The landmark Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 ushered in a series of changes to the foster care system. The law was important for a litany of reasons, but perhaps none more so than giving clarity to the guidelines for the termination of parental rights.
Prior to the milestone act, states adhered to the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980. However, most states interpreted this law as requiring biological families be kept together, regardless of most situations.
That meant rather than terminating parental rights and allowing children to become part of new permanent families, many children in foster care spent their entire childhood in state custody, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The 1980 law required courts make “reasonable efforts” to reunite them with their biological parents before rights could be terminated. According to the New York Times, of the 500,000 children in foster care in 1997, only about 100,000 of the foster children’s parents had their parental rights terminated by the state.
The system, according to many at the time, was broken.
“We will not continue the current system of always putting the needs and rights of the biological parents first,” Sen. John Chafee (R-RI) told the New York Times in 1997. “It’s time we recognize that some families simply cannot and should not be kept together.”
In 1997, Congress did just that with the passage of the Adoption and Safe Family Act of 1997.
The legislation was a fundamental shift in child welfare, for the first time moving away from the presumption everything should be done to reunite the children with their biological parents, even if the parents were abusive.
The major provisions of the law require that the state moves to terminate parental rights for children who have been in foster care for 15 months out of the last 22 months.
According to the Administration for Children and Families: “The most common statutory grounds for determining parental unfitness include:
• Severe or chronic abuse or neglect
• Sexual abuse
• Abuse or neglect of other children in the household
• Abandonment of the child
• Long-term mental illness or deficiency of the parent(s)
• Long-term alcohol- or drug-induced incapacity of the
• Failure to support or maintain contact with the child
• Involuntary termination of the rights of the parent to another child”
To see your state’s grounds for involuntary termination of parental rights, click here.
However there are major exceptions to the provision of terminating parental rights for children who have been in foster care for 15 months out of the last 22 months. They include:
• When the child is in kinship care
• When the agency documents a compelling reason why parental termination is not in the child’s best interest
• When the state has failed to provide services necessary for reunification
Part of the law required individual states to pass their own legislation compatible with the Adoption and Safe Family Act which has resulted in enforcement of the law varying state to state. This means some places stress adoption while other states rely upon the exceptions and focus on reunification.
But regardless of the state, the process of terminating parental rights tends to be lengthy as a safeguard to the child, the biological parents and the foster parent.
It protects the rights of the children to return to their parents if it is safe for them do so while protecting the biological parents from losing their children permanently due to an error or a technicality. It also protects adoptive parents and their children from having their adoption overturned on appeal.
Although not ideal, and often requiring a great amount of patience, the process of terminating parental rights has evolved from the days where it was hardly done to today.