The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), signed into law on November 19, 1997, was the most significant piece of legislation dealing with child welfare in almost twenty years. The ambitious new law aimed to reaffirm the focus on child safety in case decision making and to ensure that children did not grow up in foster care but instead were connected with permanent families. Twelve years after the law was enacted, the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) in partnership with the Urban Institute co-sponsored this series of papers to examine effects of the ASFA law and its implementation.
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President Clinton signed the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997, Public Law
105-89 105th Cong., 1st sess. on November 19, 1997. The Act was the most significant
piece of legislation dealing with child welfare in almost twenty years. It was passed in
response to growing concerns that child welfare systems across the country were not providing
for the safety, permanency, and well-being of affected children in an adequate and timely
fashion. The ambitious new law aimed to reaffirm the focus on child safety in case decision making
and to ensure that children did not languish and grow up in foster care but instead were connected
with permanent families.
Twelve years after the law was enacted, the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) in
partnership with the Urban Institute has led an effort to reflect on what has been learned about
the intended and unintended consequences of ASFA and the degree to which its goals have
been realized. Together we have co-sponsored a series of papers on the effects of the ASFA law
and its implementation written from the distinctive perspectives of researchers, policymakers,
advocates, and parents and youth with first-hand experience of the child welfare system. The
papers in this series examine the consequences of ASFA for children and families and for the
child welfare systems that intervene in their lives.
The work of analyzing legislation as far-ranging as ASFA inevitably will be partial. For every
topic that we singled out for closer scrutiny, many more possibilities had to be passed over. If
deciding on topics proved more challenging than anticipated, the process also produced more
papers than originally planned because of the varied subjects and viewpoints deemed essential to
any assessment of ASFA.
The series begins with a framework paper, co-authored by Olivia Golden and Jennifer
Macomber. The framework provides an overview that summarizes the key features of the ASFA
legislation, the major debates and controversies surrounding its interpretation and implementation,
and the available data on its results. Five perspective papers follow, which capture the personal
experiences and reflection of their authors: Parents—Lynne Miller, Jeanette Vega, Jackie
Crisp, Lawrence Pratt, Deborah McCabe, Paulette Nelson, Bertha Marquez, Youshell Williams
and Tracey Carter; Youth—Manny Sanchez, Natasha Santos, Pauline Gordon, Tamara,*
Akeema,* Natalie Kozakiewicz, Jessica Wiggs, Wunika Hicks, Eric Green and Erica Harrigan.
Each of these authors tells a unique and compelling story and provides a different perspective,
such as the experience of a parent struggling to be reunified with her children while conquering
substance abuse and of a teenager who spent most of her formative years in foster care. Reviews
of the efficacy of the law and its subsequent policies frequently overlook the perspectives of the constituencies most directly affected. These parent and youth accounts poignantly demonstrate
the complex impact of a federal law that influences decision making with respect to family composition
and definition. Authors of the other perspective papers include one of the original
drafters of the ASFA legislation (Cassie Statuto Bevan); a judge who has extensive experience in
implementing and enforcing the law (Ernestine S. Gray); and the New York City Child Welfare
Commissioner charged with carrying out the law’s dictates (John B. Mattingly).
The next section of the series includes seven policy briefs by respected researchers and policy
analysts. The briefs review crucial questions such as the impact of ASFA on special populations:
parents with mental health (Barbara Friesen, Joanne Nicholson, Katharine Kaplan and Phyllis
Solomon) and substance abuse (Sid Gardner and Nancy Young); families involved with the
criminal justice system (Martha Raimon, Arlene Lee, and Philip Genty); those caught up in the
immigration system (Yali Lincroft and Bill Bettencourt); and older youth (Jennifer Macomber).
Other papers address the priority issues of adoption (Richard Barth) and preserving family connections
(MaryLee Allen and Beth Davis-Pratt). The authors of these seven briefs draw heavily
upon existing research in framing and supporting their analyses and recommendations.
This series is not intended to deliver a uniform message or arrive at a master list of findings.
In fact, the authors often disagree with one another or draw different conclusions about both
successes and continuing challenges within the child welfare system twelve years after the passage
of ASFA. This lively give-and-take is to be expected when considering issues as important,
sensitive, and difficult to analyze and regulate as state intervention into families’ lives.
While many individual papers conclude with recommendations that reflect the author’s perspective,
the last part of the series presents recommendations that incorporate common themes
that emerged from the entire project. While drawing on the insights of all authors, the summary
represents the recommendations of the Center for the Study of Social Policy alone.
Legislating social policy that defines when the state has the power and the responsibility to
intervene in family life for the sake of child safety is inherently difficult. There will perhaps
always be a divide between those who believe the state is overstepping its authority and those
who believe the state is not vigilant enough in executing its protective role. We need to know
more about the short- and long-term impact of our decisions to fully assess whether our child
welfare law and policy achieve the best outcomes for those most in need, while recognizing the
often competing interests of individuals and groups affected by the law. We hope this series will
promote and illuminate discussion and help to frame the next generation of policy reforms.
(End of excerpt. The entire paper is available in PDF format.)
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