What is the Adoption and Safe Families Act?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Adoption and Safe Families Act is a piece of legislation passed in the United States in 1997, with encouragement from the Clinton Administration. The legislation made significant changes to the foster care and adoption systems in the United States to promote child health and welfare. A number of mandates were rolled into the Adoption and Safe Families Act with the goal of improving child services across the United States, increasing the numbers of adoptions, and getting children out of foster care.

The Adoption and Safe Families Act gives individual states incentives to promote adoption.
The Adoption and Safe Families Act gives individual states incentives to promote adoption.

The key feature of the legislation is a shift from reuniting children with their parents to making decisions to promote child welfare. If a home situation is clearly unsafe, rather than holding a child in foster care in the hopes of improving conditions at home, the child can be released for adoption. Permanent placement with an adoptive family tends to be better for a child's mental and physical health. The Adoption and Safe Families Act addressed the overloaded foster care system to keep children in foster situations for shorter periods of time.

A child who is permanently placed with an adoptive family may have better physical and mental health outcomes than her peers who are not.
A child who is permanently placed with an adoptive family may have better physical and mental health outcomes than her peers who are not.

Critics of the Adoption and Safe Families Act believe it contributes to the destruction of families, making it harder to reunite children with their parents because of the focus on increasing adoption numbers. Proponents believe reuniting children with their families should remain a priority, but in cases where this is clearly not an option, children should not be held in limbo in the foster care system, as this is not fair to them. The longer children remain in foster care, the harder it can be for them to find permanent placements, and instability like switching schools and constantly changing homes can be very stressful.

Under the Adoption and Safe Families Act, individual states are provided with incentives to promote adoption. They are also required to track children more closely and to monitor attempts at placing children in adoptive homes. In some cases, the legislation only reinforced the approaches of individual states to adoption matters, while in others, states had to radically rework their child services agencies to comply with the law.

Adoptions increased under the Adoption and Safe Families Act, while time spent in foster care decreased. Particularly for at-risk children, such as those with disabilities, the legislation improved the changes of permanent placement, providing these children with more opportunities. Like other acts of legislation, this law is periodically reviewed to see if it needs updates to reflect changing social, legal, and cultural issues.

Critics of the Adoption and Safe Families Act believe that it makes it harder for children to reunite with their parents.
Critics of the Adoption and Safe Families Act believe that it makes it harder for children to reunite with their parents.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Bertie68 - I have talked to a couple of foster care moms and they have said that the Adoption and Safe Families Act has helped the situation of children waiting in foster homes for an opportunity to be adopted.

But there are still roadblocks. Many kids spend up to five years in foster care, even after being freed up for adoption. Many are still having to move around to different foster homes.

It's sometimes hard to find suitable adoptee parents, especially for siblings who want to stay together and for disabled children.


I think that the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 have been very beneficial to children who might otherwise be stuck in the foster care system. Foster care homes, however, should be given credit for providing a place for children to go during a family crisis.

Of course, if it is determined that the children can't go back to their parents, permanent adoption is usually the best option.

But I'm wondering if there are enough qualified adoptive parents to fulfill the need of children who require adoption? Will the older children and the disabled ones not be chosen for adoption?


My cousin was fostered by multiple families before this act took effect. His parents were killed when he was six, and he got passed from home to home until he was eighteen.

He had a small frame, and he often got bullied. Every time he had to move, he would experience severe anxiety until he hyperventilated. He was terrified of change, and every new school seemed to have new bullies.

He stayed sick a lot of the time. His mental state made him more susceptible to ulcers, infections, and various stomach problems.

Once he graduated high school, he was too afraid to attend college, so he got a job in a warehouse where he could hide from the public. I truly believe that if he had been adopted by one family, he would have turned out to be a totally different person.


I am convinced that if this act had not been passed and I could have stayed in foster care just a little bit longer, I could have been reunited with my mother. Because of this law, I lost contact with her, and her situation escalated.

I was only seven when my mom got diagnosed with schizophrenia. She had to stay in a mental hospital for a short time while they found the right dose of medication for her and evaluated her progress.

My foster parents took me to see her, and she was doing so much better on the medicine! However, the doctor did not want to release her at that time. He felt he needed to observe her just a few more weeks.

Because of the limitations on time spent in foster care, I had to be eligible for adoption before her release. A family took me in for good, but years later, I went to find my mom. Her doctor told me she had died of complications from severe depression on top of her disease. I believe having her child taken from her ultimately killed her.


I had a horrible home life, so I was grateful to be taken out of there and placed with a loving family rather than forced to go back to my parents. My mom and dad were both addicted to drugs, and they cursed at me and said really hurtful things that damaged me forever.

When I was nine, my dad had to be hospitalized because he overdosed on heroin. I got taken away from my parents, and I couldn’t have been more happy. I knew that whatever happened to me after that had to be better than what I had lived through.

I only had to stay in foster care for a few weeks before I got my permanent home. It was great to be with people who actually wanted a kid. They paid attention to me and played with me a lot. My dad’s overdose was the best thing that had ever happened to me!


I was affected by this law. At the time it went into effect, I was only twelve. My mother had married an abusive man after my father died, and though he never hit me, he slapped her around often.

One time, he beat her up badly enough to send her to the hospital. Child protective services took me away, and they eventually decided, against the wishes of both me and my mother, that it would be best if I were placed up for adoption.

There was nothing we could do. They wouldn’t let me have contact with her, and a nice family adopted me. I was polite to them, but I let them know that I wanted to be with my mom. They felt they were doing me a favor by shielding me from her, but I resolved that when I turned eighteen, I would find her.

I did track her down, and gladly, she had left her husband. She said she had wanted to find me so badly, but there was no way. I moved back in with her, and we are making up for lost time now.


My best friend in high school was a foster child and he had a heck of a time making friends and doing well in school, just because he was moved around so much. I remember he was only at our school for just over four months before he was moved to another location.

It was really lucky that we became friends when we did because he was pretty depressed about his situation. Being left in the foster care system until your a teenager pretty much guarantees you'll never get adopted.

For my friend, I think the Adoption and Safe Families Act would have got him out of foster care when he was still young and "cute" enough to be adopted. No one wants troubled teens.


I really feel that the Adoption and Safe Families Act has done a lot to keep children from getting bounced around between temporary homes. It seems that for a very long time that many children were left in foster care on some small hope that their birth parents would get things together, or a relative would take them in.

In many cases this kind of reunion between children and blood relatives was just impossible. I think that family is a matter of how a person is treated, not a matter of DNA. I would rather see kids in a loving adoptive family than waiting in limbo while their waste of space parents sorted things out.

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