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53,000 foster children available for adoption are yet to be placed States lack incentives to move them to homes permanently, report says


WASHINGTON -- A children's advocacy group called yesterday for major reforms in the nation's foster care system after issuing a report showing that 53,000 children who are eligible for adoption still languish in temporary homes.

The group, the Boston-based Institute for Children, concluded that the main obstacle is the lack of strong incentives for states to help move foster children into permanent homes.

Conna Craig, president of the institute, noted that the federal government reimburses states based on the length of time a child stays in foster care, no matter how long. As a result, the report said, one in 10 foster children remains in the system for more than seven years. One year is widely considered the desirable limit.

"Foster care was supposed to be a temporary solution for children who were abused or neglected, but all too often, it's been anything but temporary," Craig, a former foster child herself, said at a news conference. "It is our hope as an organization that this study marks the first step for these children in finding homes."

The number of foster children nationwide is about 500,000. Of those, the report said, about 53,000 are legally eligible for adoption but have not been placed in homes. Eligibility means the biological parents are dead or missing, have been found unfit or have surrendered their rights to have their children returned.

For most of the remaining 450,000 cases, child welfare authorities remain hopeful of reuniting families and are reluctant to nullify the rights of the biological parents. These foster children are not available for adoption.

The conclusions issued yesterday resulted from a two-year study by the institute. The study, which broke down results state by state, found Maryland to have the eighth-best adoption rate. The state placed 400 foster children in permanent homes last year; 450 others were eligible for adoption but had not been placed.

Even so, Maryland officials acknowledge that the state should be able to place foster children in permanent homes more quickly. Stephanie Johnson Pettaway, adoption manager for the state Department of Human Resources, said she is pleased that legislation moving through Congress would help speed the adoption process by allowing her department to hire more staff members.

The bill, which the House passed in April by the overwhelming vote of 416-5, would reform the adoption process. It would

require, among other things, a judicial hearing for children who have spent 12 months in foster care. The hearing would decide whether the state should terminate the rights of the biological parents and put the child up for adoption.

A potentially more significant element of the legislation, being pushed by the Clinton administration, would give states $4,000 for every additional child they place in a permanent home beyond the number they placed the previous year. The Senate is expected to take up the legislation this fall.

"There is a paucity of good hard statistics about the number of children moving through the system, which makes drafting legislation difficult," said Don Meyer, a spokesman for Rep. Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican who co-sponsored the bill. "This is probably a pretty valuable report."

Craig maintains that there are enough families to adopt, but that prejudices sometimes get in the way. One problem, Craig said, has been some local officials who, in violation of federal law, try to stop families from adopting children of a different race.

"I still meet with [adoption agency] directors who say to me transracial adoption doesn't work," she said.

Pub Date: 8/08/97

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