03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Adoption Scandal: Interstate Barriers Keep Kids in Foster Care

For many years, I ran an agency in Rhode Island that recruits families to adopt children from the state's child welfare system. Like many similar organizations, we had a waiting child feature on a local TV station.

Following a "Tuesday's Child" spot about a 7-year-old black boy named Justin, I received a call from a woman in Massachusetts. She was a lawyer and her husband, a doctor. Both were black. She explained to me that she and her husband had been considering adoption for several years. They saw Justin on TV. They were moved by his story. They prayed. And they decided that they wanted to adopt this child.

But they never did. Rhode Island was not legally able to provide a "home study" to a Massachusetts family. And Massachusetts would not use precious state resources to prepare a family to adopt a child in another state. This situation repeats itself, every single day, in America. The simple fact is that it is virtually impossible to adopt a foster child across state lines in the United States.

In the most recent year for which we have data, states reported that only 71 children in the entire country were adopted from foster care across state lines by non-relatives. For perspective, the national weather service estimates that 600 Americans are struck by lightning each year.

Despite common misperception, the problem is not the result of a lack of people wanting to adopt a child from foster care. Analysis of the most recent National Survey of Family Growth shows that 600,000 American women were actively trying to adopt a child. The vast majority were willing to adopt the kinds of foster children we label as "hard to place" - black and Hispanic kids, older kids, kids with disabilities. For every black child waiting in foster care to be adopted, there were 12 prospective parents. For every waiting child between 6 and 12, there were 8 prospective parents.

Given the intensity of the need and the number of families that want to adopt, why is interstate adoption so rare? The primary reason is that we do not have a national adoption system. Instead, we have 50 different child welfare systems, each with its own process for adoption eligibility, recruitment, approval, and training.

Even worse, our current system has created profound disincentives for states to facilitate and support adoptions across state lines. In a system where each state is only interested in the well being of their children, states have very strong incentives to keep their families. Each state pays the cost of recruiting and preparing their own families with no compensation if the family adopts a child from another state. In other words, each interstate adoption has a "winner" (the state that sends the child) and a "loser" (the state that receives the child).

In the current system, it makes more sense for a state to keep an in-state family waiting indefinitely than to match them immediately with a waiting child in another state. This issue is particularly significant in large metropolitan areas that straddle state lines such as New York City, Chicago, and Washington D.C.

Incredibly, this win-lose pattern holds true across county lines within many states. North Carolina, for example, has 100 counties. It is extremely difficult for a family in Raleigh to adopt a child in Durham. This gets particularly complicated when you consider the vast number of variables for both prospective parents and waiting children. Parents entering the system do a great deal of soul searching to decide what kind of child they are able to parent. When a pediatric nurse in a small community says she wants to adopt a child with spina bifida or other developmental birth defect, she may wait years before one is available in her community. Meanwhile 50 miles away, in another county, a child waits.

It is a national scandal that 25,000 children age out of foster care each year while willing adoptive parents are ignored because they are in the wrong state or even the wrong county. It shouldn't be harder for a New Jersey family to adopt a child from Manhattan than Moscow. We must change the incentives in our adoption system so that everyone wins when a hurt child finds a forever family.