Finding safe, permanent homes for children in foster care -- usually through adoption when they cannot return to their families of origin -- has become a federal mandate and a national priority during the past few decades. That's obviously a very good thing, but there's a too-little-discussed downside to this positive trend: Far too little attention is being paid to serving children after placement to ensure that they can grow up successfully in their new families and so that their parents can successfully raise them to adulthood.
Notice the use of the word "successfully" twice in the last paragraph. It's the key. It's also the founding principle of a new organization I'm proud to lead, the National Center on Adoption and Permanency (NCAP). Our mission is to move policy and practice in the U.S. beyond their current concentration on child placement to a model in which enabling families of all kinds to succeed -- through education, training and support services -- becomes the bottom-line objective.
Along with fellow NCAP team members, I'll be writing more about our organization and its goals in subsequent commentaries. For now, please check out our website and know we are already at work around the country. Furthermore, I'm delighted to announce that we're entering into an exciting new partnership designed to significantly enhance our efforts; it is with the American Institutes for Research, one of the world's largest behavioral and social science research and evaluation organizations. In addition, we are partnering with the Chronicle for Social Change, which like NCAP is dedicated to improving the lives of children, youth and families.
Because of the traumatic experiences most children in foster care have endured, a substantial proportion of them have ongoing adjustment issues, some of which can intensify as they age. And many if not most girls and boys being adopted from institutions in other countries today have had comparable experiences that pose risks for their healthy development.
Preparing and supporting adoptive and guardianship families before and after placement not only helps to preserve and stabilize at-risk situations, but also offers children and families the best opportunity for success. Furthermore, such adoptions not only benefit children, but also result in reduced financial and social costs to child welfare systems, governments and communities.
A continuum of Adoption Support and Preservation (ASAP) services is needed to address the informational, therapeutic and other needs of these children and their families. The overall body of adoption-related research is clear on this count: Those who receive such services show more positive results, and those with unmet service needs are linked with poorer outcomes.
(Next June, the first national conference in over a decade to focus on ASAP -- which many in the child welfare community believe is the most important issue facing their field -- will take place in Nashville, TN. NCAP is among the many sponsors; learn more about the event here.)
Our nation has made a concerted effort to move children into adoption and other forms of permanency because, from research and experience, we understand their value for girls and boys who cannot remain in their original homes, a value rooted in the belief that all of them -- of every age -- need and deserve nurturing families to promote optimal development and emotional security throughout their lives. Indeed, while child welfare systems in many states are still experiencing a variety of problems, it's also the case that a combination of federal funding and other resources has made a significant difference -- that is, they have contributed to a huge increase in the number of children moving from insecurity into permanency over the last few decades, from about 211,000 in FY 1988-1997 (an average of 21,000 annually) to 524,496 in the 10-year period ending in FY2012 (over 52,000 annually).
Furthermore, an analysis conducted by the Donaldson Adoption Institute indicates that, as a nation, we have made some progress in developing ASAP services, particularly in 17 states rated as having "substantial" programs. At least 13 states, however, have almost no specialized ASAP programs, and even the most developed of them often serve only a segment of children with significant needs. For example, many of the specialized therapeutic services have limits in duration or frequency or serve only children with special needs adopted from foster care in their own states, and some serve only those at imminent risk of placement outside their homes.
To enable families to succeed, ASAP services must become an integral, essential part of adoption. Just as the complex process of treating an ongoing health issue requires continuing care, as well as specialists who understand the complications that can arise and how to best address them, the adoption of a child with complex special needs requires specific services and trained professionals to address the challenges that arise over time.
When families struggle to address the consequences of children's early adversity, they should be able to receive -- as a matter of course integral to the adoption process, and not as an "add-on" that can be subtracted -- services that meet their needs and sustain them. Adoptive families, professionals, state and federal governments, and we as a society share an obligation to provide the necessary supports to truly achieve permanency, safety and well-being for the girls and boys whom we remove from their original homes.
Given the profound changes that have taken place in the field today, especially the reality that most adoptions in the U.S. are of children from foster care with some level of special needs, permanency for them should focus on more than just sustaining their original families when possible or finding new ones when necessary. We must also provide the resources and supports that will allow them to -- here's that word again -- succeed.