The foster care system in the United States may be ready for a major overhaul. Consider this idea– maybe foster kids should be legally separated from their biological parents faster, in order for that child to have a chance at being adopted sooner. Dublin mom Dee Marks has adopted two children from foster care, and raised the idea after I asked her what could be done to improve the system. It’s a controversial idea, because the goal of foster care is to eventually reunite families; about half of the kids in foster care do eventually go back to their parents. But if biological parents cannot meet the requirements necessary to get their children back, then the children can end up stuck in foster care for years on end. Dee’s idea is that each case should be analyzed individually, rather than be forced to abide by streamlined protocols. “Maybe the way to fix the system is to only take it from the child’s perspective. What is right for the child– not what is right for the foster care system or the biological parents.”
Dee adopted her son CJ five years ago, when he was 9. He had been in foster care since he was a toddler. Dee described the physical and emotional abuse CJ endured while in foster care. He has autism, and was not getting the services he needed. And she explained it was difficult to reassure him that he wasn’t leaving this time; this was his home, no matter what. Dee says she wishes CJ could have come to her sooner, so he could have been spared some of the emotional pain he had to deal with.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, there are more than 400,000 children in the foster care system; the average amount of time spent in the system is two years. About half of the children are eventually reunited with their parents. Approximately 110,000 foster kids are up for adoption. And sadly, more than 20,000 children age out of the system every year, without ever finding a permanent home.
It’s been 20 years since Congress made any substantial changes to the system, with the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. The law stated that children who could not be reunited with their biological parents (due to abuse, neglect or abandonment) should be placed with permanent families as quickly as possible. But “quickly” is a relative term. The federal guidelines stipulate that children’s services agencies can pursue terminating a parent’s legal rights once the child has been in foster care for 15 out of the last 22 months. In Ohio, the agencies can make this move after 12 months. After the motion is filed, a juvenile court decides whether to approve it; the biological parent also has the option to argue against it. All of these processes can drag on for a long time; meanwhile, the child is left feeling insecure and wondering whether they’ll be moved to a new place the next day. And the child’s chances of being adopted tends to decrease with each passing birthday.
The Dave Thomas Foundation recently released a survey that reveals an overall positive shift in how U.S. adults view foster care adoption. But the odds are still much better for younger kids; 59% of those surveyed said they would prefer to adopt a child younger than 5 years old.
Which brings us back to Dee Marks’ point: it sometimes may be in the child’s best interests to terminate the birth parent’s rights faster, so the kid can be adopted. Waiting an entire year to begin that slow-moving process may be unnecessary, and ultimately more harmful to the child in certain cases. Is it a controversial idea? Maybe. But certainly one worth looking into further.