Adoption and safe families act
An ASFA Overhaul to Center Family Connections, Relief for Children of Incarcerated Parents, and our #stoptheclock Campaign
An Adoption and Safe Families Act Overhaul to Center Family Connections
While the Adoption and Safe Families Act was driven by a motivation to limit the time children spend in foster care, a goal that draws broad consensus, its focus on rigid, often unrealistic timelines for family reunification have caused extraordinary harm to children and families. While a growing body of social science research demonstrates the needs of children for lifelong connections to their families, ASFA harmfully presumes that if a family cannot reunify within 15 months, those bonds should be severed forever.
Today, the United States stands alone in aggressively providing financial incentives to permanently separate children from their families through termination of parental rights. These incentives have led to terrible outcomes for tens of thousands of children, with particularly devastating consequences in Black and Native American communities, which have borne a disproportionate impact of ASFA’s multifaceted harms. Particularly disturbing is the large number of legal orphans, children who have been severed from their own families due to ASFA’s punishing timeclock, but never given a new permanent family. Because ASFA presumes that adoption is better for children than other, more flexible permanency, options, many children that achieve “permanency” through ASFA do so only by being completely severed from all of their birth family connections, including siblings, parents, grandparents, and other relatives.
We believe ASFA should be repealed and our foster system reenvisioned. But short of a full repeal, there are steps that can bring ASFA and other federal laws up to date, improve children’s chances of achieving true permanency and help eliminate some of the biases that still permeate child welfare.
Here are our recommendations for ASFA reform:
Raise the standard for separation of families to permit child removal only when necessary to protect children from imminent risk of serious harm.
Shift ASFA’s “default position” away from favoring termination and toward recognizing the importance of family attachment by removing arbitrary deadlines favoring termination. Instead, there should be plans for reviewing what outcome would best serve each individual child’s needs, without a presumption that adoption is the preferred outcome.
Stop favoring adoption over other permanency options by creating financial incentives for all forms of permanency, including reunification, guardianship, and adoption.
Ensure that meaningful family preservation and reunification efforts are a condition for federal funding by raising the standard from “reasonable efforts” to “active efforts,” and allowing families to sue to have the right to these efforts enforced.
Ensure a path to post-termination contact, by requiring that states provide contact between children and their birth families unless a court finds this is counter to the child’s best interests.
TO LEARN MORE:
If Adoption and Safe Families Act Can’t Be Repealed, Here’s How to At Least Make it Better BY KATHLEEN CREAMER AND CHRIS GOTTLIEB
Children of Incarcerated Parents
CURRENT CHILD WELFARE POLICY MAKES CHILDREN OF INCARCERATED PARENTS UNIQUELY VULNERABLE TO FOREVER LOSING THEIR FAMILIES
Federal law currently requires that the child welfare agency must, with few exceptions, petition to permanently sever the parent-child relationship once a child has been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months. When this law was enacted in 1997, the United States was undergoing a rapid expansion in its use of incarceration, and the average length of prison sentences was also increasing. The combination of shortened foster care stays and lengthier and more frequent incarcerations has led to a dramatic and troubling increase in the number of children who lose their parents forever due to parental incarceration.
The best interests of children are not always served by the loss of all connection to their parent whenever the parent’s sentence exceeds fifteen months. Yet strict adherence to federal timelines can and does result in the permanent destruction of loving parent-child relationships despite the parent’s best efforts from jail.
Several states have begun to recognize the law’s harsh impact on children of incarcerated parents and have amended their laws to ensure that termination of parental rights is pursued only when it is truly in the best interest of the child. For example, New York’s Chapter 113 of 2010 offers an exception to the 15-month termination of parental rights filing requirement when the parent is incarcerated and makes efforts to maintain a meaningful parent-child relationship, so long as TPR is not otherwise in the child’s best interest. So do laws in Washington State and California. But most children of incarcerated parents in foster care in most states remain subject to rigid and harsh federal timelines that fail to allow for individualized consideration of their family circumstances.
United Family Advocates recommends that federal law be amended to ensure that termination of parental rights is pursued for children of incarcerated parents only when it is truly in their best interest.
TO LEARN MORE:
United Family Advocates Fact Sheet on Children of Incarcerated Parents with Legislative Recommendations
How Incarcerated Parents Are Losing Their Children Forever, by Eli Hager and Anna Flagg, The Marshall Project
How a Trip to Prison Cost Kenneth Clark His Right to Be a Parent, by Sylvia A. Harvey, The Nation, July 2020
THE COVID-19 CRISIS HAS CREATED INSURMOUNTABLE OBSTACLES FOR FAMILIES TRYING TO REUNIFY
The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) requires, with few exceptions, that the state move to terminate parental rights to free a child for adoption once a child has been in foster care for 15 months. Termination of parental rights has been called the ‘civil death penalty’ for children and families: it permanently and irrevocably severs all legal ties children have with their parents and extended family, including siblings and grandparents.
While many families in the child welfare system can safely reunify within 15 months, the national and state public health crises brought about by COVID-19 have created nearly insurmountable obstacles to maintaining family ties if parents don’t meet this deadline.
Across the country, reunification services to children and families have been cut or dramatically reduced. Parent/child visits, drug treatment, mental health, and domestic violence services are limited or suspended altogether. Worse, at the same time that services are reduced, parents are facing new barriers created by the crippling economic impact of COVID-19, including job loss, eviction and utility shut-offs.
H.R. 7976, SUSPEND THE TIMELINE NOT PARENTAL RIGHTS IN A PUBLIC HEALTH CRISIS ACT, WILL GIVE STATES AND FAMILIES A LIFELINE BY SUSPENDING THE TIMELINE IN TIMES OF PUBLIC HEALTH CRISIS INCLUDING COVID-19.
Without legislative relief, application of the ASFA timeline during the pandemic will lead to the permanent and unnecessary destruction of families. We must afford parents a reasonable opportunity for reunification with their children, and their children the chance to have permanent, lifelong family ties. This is both a basic right and an issue of racial justice, given the disproportionate rates at which Black, brown and Native American children are separated from their families and placed in foster care.
WHAT THE BILL DOES
Creates a “public health crisis” exception to the federally-mandated deadline for termination of parental rights, waiving the requirement that states file termination petitions at the 15-month mark.
Clarifies that the current public health crisis is a “compelling reason” to avoid terminating parental rights.
Clarifies how states can provide reunification support for families.
TO LEARN MORE
Rise Magazine Interview with legislative sponsor Rep. Gwen Moore.
Rep. Gwen Moore’s memo about why this change is needed.
Bill Summary and Text