21st Century Children and Families Act

Whether it gets through or not, it is a step in the right direction. New legislation authored by California Rep. Karen Bass (D), would drastically change that standard: Under the 21st Century Children and Families Act, states could not even attempt to permanently sever children from their parents until they’d been in foster care for two full years consecutively, barring extreme circumstances — and even then it would be up to the states, and no longer a federal mandate. The reason that this is important is that the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) requires states to terminate parental rights when a child has been in foster care for 15 of 22 consecutive months. Granted this is just a tiny step.

“This bill is an important first step in moving away from cookie-cutter timelines that have caused devastating harm to children and families for decades,” said Kathleen Creamer, managing attorney of the family advocacy unit for Community Legal Services in Philadelphia.

Existing exemptions would be maintained for certain “aggravated” circumstances, such as when parents have committed sexual abuse or have been involved with the death of another child. But the legislation would free parents from the federal timeline when their custody rights are threatened due to incarceration or immigration detention — or in cases where they are actively working with the court to overcome hurdles in their lives to successfully bring the family back together. Parents are not subjected to the federal timeline if their children are placed with relatives.

Under the bill, if a state so chooses, it could eliminate all timeline requirements, except in cases involving aggravated circumstances. 

Bass announced her landmark legislation in a news release Thursday. “It’s time to update old child welfare laws,” she said. “More needs to be done to improve foster kids’ options for stability in their lives. Premature modification of parental rights too often leaves children in foster care with no legal family.”

The legislation is at the earliest possible stage, and far from guaranteed, with many elements that could lead to controversy, including strengthening the rights of prospective LGBTQ parents. The bill could also be challenged by representatives of the adoption industry, policy watchers said.

“With respect to the timelines, we’ll be looking at those proposed changes carefully and considering how they affect children and families involved in foster care, especially BIPOC children and families, given the systemic discrimination they face,” said Mary Boo, executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children.

Children removed from their homes following allegations of abuse or neglect remain in foster care while their parents address the issues that landed them there, issues typically arising from extreme poverty. Under family and dependency court oversight, local child welfare systems must mitigate the circumstances that led to the child’s removal into foster care, offering the parents therapy, anger management, parenting classes and drug treatment, as well as the time necessary to overcome situational crises such as homelessness or illness.

Charles Redding barbecues for his two children last Easter at the home of a relative in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The family is now in dependency court fighting to stay together.

But that time is often not enough. The pandemic has brought heightened scrutiny to the “cruelty” of federal timelines. Parents such as Charles Redding of Minnesota have fought to regain custody of their children when circumstances are stacked against them to no fault of their own. Redding, for instance, had emerged from jail with no computer to attend court-mandated hearings and online classes, and the local center where he needed to go for drug testing suspended services. Earlier this year, Redding’s two children sobbed through a virtual court appearance, imploring a Hennepin County juvenile court judge to give their dad more time to secure stable housing for them to live together.

David Kelly, a former official in the U.S. Children’s Bureau, called the bill introduced this week “a critical, long overdue step toward justice for families,” adding: “I hope it proves a galvanizing moment for realizing the family children need most is their own.”

Bass is a longstanding champion of children and parents caught up in the foster care system — families who are disproportionately Black and Native American. She is among those emphasizing that the bar for reunification is often too high, and the impact of permanent family separation too damaging to continue the federal standards as they currently exist.

“The changes that I’m proposing today focus the foster care system on the child and the idea that children should be at the center of our efforts,” Bass stated. 

Her legislation would require that before moving to terminate parental rights, states must describe the steps they took and services they provided to help keep a family together. It would also mandate data collection on the accessibility and availability of those services. 

Shanta Trivedi, director of the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts at the University of Baltimore said that while states are already required under law to provide services under a “reasonable efforts” standard, the proposed law will ensure that protocol is followed for every family.

“This puts teeth into the ‘reasonable efforts’ requirement that were previously absent,” Trivedi said. 

The bill has another key element: It adds sexual orientation, gender identity and religion to federal nondiscrimination protections that previously only included race and ethnicity. Under the proposed law, states and agencies they contract with could not “deny to any person the opportunity to become an adoptive or a foster parent” based on those additional factors. The provision would directly challenge laws in nearly a dozen states that permit faith-based providers to exclude members of the LGBTQ community by following religious ideology in choosing which foster and adoptive parents, or even which youth in foster care, they will and will not serve.

The legislation proposed by Bass retains current legal requirements that adoptions cannot be delayed to match children with families of the same race, gender, culture and religion. But it instructs states to consider such factors if that is requested by the child or their birth parent.

