More than half a million children and youth are in foster care in the U.S., about one fourth of them with relatives. New legislation awaiting President George W. Bush's signature - The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act - targets deficiencies in the child-welfare system. Key provisions of the legislation are based upon studies by Mark F. Testa, the director of the Children and Family Research Center and a professor in the School of Social Work at Illinois. Testa spoke with News Bureau reporter Sharita Forrest about the proposed law's implications.
What would be the impact of this new legislation on foster caregivers and children?
This is the most significant change to federal laws in many years, and it provides relatives with funding for the ongoing support of children, just like the system currently provides adoption assistance to foster parents who adopt children. Previously, there was no federal support for relatives who became legal permanent guardians. More than 20,000 children could find safe, permanent homes if federal funds were available to support their caregivers' becoming their legal guardians.
This legislation grew out of our work at the U. of I. in demonstrating the effectiveness of subsidized guardianship in Illinois. We have replicated the study in Wisconsin and Tennessee. Our research was instrumental in alerting our Congressmen to the importance of providing a program. Rep. Timothy Johnson and Rep. Danny Davis drafted legislation in 2005, and it ultimately was incorporated into this bill.
Could the subsidies discourage some foster parents from adopting?
Overall, there was a huge increase in the number of children who were adopted or taken into guardianship during our study. If you give families an option like guardianship, more will choose to become permanent caregivers, but some will choose guardianship over adoption, mainly with older children who prefer to leave their relationships with their birth parents intact.
If they don't have a choice, relatives often feel that they might lose custody, so they reluctantly adopt. I think it's better to offer people a choice rather than force them to make a decision that doesn't fit well with their family values or what the children want.
Do incentives for caregivers to adopt or become the guardians of children with special needs help?
Adoption assistance grew out of findings that many people were willing to adopt but were concerned about the long-term support of the children, particularly children with special needs and older children.
In 1997, there were 52,000 foster children in the Illinois system; today there are 16,000. Most of them have gone into adoptive homes and were special needs children by age or disability. About 6,000 of them went into guardianship homes.
The act also contains special provisions for children who are Native American. Why?
Historically, tribal governments have been disenfranchised from directly receiving federal foster care benefits. They would have to apply to a state in order to use federal foster care dollars to take care of Native American children. The new regulations allow tribal governments to use federal funds to provide for foster care, adoption and guardianship of their children.
Why give states the option of extending foster care until youth reach age 21?
The transition to young adulthood now lasts well beyond age 18 into the middle and late twenties. Our old system of saying 'So long!' to foster children at age 18 was resulting in record numbers of youth who were homeless, who ended up being victimized and were really unprepared to take care of themselves.
Extending it to age 21 will give foster youth who haven't found permanent homes greater opportunity to finish school, begin college, and find jobs to support them and help with their medical needs.
I think it needs to be extended to age 24. There are many foster youth who at 21 are in the middle of making their transition to independence, and it's a shame that we withdraw support at that critical moment.
Will the states be receptive to that?
It's hard to say. The federal government match at 50 cents on the dollar is an incentive. Once they realize that the alternative is going to be more costly in terms of higher rates of homelessness, imprisonment, and welfare dependency, some of the states will recognize that this will be less costly to taxpayers in the long run.
How will the act, if approved by President Bush, affect foster children's education?
There are provisions that allow states to maintain children in their schools during the school year and provide federal funds to cover the cost of transporting children back to their schools if they are unable to find a home within their school district.
What other issues are not covered by this legislation but need attention?
The situation is quite different from what it was 30-40 years ago, when foster care was the primary way in which we dealt with abused and neglected children. Now we're dealing with children in permanent settings with adoptive parents or legal guardians.
We need to bring the federal financing policy in line with today's realities to support the small percentage of families who will need ongoing assistance after adoption, after guardianship and after kids age out of the system.
For the 40,000 children in permanent settings in Illinois, about 15-18 percent will need some occasional assistance and maybe 5 percent will need more intensive interventions, such as mental health services.