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February 2013Vol. 14, No. 1Centennial Series: The Adoption and Safe Families Act

This is the ninth article in our second Centennial Series, CB Decade-by-Decade. These articles will examine highlights from each decade of the Children's Bureau's first 100 years. The first Centennial Series addressed some of the social issues, practices, and policies that laid the groundwork for the creation of the Children's Bureau.

The growing population of children in foster care that began in the mid-1980s continued through the early 1990s due to rising rates of family poverty, teen pregnancy, substance abuse disorders, and the AIDS epidemic. Child welfare caseloads increased and more children seemed to linger in foster care. Mounting concerns about improving children's safety, coupled with the Clinton administration's strong interest in protecting well-being, ushered in a new era in the Children's Bureau. Increased collaboration and achieving timely permanency for the nation's waiting children became strong focuses for the Bureau and the administration, yielding the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997.

In the early 1990s, child welfare services were focused more on crisis intervention than on prevention (Children's Bureau, 1994). To enhance parental functioning and protect children, President Clinton signed the Family Preservation and Support Services Program Act in 1993. The bill was the first revision of Title IV-B of the Social Security Act since 1980 and encouraged States to use funds to integrate preventive services into treatment-oriented child welfare. Allocating $1 billion over 5 years, the bill funded services such as counseling, respite care, and in-home assistance for families in crisis, in addition to parent support groups, home visits, drop-in centers, and more.

The Act required States to conduct a 5-year planning process for delivering child abuse prevention and treatment services, foster care, Independent Living services, and other assistance to at-risk families. Tasked with the law's implementation, the Children's Bureau sought recommendations from child welfare administrators, Tribal representatives, and families involved with child welfare. The Bureau also increased collaboration with other Federal agencies.

Another way to improve children's safety, permanency, and well-being was to increase adoption. In 1995, President Clinton expanded National Adoption Week—established by Congress in 1984—to the entire month of November, and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton produced a public service announcement promoting adoption. That same year, the Children's Bureau convened the Adoption Program Network, composed of representatives from national, State, and local adoption programs. The result was the National Adoption Strategic Plan that included eight goals and measures for success for achieving appropriate and timely adoption of the nation's waiting children:

  1. Increase the number of adoptions, including those of children with special needs
  2. Minimize loss and maintain the continuity of children's relationships
  3. Integrate the child's need for cultural continuity in adoption decision-making
  4. Ensure adoption placements, when appropriate, occur within 1 year of entering out-of-home care
  5. Increase the number of and diversity of adoptive families
  6. Provide culturally competent services and resources
  7. Provide all necessary information pertinent to meeting the child's needs
  8. Increase public awareness of and support for waiting children (Spaulding for Children, 1996)

In response to a 1996 directive from President Clinton to more quickly move children from foster care to permanent families, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released Adoption 2002—named after the President's goal to double adoption numbers by 2002—outlining a series of recommended steps for achieving permanency. Among the steps were annual adoption targets for States, financial incentives for States, enhanced technical assistance to help States achieve adoption goals, and a proposed change in Federal law to speed court hearings after a child enters foster care (HHS, 1997). Adoption 2002 was later used as a framework for the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA).

Passed in 1997, ASFA included well-being as a central focus of child welfare, along with safety and permanency (Center for the Study of Social Policy, Urban Institute, 2009). The legislation reauthorized the Family Preservation and Support Services Program, included adoption promotion and support services, added ''safety of the child'' to the case plan and review process, and required criminal record checks for foster and adoptive parents receiving Federal funds. ASFA's most significant requirement was that States initiate court proceedings to free a child for adoption—i.e., terminate parental rights—within 15 of their most recent 22 months in foster care (Child Welfare Information Gateway, n.d.).

The Children's Bureau was again tasked with implementation of the law, including oversight of the Adoption Incentive program, which awarded nearly $160 million to States by the end of 2002 for increasing adoption from foster care. The Adoption Incentive program has been reauthorized twice, most recently under the Fostering Connections and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 (Children's Bureau, 2011).

While there was much controversy surrounding ASFA's strict permanency timelines, as they caused unintended consequences for incarcerated parents and parents suffering from substance abuse disorders, the legislation created tremendous change in child welfare (Center for the Study of Social Policy & the Urban Institute, 2009). More children left foster care through guardianship and adoptions, and the law cemented the important legal recognition that kinship care and relative placements are acceptable permanency options (Center for the Study of Social Policy & the Urban Institute, 2009).

To recognize States, Tribes, families, and organizations that make extraordinary contributions to promoting adoption and other permanency outcomes, the Bureau began administering the Adoption Excellence Awards in 1997. This recognition, and the Bureau's work to improve the overall health and well-being of our nation’s children and families, continues today.

Center for the Study of Social Policy & the Urban Institute. (2009). Intentions and results: A look back at the Adoption and Safe Families Act. Retrieved from (671 KB)

Children's Bureau. (1994). ACYF-PI-94-01. Retrieved from

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (n.d.). Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997
P.L. 105-89. Retrieved from

Children's Bureau. (2011). Adoption incentive awards history. Retrieved from

Spaulding for Children. (1996). A national adoption strategic plan. The Roundtable, 10(2). Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (1997). Adoption 2002: Safe and permanent homes for all children. Retrieved from