“Family preservation” sounds great. Who would be against preserving families, when an army of social workers can, at least in theory, straighten things out at home while the kids are put into temporary foster care. Certainly not the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, whose “Homebuilders” program lay the groundwork for the billion-dollar federal “Family Preservation and Family Support Program,” signed into law in 1993.
But last November — just four years after the original bill passed — President Clinton signed a new law marking at least a temporary halt to the spread of family preservation ideology. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, a complex law with many reform features, contains within it clear evidence that family preservation is no longer viewed by Congress as a cure-all. Among other things, the new law broadens a 25 percent set-aside for family preservation services so that for the first time adoption is recognized as a way of protecting young children from abusive parents. In addition, time limits are placed on family reunification efforts.
This abrupt about-face in public policy was prompted by a rash of highly-publicized cases of children being injured or killed by family members, and the evidence that some of the killings could have been averted had the bureaucracy not been so averse to allowing children to be put up for adoption.
Consider the case of a Washington, D.C. woman, the unmarried mother of three children, who was convicted of killing her own six-week-old baby. As the case drags on, the mother, a convicted felon with a history of drug use, becomes pregnant and delivers a fourth child, who is promptly put in the care of a foster mother — a female police trainee who wants to adopt the child. Two years later, in the last week of 1997, a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge awards custody of the child to — you guessed it — the biological mother.
Now that national leaders have restored the adoption option to its former prominence, it is hoped that foundations with a different vision than Edna McConnell Clark — and other lesser-known underwriters of family preservation services — will enter the arena in a serious manner.
Bill Pierce is President of the National Council for Adoption.