In the packed main hall of the Hubert H. Humphrey building in mid-November, Vice President Mike Pence addressed an enthusiastic crowd. “We are the most pro-adoption administration in history,” he thundered, earning one of several standing ovations. The event was to celebrate National Adoption Month, and the crowd had already been there for almost four hours by the time Pence took the stage. But the assembled nonprofit leaders, adoptive parents, children, and dignitaries, including former Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, a board member of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute and adoptive mother herself, as well as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose presence was not really explained, did not seem depleted.
Administrations like to pronounce themselves the best ever at manifold undertakings, but on this one, based on the administration’s recent statements and actions, Pence might be right. The only question is whether even the most pro-adoption White House in history can really make a dent in an area where policy is determined by state and county officials and guided by indifferent bureaucrats and ideological activists.
Earlier in the program, the Department of Health and Human Services unveiled this year’s public service announcements, encouraging Americans to adopt teenagers. “You can’t imagine the reward” was the tagline for the tear-jerking videos. There was also an inspiring panel of men and women in “helping professions” who had adopted children out of foster care — teachers, nurses, and even a civil air patrol instructor. They had all met the teenagers they would eventually adopt through their work. Married, single, young, middle-aged — none had planned these adoptions, but as one woman said, “They have the needs, and I had the resources.”
Not enough people make that simple calculation.
There were 437,000 children in the foster care system nationwide last year — a number that dipped slightly for the first time in several years, but not by much. According to the latest HHS Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System statistics, 36% of children in foster care were removed because of parental drug use (though most experts put the number much higher). The average amount of time in foster care is 19 months, but about 1 in 5 children will spend more than 30 months in care. Those who age out of foster care without being adopted or reunited with their birth parents are disproportionately likely to end up incarcerated, homeless, addicted to drugs, or victims of sex trafficking. The sooner they find permanent, safe, loving homes, the better.
There is some good news. Last year, there were almost 62,000 children adopted out of foster care, a record. And Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary at HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, wants to see that number grow. In her own speech at the November event, she said she wanted to reduce the number of placements foster children experienced but also reduce the time it takes to place children with permanent families. Of the 120,000 children in foster care whose parental rights have been terminated, about half are living with the families planning to adopt them. Why can’t we speed up this process? Johnson said her staff plans to “push through the red tape,” exhorting the audience: “Let’s blow this up and make it work.”
The administration has actually made a significant move in this direction. President Trump proposed a new rule overturning an Obama-era regulation that barred HHS from working with many religious foster care and adoption agencies because they discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Given that about 4 out of 5 people who foster have pointed to the support of their faith communities and churches as reason for their success, the original rule seemed terribly shortsighted. And for the dozens of faith leaders in the room, this change alone seemed like more than enough reason to support the administration. You may soon be able to add the word “adoption” to the word “judges” when you ask evangelicals why they support this president.
Over the past 15 years, large churches and other so-called bridge organizations have heeded the call to help with foster care. They have not only undertaken significant recruitment efforts to find families that will take in children, they have also trained many parents to become foster families, giving them hours more time than the state requires, and ensured they have both the physical and spiritual help they need to continue. Organizations such as the CALL in Arkansas, Project 1.27 in Colorado, and the 111 Project in Oklahoma have all helped to move the needle on finding homes for foster children and moving the children who can’t go back to their biological homes into adoptive ones.
But while these organizations can help smooth the frustrating and often painful journey of foster parents and foster children, they have been unable to fundamentally alter the way the child welfare system works. And when HHS’s Johnson started talking about “red tape,” the heads of dozens of nonprofit leaders in the audience were nodding along as if they were listening to a much-needed sermon. What can we do about a system that foster parents often compare to the DMV, only with children’s lives at stake?
About half the money for the child welfare system comes from the federal government, but it exercises little policy control. For example, some states report to the federal government that none of the children removed from their parents’ homes are the result of substance abuse; others report that more than 60% of the removals are the result of substance abuse. It’s clear that different states are interpreting data quite inconsistently. But HHS does not reprimand the states, let alone withhold any money, for failing to comply with federal instructions.
There are more serious failures that should command federal attention as well. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 mandates that if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months, the state must move to terminate parental rights. (The law directs states to undertake “reasonable efforts” to help parents regain custody, but not in cases of abandonment, torture, chronic abuse, or sexual abuse.) Yet child welfare agencies routinely disregard the law, always wanting to give parents one more chance to clean up their act, even if it means children will remain in the system for years.
Similarly, the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act of 1994, which prohibits racial discrimination when placing children for foster care and adoption, is also regularly flouted. Caseworkers and judges discuss in open court whether a foster or adoptive parent will be adequate to care for a child of a different race or ethnicity.
And these are just the laws currently on the books. Across the country, legislators and activists at the state level are trying to make adoption more difficult. In New York, for instance, the legislature passed a bill that would allow parents whose rights have already been terminated (usually after a multiyear process resulting from having abused or severely neglected a child) to petition the court for visitation rights, even if the child has already been adopted by another family.
And, of course, there is the crusade against religious foster agencies, which the administration can only go so far to protect. A judge in Michigan did halt a law that would have prevented faith-based agencies with traditional views on family from placing foster and adoptive children. But Philadelphia’s recent decision to keep a Catholic organization out of the city’s foster care business is in effect until and unless the Supreme Court overturns it.
It’s not just faith-based agencies that these state and local legislators would like to put out of business. They also want to keep traditional families out of the foster system entirely. California passed a law that requires foster parents to help the children in their care access “gender-affirming healthcare,” which presumably includes hormone treatments or transition services.
At a time when more and more religious folks are heeding the call to foster, states are looking for ways to keep them out. But people of faith are not alone. The other day, I was asked by a longtime Washington journalist: “Isn’t adoption something we can all agree on?”
The answer these days is clearly no. From state bureaucrats who think it’s always better for a child to remain with the biological family no matter how many times they have put a child in danger, to activists who think that children should look exactly like their parents, to caseworkers and judges who are in no particular rush to finalize a child’s placement, it seems that whatever consensus this country once had on adoption has disappeared. And, tragically, there’s only so much the president and vice president can do to change that.