To hear federal officials tell it, one of the best solutions to America's foster-care crisis often boils down to one word: adoption. New figures released by the Department of Health and Human Services show that 46,000 foster-care children were legally adopted in 1999, a 28% increase from the previous year's total. Money is part of the picture. For every child adopted beyond the number of adoptions in the previous year, the feds pay the states a bonus of $4,000, to be used for their foster-care and adoption programs. Kids with special needs are worth $6,000. In September federal officials announced that 42 states would receive $20 million in adoption bonuses.
New regulations have contributed to the rise in adoptions. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 shortened the time for a state to make decisions about a child's placement. In the past, federal inspectors did little more than check necessary paper work to ensure that states were following placement guidelines. Now, however, teams of inspectors will descend upon states to track specific kids and their families. States have up to one year to show, through a court order, that they have made reasonable efforts to develop a permanent plan for reunification or guardianship or adoption. The new regulations, announced in January and phased in throughout the year, have "re-conceptualized" the policies with the intention of requiring "continuous improvement," says HHS Secretary Donna Shalala. For the first time, she says, "we really are going to hold the states' feet to the fire."
Just how the states will respond to the changes in federal law remains to be seen. Some have written new legislation to overhaul their foster-care systems. But many states, like Colorado, face even bigger challenges, because the real control over foster care rests with local agencies, not state officials. Policies vary not only from state to state but also from county to county. "It's part of the Western culture to be independent," says Representative Doug Linkhart, a Colorado Democrat. "But it presents a problem, because the system is so fragmented, and too many things are going wrong because of poor communication."
Earlier this year the Governor of Colorado appointed a task force to study reform after three foster kids died in 18 months. What it found was startling: the bureaucracy was so fractured that overburdened state officials had given up trying to inspect all the privately run child-placement agencies. So the state simply granted them permanent licenses, and foster kids suffered.