As a result of a 1961 amendment to the Social Security Act of 1935 (Public Law 74-271), children who were removed from their homes for abuse and neglect could have the costs of their placement funded from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC, “welfare”) program of the Social Security Act if they would have been eligible for the program had they remained at home (O’Neil & Gesiriech, 2005). The funds covered the cost of foster care, but provided no funds for services to parents. The composition of the foster care population was shifting to a system that was disproportionately populated by single-parent families, children of color, as well as children removed from homes with incomes significantly below the poverty level (Pecora et al., 2000).

The actual number of children in foster care did not increase dramatically during the 1960s and into the early 1970s, but the prevailing professional view of foster care shifted during the two decades. By the late 1950s, serious questions were raised about the role and function of the foster care system. Until this time, the system was focused on the removal of children from high-risk situations, and the focus of casework practice was on the placement process. Little attention was paid to what happened to children after they entered care. A landmark study, Children in Need of Parents (Maas & Engler, 1959), documented the status of children in foster care as “orphans of the living,” not belonging to their own parents nor to any other set of parents. This work and other research indicated that foster care was far from temporary (Fanshel & Shinn, 1978). By the late 1970s, foster care had become a permanent status for many children who had entered the child welfare system. Children placed in foster care did not reside in a single foster home; rather they drifted from one placement to another with little stability or continuity of care. The view of foster care began to shift toward that of a temporary service whose purpose was to reunite children with their families or place them in another family if necessary (Pecora, Whittaker, Maluccio, & Barth, 2000).

In addition to concern over “foster care drift,” the paradigm of child abuse and neglect changed in the 1970s. At the time of Kempe and his colleague’s (1962) first publication on the “battered child syndrome,” the prevailing causal model was that child abuse was caused by the psychopathology of the caregivers. This model explained abuse and neglect as a function of individual psychopathy. Other models proposed that maltreatment arose out of mental illness or the use and abuse of alcohol and illicit drugs.

By the mid-1970s, the psychopathological model of child abuse and neglect was being replaced with conceptual models that placed greater emphasis on social factors such as income, education, age, marital conflict, stress, and child-produced stressors (see Gil, 1970; Gelles, 1973). Such models were more consistent with an intervention approach that envisioned foster care as a temporary placement, while services and resources are directed toward parents to provide them the means to adequately care for their children. The key assumption behind social-psychological stress models is that all caregivers want to be adequate parents, but there are structural and economic barriers that impede that desire. Children should be kept safe in temporary foster care while the barriers are addressed and removed, or at least lowered.

As early as 1962, there were more than 270,000 children in out-of-home care. The number peaked at 330,000 in 1971, and the next available formal estimate was 302,000 children in foster care in 1980. The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Amendments3 of 1980 (AACWA) were the result of expanded recognition that children in foster care were in social and legal limbo. The Act called for demonstrated permanency-planning programs that documented the ability to move children in foster care back to their own families or on to adoptions, and declared the need to clearly shift the purpose and operation of the child welfare system.

There were three major components of AACWA aimed at reducing foster care drift and assuring the right of children to have permanent homes. The first major provision of the legislation was the requirement that states make “reasonable efforts to maintain a family” before they remove a child from the child’s birth parent(s), and “reasonable efforts to reunify a family” before establishing a permanent plan of adoption. The reasonable efforts requirement mandated states to provide appropriate services prior to placement, and/or services that would allow a safe family reunification for a child who had been removed. The legislation, however, provided no additional funds for such services.

A second provision of the legislation was the requirement that states engage in permanency planning. In brief, permanency planning required each state to have a plan developed within 18 months of a child’s being placed into foster care that would assure that the child would have a permanent home, either through a safe return to her/his birth parents or through an adoption. In order to facilitate permanency planning, the law established a set of procedural requirements that included the development of case plans, periodic judicial reviews, and dispositional hearings at which the child’s permanent plan was established.

The legislation created Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, which provided un capped entitlement funding4 for foster care and adoption assistance for children who were eligible for AFDC. The foster care funding was an extension of the old AFDC provision that allowed for payment of foster care costs for poor children. In addition to permanency planning, the major policy innovation was the provision of funds to subsidize the adoption of special-needs foster children. Federal funds could be used to support the cost of operating adoption and foster care programs. The funding continued to be linked to placement services—adoption and foster care—with no targeted funding for services to the families of children in need of protection. Furthermore, states were expected to adhere to the spirit of the reasonable efforts provision and to meet the procedural and temporal requirements of the legislation in order to qualify for Title IV-E federal funds for foster care and adoption.

The available data on foster care5 (see Figure 8.1) indicate that in the first few years after AACWA was enacted, there was a decline in the number of children in foster care. From an estimated 302,000 children in foster care the year AACWA was enacted, the number of children in foster care dropped to 274,000 in 1981 and to 262,000 in 1982, the lowest on record. The number of children in foster

Number of children in foster care, 1981-1990

figure 8.1 Number of children in foster care, 1981-1990.

Source: Adapted from Gelles, R. J., & Spigner, C. W. (2008). Child welfare policy. In I. C. Colby, K. M. Sowers, & C. N. Dulmus, Eds., Comprehensive Handbook of Social Work and Social Welfare, Volume 4: Social Policy and Policy Practice (pp. 295-317). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons; 2008. Reproduced with permission.

care remained under 300,000 until 1987, and then the number began a significant increase, reaching 400,000 in 1990.

The emphasis on permanency led to the freeing of children for adoption and the subsequent adoption of some of the children. Over 50,000 children were freed for adoption in 1982 as a result of state court action (Maza, 1983). Of the children available for adoption, 17,000 had a specific permanency plan for adoption (Maximus, 1984). Of this number, 14,400 children were placed for adoption in 1982 (Maximus, 1984).6

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