The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997

How the ASFA Protects Foster Children and Changed Policy

Multi-racial adoptive family
Foster parent. Jonathan Kirn/ GettyImages

At the time it was passed in November 1997, the Washington Post said that the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), also known as Public Law 105-89, was "the most significant change in federal child-protection policy in almost two decades."

Although the ASFA retained many of the provisions of its predecessor, the Adoption Assistance, and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (AACWA), it implemented new edicts and tweaked some existing rules to require that states balance family preservation and family reunification with the safety of children placed in foster care.

Some of the biggest changes made by ASFA were the shortened timetables and new definitions, all of which shared a similar goal: repairing flaws in the foster care system created by AACWA. It was a fundamental shift in the ideology of child welfare, emphasizing health and safety over the hope of reuniting a child with its birth parent regardless of prior abusiveness issues.

The Goals of the Adoption and Safe Families Act

Under AACWA, states were required to make all reasonable efforts to avoid removing children from their birth parents, and they were obligated to do everything possible to reunite them with their birth parents if they had already been removed from their homes and placed in foster care. These efforts often involve extensive rehabilitation to correct the problems in the home that forced the child's removal.

ASFA lifted this requirement in cases where birth parents have abandoned the child, have committed murder or voluntary manslaughter, or have been convicted of felony assault, and it emphasized that the safety of the child is the most important factor, requiring each case plan to provide for a child's safety in every step outlined.

The ASFA limited family reunification efforts to 15 months beginning on the date the child enters foster care. If birth parents have not rehabilitated within this time, their parental rights must be terminated so the child can be placed for adoption.

Still, exceptions exist for when removing a child from foster care would go against that child's best interest—in these cases, especially when a child is living with another relative or adult sibling, the child may be left in foster care until a proper adoption can be arranged.

In extreme cases, though, where the parent is incapable of rehabilitation and no other relative is qualified or able to take care of a child, the foster child may be put up for adoption sooner than the 15-month period under new ASFA provisions.

Other ASFA Provisions and Evolving Policy on Welfare

ASFA also provides that all special needs children get health coverage through subsidized adoptions, even if they are not Title IV-E adoptions, and that state courts must review each child's case every 12 months, titling these hearings "permanency planning hearings" rather than "dispositional hearings" as stipulated by the AACWA.

ASFA changed the rules, mandating that states must allow for and must not delay placement of a child outside their jurisdiction if there is an approved family member willing to parent the child. Additionally, it provided for adoption incentive payments to states in an effort to increase the number of adoptions of children in foster care when compared to their base year.

Still, the law stipulated that a notification is required to foster parents, pre-adoptive parents, and a child's relatives of any review process. These individuals also have a right to be heard in any hearings or court proceedings regarding the child.

Other major federal laws that have passed since that have affected adoption and child welfare can be found at the Child Welfare Information Gateway's website, a resource database for the United States Department of Health and Human Services.