When the Adoption and Safe Families Act became law decades ago, nearly a third of all foster children had been in the system for at least three years. The timeline was designed to push those cases in the direction of adoptions or guardianships so that children didn’t languish with uncertain futures. 

Since then, adoptions from foster care have more than doubled — from 30,000 in 1998 to 66,000 in 2019. Over the past decade, federal statistics show that the number of children awaiting adoption has also increased, by more than 20%. 

The attempt to rewrite ASFA comes at a time when some are pushing for its outright repeal, including Jerry Milner, the Trump-era head of the U.S. Children’s Bureau. Along with Kelly, his former deputy, Milner now leads a consulting group helping state and local systems interested in significant reforms of their child welfare systems, including the strengthening of family bonds so children can avoid permanent family separation. 

Critics of the current timeline that pushes for termination of parental rights after 15 months describe it as arbitrary and unjust to the families who mostly come from communities of color where daily life and the weight of historic and systemic injustice can bear down on home life. Advocates for parents say the federal timeline also penalizes people in recovery for substance abuse or seeking treatment for mental health challenges — complex healing that can take time and involve relapse and setbacks. 

In a February 2021 op-ed, Creamer and Chris Gottlieb, co-director of the NYU School of Law Family Defense Clinic, described the social context around the original law: “Passed in the wake of the now-debunked ‘crack baby’ scare, and at the same time as nefarious federal laws on crime and welfare, it reflected the racial and class biases that were ascendant at the time and that to this day continue to inflict harm on children, youth and families.” 

Under the proposed legislation, a 24-month timeline was selected to align with the Family First Prevention Services Act, a 2018 law that overhauled the federal child welfare system to decrease reliance on group homes and emphasize foster care prevention. But as it is currently worded in the Bass bill, states could choose not to abide by the two-year timeline — the legislation as written uses the word “may” — not “shall” — while continuing to receive federal funds for the children who remain in foster care. 

“We are hopeful that this is just the beginning of making sure that states have the flexibility they need to embrace and uphold family integrity,” said Shereen White, director of policy and advocacy for the national nonprofit Children’s Rights.  

Child welfare policy consultant Maureen Flatley, who helped craft both the original Adoption and Safe Families Act and Bass’ new bill, said the additional protections for parents would not only help more children reunify with their families, it could reduce the number of young adults who leave foster care alone and disconnected from stable housing, income or a support system. 

Flatley said while the timelines can succeed at creating a greater sense of urgency around permanency for foster youth, roughly 22,000 youth still age out of foster care each year with no legal family ties. Meanwhile, many of their parents may simply have needed more time to complete court-ordered service plans.

“By maintaining those family connections and those relationships, we may be able to mitigate and limit the number of kids who are aging out alone,” Flatley said. 

Under the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act, states have received financial incentives to push foster children along the adoption path, despite critics’ objections. Bass’s bill does not address adoption incentives, instead taking aim at timelines that lead to the termination of parental rights — a critical first step for children to be adopted.

Still, even staunch detractors of the existing law applauded Bass’s attempt to update it through a social justice lens. 

“I don’t know what the chances are for passage, but the fact that we can even have this discussion shows that the racial justice reckoning finally is reaching child welfare,” said Richard Wexler, an outspoken foster care critic and executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. “If it passes, it will improve the lives of, ultimately, millions of children.”

Thanks to The Imprint for this blog.

Justice For Foster Care Abuse

A former foster care youth writes – I thinking about taking legal action against the state of Nevada for putting me and my 3 siblings through 8+ years of abusive foster homes? My brother repeatedly told our case workers about abuse over and over and they said no one wanted us, so we would have to “suck it up”. I want justice. We were abused, severely in some cases and the worst that happened was a slap on the wrist and MAYBE a foster license taken away. Why no jail time? I would think that most of what happened must be written in our case files somewhere. I know it’s a long shot and probably “way too dramatic” but I’m angry and so are my siblings, our lives were completely turned upside down and we will carry unnecessary trauma with us our entire lives. There has to be something we can do??

Turns out this isn’t as rare as you might think. Oh I knew many are abused. I read a book last April titled Foster Girl, a memoir by Georgette Todd in which she shares her own experiences of being in foster care.

So in the responses to the plea above came stories about other cases and some not-legal advice from a lawyer.

Just last December 2020 in the state of Texas, Corpus Christi-based federal District Judge Janis Graham Jack found the state of Texas in contempt of court for continuing to fail to comply with court orders put in place to protect children in state custody from abuse. The ruling was the latest in a nearly 10-year-old class action lawsuit over allegations of abuse, neglect and systemic failures in Texas’ child welfare system. 

