Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Renew the Adoption Incentive Program

By F. Scott McCown

When a child isn’t safe living with a parent because of abuse or neglect, Child Protective Services tries to find a loving relative to take the child. When there is no appropriate relative, CPS asks foster parents to care for the child, but foster care is always supposed to be temporary.

Even the best foster homes are seldom the ideal place to grow up. Even more seldom do they serve as a lifelong family. After all, over the course of their work, one set of foster parents may provide temporary refuge to hundreds of children, and they can’t all come back for Christmas!

For a growing number of children, however, foster care becomes permanent by default, with children drifting in foster care until they “age out.” Once they turn 18, the state sends them into life on their own, too often with no place to live and no one to care. As a judge hearing foster-care cases, I saw this all too often.

I was recently reminded of the importance of finding lifelong homes for children by an e-mail from a former foster child on my docket. She is now grown with a family of her own. She wrote me along with all of the other contacts in her e-mail address book to let us know that she had evacuated from Hurricane Ike to her mother’s house – a mom who adopted her out of foster care. She was doing fine.

Children who age out of foster care, however, have no such safe harbor from the storms of life. In 2006, more than 26,000 children aged out of foster care, a 53 percent increase since the federal government began collecting data in 1998.

We need to reduce this number by increasing the number of children who are adopted. The Adoption Incentive Program, created by Congress in 1997, is an important source of federal support for adoption. The program provides funding for social workers to recruit more adoptive homes for foster youth and to move children more quickly through the adoption process.

Between 1998 and 2006, this bipartisan program helped states move nearly 450,000 children from foster care to permanent families. But this highly successful program will expire on September 30, 2008, unless Congress acts.

Yes, there is a cost to the program, but there is a much higher cost to not renewing the program. Without the program, more children will grow up in long-term foster care, less prepared to make a positive contribution to society. With no family to support their transition to adulthood, many of these vulnerable youth will fall prey to homelessness, crime, and poverty, and we will pay the social costs.

With the program, more children will grow up in permanent adoptive homes, better prepared to make a positive contribution to society. With family to support their transition to adulthood, they will get jobs, buy homes, and pay taxes. Their long-term contribution will more than pay us back.

Congress has just passed the bipartisan Fostering Connections to Success Act which is awaiting the President’s approval. The Act renews the Adoption Incentive Program and provides more resources to move more children into permanent families.

Many children have been waiting in foster care for a permanent home right now for a long time. These children should not have to wait any longer.

McCown is a retired Texas district judge and director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, Texas, home to the Texas KIDS COUNT Project
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 9/08