Broken Promises

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When we send our own eighteen-year-olds out into the world, it's with the tacit understanding that they aren't really on their own. We're as close as the nearest phone, ready to provide counsel about how to cope with unexpected emergencies of the everyday variety....But rarely have we been asked to reflect on the special challenges that older youth face as they leave a system that has fed and housed them and seen to their medical and educational needs. In most states, when these children turn eighteen, social workers close their cases. The assumption is that they are ready to be independent. But once they are emancipated from the system, many seem simply to melt away into society's cracks.

(President Jimmy Carter, 2004)

One year is a long time in the life of a child. As one Indiana judge put it, when you are in third grade, it’s a long time till lunch. Waiting is painful, especially for a child. Waiting for permanence is even more painful and damaging.

The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) was passed in 1997 to stop the delay. This law stipulates that reunification with the birth family should be pursued vigorously, but it also sets certain time limits. In cases where reunification is deemed inadvisable from the start, it need not be pursued at all. In other situations, the permanency plan can be changed from reunification to another permanency option after six months. In any case a termination of parental rights (TPR) must be filed after a child has been in foster care for 12 consecutive months or 15 of the past 22 months. At the same time, federal and state subsidies are provided to encourage adoption. Sadly, as delays, red tape, and continuances ensue, deadlines are ignored. The promise of early permanence for the waiting child is broken.

Over 783,000 children and youth, one percent of the child population, were served in the foster care system during 2007. In September, 2007 there were 496,000 currently in foster care. (Casey Family Programs, 2009)