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August/September 2002Vol. 3, No. 7GAO Report Examines ASFA's Impact on Foster Care

In 1997, the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) was passed to help States expedite permanency for children in foster care, either by reunifying them with their families or moving them more quickly to a permanent placement with a family. Members of Congress recently asked the General Accounting Office (GAO) to examine the impact of this legislation on foster care. The GAO responded to this request with a report entitled "Foster Care: Recent Legislation Helps States Focus on Finding Permanent Homes for Children, but Long-Standing Barriers Remain," which was released June 28, 2002.

While the GAO report describes characteristics of children and their experiences in foster care, the analysts found that there are no comparable data prior to ASFA with which to compare and illuminate ASFA's influence. For example, the report found that:

  • The annual number of adoptions from foster care increased 57 percent from 31,000 in 1997 to 48,600 in 2000, but adoptions had been increasing prior to 1997 as well.
  • The median length of stay in foster care for all children who left care between 1998 and 2000 was almost 1 year. Children who left foster care through adoption, however, spent a median of 3 and one-half years in care.
  • Most children exited foster care to reunite with their families, but one-third of the children who were reunited in 1998 returned to foster care within 3 years.

In addition to examining foster care outcomes, the report discusses States' experiences implementing two key ASFA provisions known as "fast track" and "15 of 22." Fast track allows States, in extreme circumstances, to deviate from their usual efforts to prevent removal of children from their families or reunify children with their families (e.g., when a child has been abandoned). The second provision, "15 of 22," requires States to file for Termination of Parental Rights (a critical step in the adoption process) when a child has been in foster care for at least 15 out of the previous 22 months, except in certain circumstances. These provisions are designed to move children through foster care to permanent homes more quickly.

Information gathered from the States indicates that the fast track provision rarely is being used, because few children meet the requirements and also due to systemic barriers, such as court systems that are reluctant to bypass prevention or reunification efforts. The report also found that there are many instances in which children are exempted from the "15 of 22" provision, often due to difficulties finding adoptive placements for children with special needs.

In spite of these difficulties, States did report that ASFA has assisted them in "finding permanent homes for children more quickly." States are using funds provided by ASFA to address barriers to permanency by expanding court resources, recruiting more adoptive families for children with special needs, and improving access to services for families working to reunify with their children.

The report recommends that the Department of Health of Human Services (HHS), the Federal agency with responsibility for children in foster care, improve data collection related to the ASFA requirements. HHS staff generally agreed with the report's findings and recommendations and have already established a team to review the data issues.

The full report, number GAO-02-585, is available online at