The not-legal advice – I’m a lawyer but don’t know anything about this area of law (which is complex bc govt officials may have some degree of immunity from prosecution, I don’t know). I would begin by (1) googling to see if and how others have brought these suits, (2) law firms in your area who have successfully sued the state for damages, and (3) legal aid providers or maybe the ACLU to see if they can refer you to any lawyers who might be willing to take it on contingency. I’d also move quickly – some kinds of suits can only be brought for a certain number of years (but again, I know nothing about this area of law so please do not take this as legal advice!).

Another woman chimed in – I would look up recent cases brought up against the state/Dept of Human Services… Look up the law firms used… Call them or submit an online inquiry. In Oregon, you have 6 months from a qualifying event to file tort (notice that you intend to file a lawsuit) … But a qualifying event could be as minor as “remembering” a new thing. Usually these types of suits are a contingency, so you don’t pay the law firm unless there is money awarded (except if you lose you usually have pay actual costs of things like filing fees and paper copies, etc), if you win/settle the law firm takes a pre-agreed upon percentage. Law firms don’t usually take on these cases unless they are pretty sure they can win…*good luck* I hope you can hold them accountable!!!

Here is another case moving through the courts in Alabama during 2020. Alabama officials failed to protect multiple children who were abused and neglected for years while in foster care. Foster children who lived with Daniel and Jenise Spurgeon (both have been arrested and are serving time) were sexually, physically, verbally, mentally and emotionally abused, according to the four lawsuits. While the children were starved, isolated, tortured and assaulted, the lawsuits allege, the Alabama Department of Human Resources ignored signs of abuse and neglect. The lawsuits say “numerous” complaints about abuse and neglect were made to DHR by the children and others. The complaints included violations of DHR’s standards for foster homes and ban on corporal punishment, plus reports that the children weren’t properly bathed or were forced to bathe with other children.

There is an organization that does a lot of this kind of justice work. It is called A Better Childhood. They cover the states of West Virginia, Indiana, Oregon, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, New Jersey and Washington DC. A Better Childhood fights for children who are abused, neglected, and irreversibly damaged while dependent on child welfare systems. Their work challenges existing structures to improve the lives of children, whether they are in state custody or reliant on the state for protection. Using the power of the courts, they develop new legal theories and apply and expand existing law to reform the various states’ foster care and other child welfare systems. Then, we monitor the states’ responses to hold them accountable.

Instances of abuse for children in foster care is estimated to be as high as one out of every three children. For some more startling statistics, you can read – Abuse in Foster Care Is a Social Justice Fail.

The ENTIRE justification for the state taking children from their families is to protect the child from abuse. If the child then is put into another abusive situation or worse yet, a series of abusive situations, then the entire premise of the state’s effort to protect children has failed. The agency has failed in it’s jo, and their justification for taking children from their families is a nightmare.

An Opportunity To Affect Legislation

If you care about adoption law and foster care issues, you might be willing to add your voice to this pending legislation.  Ohio Representative Gayle Manning created House Bill 506 which is designed to prioritize the desire of foster parents hoping to adopt over that of relatives. If passed, it would create a new Ohio law that prohibits moving a child from a foster home to a relative that they do not know, or have never met, if they have resided in the foster home for more than 6 months. Clearly, this would be a huge roadblock to relatives seeking custody, and a court order would need to be obtained proving that the move is in the best interest of the child (which takes time and money and is reduced to a judgement call by the courts). If a law like this passes in Ohio, it is safe to assume that it would only be a matter of time before other states follow suit.

A few local advocacy organizations have been effective in educating Rep. Manning on the horrific implications of this bill, she feels compelled to carry it forward due to the backlash she would receive from foster parents if she withdrew the legislation.  Ohio families need your help! Please take a moment now to e-mail Ohio state Representative Gayle Manning at Rep55@ohiohouse.gov and “cc” her aide at Bryanna.Austin@ohiohouse.gov.

Here is a sample e-mail that you are welcome to copy:
Dear Representative Manning,
Thank you for seeking to promote what is in the best interest of our most vulnerable children. I applaud your desire to advocate for children, and that is why I must warn you that House Bill 506 (Prohibit placement of child with relative child does not know) will do more harm than good.
HB 506 is NOT in the best interest of children, and it will not protect them or ensure that they are placed in the care that best suits their needs. Rather, HB 506 will impose an unrealistic timeframe on relatives, and place the desires of foster parents hoping to adopt over the well documented lifelong benefit of keeping children within their natural families.
If passed, HB 506 would effectively prohibit relative placements, which is directly contrary to medical research, social justice, and federal guidelines.
Please withdraw HB 506 immediately. Thank you.