Smoothing the Path to Adoption


Faculty ResearchersElaine Kamarck, Lecturer in Public Policy; Julie Wilson, Harry Kahn Senior Lecturer in Public Policy; Harvard Kennedy SchoolPaper Title Eliminating Barriers to the Adoption of Children in Foster Care
Coauthors Mary Eschelbach Hansen, American University; Jeff Katz MC/MPA 2000, Listening to Parents

About 400,000 children are in foster care in the United States at any one time. Of the roughly 100,000 children waiting for a permanent home, only about half are adopted.

“The adoption gap is not due to lack of interest in adoption by families; surveys indicate there are more than enough interested families to adopt all children waiting in foster care to be adopted,” write the authors of a recent report on easing adoption. “The adoption gap is caused by barriers to adoption that could largely be eliminated through changes in policy and practice.”

The paper is the product of an executive session held at Harvard Kennedy School in March 2011, which included 18 experts in adoption and family policy, including the four authors: Julie Wilson, Harry Kahn Senior Lecturer in Public Policy; Elaine Kamarck, a lecturer in public policy; Jeff Katz mc/mpa 2000, the founder of Listening to Parents; Mary Eschelbach Hansen, of American University.

In addition to the obvious moral case for providing a loving home for children in foster care, the paper explains, there is a huge social cost to failing these children. Every dollar spent on their adoption yields three dollars in benefits, including savings in special education spending and in the juvenile justice system. And studies show that a child who is adopted from foster care is likely to earn more — from $88,000 to $150,000 over a lifetime — than someone who “ages out” of the system.

So if there are enough prospective parents, and adoption is a morally and socially sound objective, why are so few children being adopted?

The barriers are many, the report finds — from insufficient postadoption services and support for adoptive families to overburdened social workers, from a lack of uniformity across states to lopsided financial incentives. But many of these can be corrected with relatively straightforward policy tweaks.

According to U.S. Health and Human Services data, only a little over 0.5 percent of adoptions from 1998 to 2009 were across state lines. According to the report, “Removing barriers to interstate adoption is critical to expediting permanency for children, especially those in large urban areas that straddle state lines, such as New York, Chicago, and Washington, dc.”

One way to do that would be to standardize information — currently different throughout each state, and sometimes different across counties within a state — about prospective adoptive families (known as “home studies”) and the children waiting to be adopted.

The report also recommends federal legislation that would benefit equally the state sending a child to be adopted and the state receiving the child; increasing funding for post-adoption services; and eliminating long-term foster care as a goal. Currently such information differs between states and sometimes even between countries.

“Adoption is important for these young people and for society as a whole,” the report states. “Providing permanent, loving homes to all children in foster care is essential for these individual youth. All children deserve to have a family that loves them, cares for them, and can provide support throughout their lives.”

— by Robert O’Neill

“The adoption gap is caused by barriers to adoption that could largely be eliminated through changes in policy and practice.”

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