Twenty-five years ago, President Bill Clinton signed the Adoption and Safe Families Act. Passed in 1997, with broad bipartisan support, ASFA reflected a genuine commitment to the well-being of children and concern over them spending long months and even years in different foster care homes. Adoption was positioned as a positive and permanent solution for children in temporary care placements.
Today, adoption is in the news again, especially with the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which ended the legal right to an abortion. Indeed, the debate about adoption has long been intertwined with debates on abortion. Conservatives have positioned adoption as a bipartisan common ground priority. Democrats also embraced adoption, eager to support children who needed homes — but also keen to promote a noncontroversial “answer” to the problem of abortion.
Yet this focus on adoption has put parental rights at risk. With the passage of ASFA and a renewed focus on child welfare, more children were removed from their homes of origin and permanently placed in new homes. ASFA, as many legal scholars and activists have argued, has destabilized families and communities, often with the greatest harm done to poor families and families of color. Adapting key views of antiabortion pro-adoption activists, and circumventing unpopular discussions over how to effectively address poverty and addiction, a broad coalition of policymakers and child advocates have shaped a system that devalues families.
In the 1970s, increased mandatory reporting and expanded definitions of abuse helped set the stage for a growing number of children hurriedly removed from their homes and placed in foster care, where they were often abused. The process was expensive, inefficient and often dangerous for children.
The 1980 Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (AACWA) was designed to reduce the number of children in foster care, through family preservation efforts on the front end of the system, and support for adoptions on the back end. Foster care rolls declined only briefly. Implementation was particularly tricky. By the mid-1980s, as the Reagan administration cut funding for social programs for families and turned its attention to the drug wars, child removals increased and support for family preservation efforts dwindled. Opponents of family preservation argued that it had been tried and failed.