Guest Columnist

Congress has more work to do on adoptions

A woman walks in a light snow near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. November 15, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
A woman walks in a light snow near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. November 15, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

During my time in the Senate, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with many young people who have spent time in foster care. Some eventually reunited with their biological families. Others were adopted, and some aged out of the foster care system with no connection to family. Despite differences in their circumstances, most foster youth agree all children need and deserve a safe, loving and permanent home.

Foster care isn’t supposed to be the destination; it’s supposed to be a temporary way to ensure a child’s safety while permanent arrangements can be made. Too often, young people languish in the foster care system for months, sometimes years.

November is National Adoption Month. It’s important to recognize and celebrate adoption as a pathway to a safe, loving and permanent place to call home for youth in foster care.

In 2017, 24 percent of children who left foster care were adopted. Those who make the decision to open their hearts and homes to children in need should be commended. However, adoption doesn’t always mean permanency. Sometimes adoptions are disrupted before they are legally finalized or dissolved after being finalized, and children are placed back in foster care.

Stories of dissolution are heartbreaking. At an event recently hosted by the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth, of which I am the co-founder and co-chair, young adults spoke about their experiences with the child welfare system. One young man shared that when he was a child, he was put into foster care and subsequently adopted. However, when he entered adolescence, the adoption was dissolved and he was put back into foster care. He was not adopted again and faced aging out of care with no connection to a loving family.

The data on disrupted and dissolved adoptions is sparse. Small studies conducted over the last 20 years report disruption rates ranging from roughly 10 to 25 percent. Studies of dissolutions are more difficult to conduct since at the time of adoption, names may be changed and records closed, but some report the dissolution rate is between 1 and 5 percent.

Reasons for disrupted or dissolved adoptions are varied, but often come down to a lack of support. Without advanced training, parents are often ill-equipped to handle the mental health or behavior challenges some children face. It can also leave them feeling like they have nowhere to turn for help. Children dealing with grief from the lost connection with their family of origin may not have the tools to process those emotions, leading to difficulties in bonding with adoptive families.

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Although disruptions and dissolutions are rare, the fear of facing the unknowns of an adoption alone may present a barrier to potential adoptive parents.

Congress has worked to support adoptions before and after they take place. The Adoption Opportunities Program encourages projects supporting the adoption of older children, children who are members of minority groups and special needs children. That includes post-adoption services like family counseling, respite care, and adoptive-parent support groups.

In 2008, I was part of a bipartisan effort to pass the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoption Act. The legislation represented the most significant improvements to child welfare in more than a decade and provided federal incentives for states to move children from foster care to adoptive homes. My provision also made all children with special needs eligible for federal adoption assistance. Previously, such assistance had been limited to children removed from low-income families.

In 2014, Congress passed the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, which required states to reinvest savings resulting from the increased federal adoption assistance in post-adoption services.

Most recently, the Family First Prevention Services Act was signed into law, allowing states to use federal child welfare funds for services to families at risk of foster care placement, including children whose adoption is at risk of being disrupted or dissolved. It also reauthorizes the Adoption and Legal Guardianship Program to provide incentives to states to increase the number of children adopted from foster care and requires a report from the Government Accountability Office to ensure states are reinvesting state savings as a result of increased federal adoption assistance on post-adoption services.

These are important steps forward, but there still is work to be done. Congress must work with states and child welfare organizations to support programs and services that help place and keep foster youth with permanent, loving families.

On National Adoption Day this past Saturday, adoptions around the country were finalized and communities celebrated these new families. At many of these celebrations, judges declared the creation of a forever family. That’s what adoption should mean — love, stability and a place to call home forever.

• Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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