10/04/2013 12:24 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Federal Legislation Can Remove Adoption Barriers

In November of 1995, President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton hosted an event to honor National Adoption month. The most powerful moment came when a teenage girl from Oklahoma read a gut-wrenching poem about her desire to be part of a family. That speech so moved Hillary Clinton that she and the President launched an initiative designed to double the number of children adopted from foster care each year. In 1997, President Clinton signed the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 into law. Among its central provisions, the law set time limits on how long a child could wait in foster care before a state was required to move towards adoption and established financial incentives for states to move children from foster care to adoption. And it worked. Within three years, the number of children adopted from foster care in the United States doubled, from 25,000 children each year to 50,000 children each year.

While the Adoption and Safe Families Act was a landmark piece of legislation, there are still over 100,000 children in foster care in the United States waiting for an adoptive family. And each year, 27,000 children "age out" of foster care, reaching the age limit for their state and moving on to "independence" without ever knowing the security of a permanent family. The results are, predictably, disastrous.

The real tragedy is that this is completely unnecessary. There are actually far more families wanting to adopt children from foster care than there are children available. The problem is that there are many well-documented barriers to adopting a child from foster care. One example: It is almost impossible to adopt a child across state lines in United States. Every state has their own child welfare system, and each state's incentive is only to place their own children. As a result, in any interstate adoption, the state that "sends" the child wins and the state that "receives" the child loses. That is why international adoptions outnumber interstate adoptions by at least 10-1. Think about it. It is not rhetoric to say that it is easier to adopt a child across the Pacific Ocean than across the Hudson River.

Another example: each year, thousands of older children in foster care are designated as APPLA -- Another Planned Living Arrangement. Loosely translated, this means, "No one wants you. We will stop looking for an adoptive family. Prepare to live on your own. Common terms used to describe these youth after they leave foster care include, "homeless," "incarcerated," or "pregnant."

In March of 2011, Listening to Parents convened an Executive Session of 18 national experts in adoption and family policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Our goal was to design legislation that would eliminate the many barriers to adoption for children in foster care. Our recommendations are the basis for new legislation introduced by Senators Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Robert Casey (D-PA). This legislation -- the Removing Barriers to Adoption and Supporting Families Act of 2013 (S.1511) -- has the potential to create permanent families for tens of thousands of children who would otherwise languish in foster care.

To eliminate barriers to interstate adoption, this bill creates incentives for states that work together to place a child with a family across a state. It encourages states to develop a standardized home study format, and institutes better interstate data tracking on adoptions across state lines. It restricts the use of long-term foster care (APPLA described above). It also reauthorizes the expiring federal Adoption Incentives Program, increases federal investments in post-adoption services, encourages permanent placements for teens in out-of-home care and increases efforts to keep siblings together.

Any rational person will look at the current political environment and assume that there is no way to pass bipartisan legislation improving the adoption system. But understand this: adoption may be the single most bipartisan issue in America. When the Clinton-initiated Adoption and Safe Families Act passed in 1997, there were 11 adoptive parents in the United States Senate. Ten of these were Republican, including Jesse Helms, the most ardently conservative legislator of his day, who had adopted a 9-year old boy with cerebral palsy. Think about it. Hillary Clinton and Jesse Helms were on the same team.

If enough advocates make their voices heard, Congress will pass a law that will allow tens of thousands of children to move from the purgatory of foster care to the loving embrace of a permanent family. The first step is to call or write your United States Senator to ask their support of S.1511, the Removing Barriers to Adoption and Supporting Families Act of 2013.