiles that the Federal government provides from our national data bases on child welfare.  We follow the self assessment phase of the review with an intense onsite review--in which we pair teams of Federal and State staff to review cases and interview children, parents, and foster parents -- to identify areas of strength in State child welfare programs and areas that require improvement.  This joint approach to reviewing States has had the effect of not only engaging States in identifying their own strengths and weaknesses, but in building the commitment of States to make needed improvements and strengthen their capacity to self-monitor between Federal reviews.

When weaknesses are identified, States enter into Program Improvement Plans to address any of the areas where we find deficiencies. Through a network of National Resource Centers, we provide technical assistance to help States develop and implement their Program Improvement Plans. 

We hold the States accountable for achieving the provisions of their Program Improvement Plans but, in order to assist them in making needed improvements, we suspend Federal penalties while a State is implementing its plan.  If a State fails to carry out the provisions of its Program Improvement Plan or fails to achieve its goals, we will begin withholding applicable penalties.

Among the most significant findings of the CFSR across the 32 States are the following:

States are performing slightly better on safety outcomes for children than on permanency and well-being.  In fact, the timely achievement of permanency outcomes, especially adoption, for children in foster care is one of the weakest areas of State performance.

  • All State Program Improvement Plans will need to include provisions to strengthen the quality of front-line practice in such areas as conducting needs assessments of children and families and developing effective case plans.
  • Most of the States will need to make significant improvements in their judicial processes for monitoring children in foster care, such as assuring timely court hearings and increasing their attention to timely termination of parental rights, where appropriate. 
  • The reviews point to a strong correlation between frequent caseworker visits with children and positive findings in other areas, such as timely permanency achievement and indicators of child well-being.                     

Commitment to Continued Improvement of the Child Welfare System

This Administration’s commitment to support these goals and to build on the legacy of ASFA is reflected in the legislative accomplishments we have been able to achieve thus far and in the budget and new proposals we have put forward for FY 2004.  We are proud of the progress made to date in providing more resources to States to support children, youth and families.  We were pleased to be able to work with this Committee and other members of Congress to pass legislation in the last Congress reauthorizing and increasing the funding level for the Promoting Safe and Stable Families program, which funds family support, family preservation, time-limited reunification and adoption promotion and support services and also provides funding for the Court Improvement Program.  And we are appreciative of the authorization and first-time funding of the President’s proposal to provide education and training vouchers for youth who “age out” of foster care.  This program will offer youth a chance to complete their education, thereby improving their prospects to become truly independent and self-sufficient adults. 

Our FY 2003Appropriations provided almost $405 million for the Promoting Safe and Stable Families program, $29 million over the FY 2002 level, and included additional funding of nearly $42 million to support educational vouchers for youth aging out of foster care.  The President’s FY 2004 request would go a step further and fully fund the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program at $505 million and the educational vouchers program at $60 million.  I hope that you will join us in supporting these targeted, but important investments, as well as critical policy changes to adoption incentives and foster care that I would like to turn to briefly.

Child Welfare Legislative Enhancement

As part of the FY 2004 budget we also have put forward legislative changes guided in part by what we have learned from ASFA.  Specifically, we are proposing to reauthorize and better target the Adoption Incentives Program that was originally created by ASFA.  By providing a fiscal incentive and by shining a bright light on State performance in adoption, this program has made a substantial contribution to increasing the number of children adopted over the past five years.                       

However, as we have analyzed adoption data, we have learned that while the overall number of children being adopted has grown dramatically, older children in foster care still face excessively long waits for adoption and, in many cases, are never adopted.  This is clearly a problem that warrants our attention.

In fact, data from AFCARS show that by age 9, the probability that a child will continue to wait in foster care exceeds the probability that the child will be adopted.  Furthermore, the number of children in this older age group is growing, now representing almost half of the children waiting to be adopted nationally.  

To ensure that the adoption incentive focuses on these hard-to-place children, the President proposes that the Adoption Incentives Program be amended so that it continues to recognize and reward overall increases in the number of adoptions, but also provides a special focus on the adoption needs of children age 9 and older.  Under this new proposal, adoption incentives would be awarded using two independent baselines: one for the total number of children adopted from the public foster care system; and the other for children age nine and older adopted from the public foster care system.  Similar to current law, once a State reaches the baseline for the total number of adoptions for the year, it would become eligible to receive a $4,000 incentive payment for each additional child adopted from the public child welfare system.  Additionally, we would establish a separate baseline for the number of children age 9 and older who are adopted.  Once the State reaches this new baseline for a year, it would receive a $6,000 payment for each additional child, age 9 and above, adopted from the public child welfare system. 

Awarding the incentive funds in this way will provide a special focus on the adoption needs of older children, while maintaining the goal of increasing adoptions for all waiting children. We look forward to working with you to reauthorize this critical program.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to briefly mention another proposal to strengthen child welfare systems in the President's FY 2004 budget.  We are proposing a new Child Welfare Program Option that would give States the opportunity to receive their title IV-E foster care funds as a flexible, fixed allotment that can be used to support a range of child welfare services.  We believe that this option will offer a powerful new means for States to structure their child welfare services program in a way that supports the goals of safety, timely permanency and enhanced well-being for children and families, while relieving them of administrative burdens.   Given the continuing problems faced by States in managing their child welfare programs, we all must think about more creative ways to strengthen these programs.  This alternative financing option responds to suggestions made by many States to provide them with more flexibility to address the needs of these vulnerable children and families.  I look forward to having the opportunity to discuss this proposal with you more fully in a future hearing.

Conclusion

The Adoption and Safe Families Act and other recent changes in Federal law have had a meaningful and positive impact on the delivery of child welfare services.  In particular, changes in law and philosophy have helped thousands more children find the love and security of an adoptive family.  But the work of assuring the safety, permanence and well-being of every child who comes to the attention of a child welfare agency or court in this country remains a tremendously challenging task.  We are committed to working with the States, members of Congress, community and faith-based organizations, and concerned citizens to continuously strive for better outcomes for all of these children. 

I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.