More than 100,000 American children are in foster care and waiting to be adopted, according to the federal Children's Bureau.
And, to our great shame as a nation, more than 23,000 children "aged out" of foster care in fiscal 2012, the most recent year for which data are available. A primary reason so many children leave foster care without a family is because it is virtually impossible in the United States to adopt a child from foster care across state lines.
There were only about 840 interstate adoptions in fiscal 2012, and a third of those were instances of grandparents and other relatives adopting family members.
In contrast, 8,868 children crossed international borders to be adopted by American parents that year, according to State Department data. If 10 times as many children are able to cross international boundaries as state boundaries, why is Congress focused on eliminating barriers to adopting from other countries?
The Children in Families First Act, championed by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and supported by lawmakers as politically diverse as Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is a response to the drastic reduction in international adoptions since standards dictated by the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption took effect. (Such adoptions are down from 23,000 in 2004.) Those standards were put in place because of widespread abuse, including kidnapping, corruption and child trafficking, in Guatemala, Cambodia, Romania, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Uganda and other countries.
Barriers to adoption across state lines, however, largely result from bureaucracy and unintentional disincentives. Such barriers have been recognized for years; the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 included a provision that penalizes states that "denied or delayed the placement of a child for adoption when an approved family is available outside of the jurisdiction."
Yet no state has been punished for violating that provision. And states often require families to wait one year after their home study is completed before they are even allowed to look at a child in another state. Barriers to interstate adoption exist because the United States does not have one nationwide child welfare system; each state has its own. Each state's primary interest is the adoption of its residents. Each state expends resources to recruit and train prospective adoptive families, and it receives nothing in return if that family adopts from elsewhere. Effectively, if a New Jersey family adopts a child from New York, New York wins and New Jersey loses. This is an acute problem for children in metropolitan areas that straddle two or more states, such as New York City, Philadelphia, Washington or Chicago.
So why is Congress focusing on increasing adoptions of foreign children and not American children in foster care? Some reasons are clear: International adoption agencies and the parents looking to adopt overseas compose a powerful interest group.
Witness the federal adoption tax credit. The median cost of an international adoption is $28,000. A family with a modified adjusted gross income of up to $197,880 is eligible for a full tax credit (not a deduction) of $13,190 for expenses related to the adoption of a child. That credit is reduced as family income increases and ends for families with income greater than $237,880. Because adopting a child from foster care is essentially free, most of the benefit of the tax credit goes to people adopting the most "expensive" and youngest children.
Then there is the effect of age preference: Two-thirds of children adopted internationally are age 4 or younger. In contrast, the average child in foster care waiting to be adopted is almost 8 years old.
But the advantages of facilitating interstate adoptions don't stop at families: Every dollar spent helping a family adopt a child from foster care saves three dollars in social benefits. More important, it saves a child.
Children in foster care are powerless. If they are to be heard, adults must speak for them. Americans must tell Congress: If you want children in families first, then focus on the 100,000 Americans waiting in foster care for a permanent family. If you want children in families first, then remove the financial deterrents that encourage states to keep "their" families from adopting in other states. Enforce the interstate barrier provision of the Adoption and Safe Families Act. Enact legislation that would standardize home studies so they are valid across state lines, as driver's licenses are. Make it easier to adopt a child across the Potomac River than across the Pacific Ocean.
Use the power of the federal government to break down the barriers that keep kids from having what all human beings need and deserve: a family.
Jeff Katz is executive director of Listening to Parents, a national organization that seeks to eliminate barriers that prevent children in foster care from being adopted.