In 1980 Congress passed the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act. As part of that act Congress mandated that child welfare services receiving federal money, almost all such services, should make all reasonable efforts to ensure that children were raised by their parents. As a result many children were sent back to unsafe homes to be abused or neglected again. Even more children were kept in temporary foster care while their parents worked at getting their acts together, with many staying in that system until they reached adult age and graduated from the program. The number of children in the foster care system increased and the number of children adopted out of foster care decreased.
By 1997 it became clear even to Congress that the earlier law had caused more problems than it solved. In politics this is known as the Law of Unintended Consequences; well intended people try to fix a problem and create a whole new set of problems. So Congress passed a new law, the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. There were three main changes in the child welfare system that came out of the Safe Families Act. First was that there was a new standard for determining what to do with a child, and that was to ensure that a child being returned to his family had to be going to a safe environment. Secondly, parents were to be given a limited amount of time to solve their problems with training or treatment. Thirdly, states were required to have child specific plans to move children into adoptive homes.
For example, under the Safe Families Act the states were prohibited from returning a child to a family if another child were abused or assaulted in that home. A fifteen month time limit was provided for being able to return a child to his natural parents. After that states were to ask courts to vacate parental rights. States were required to identify situations where seeking family re-unification was not in the best interests of the child. Finally, the Federal Government would pay the states for every child removed from the child welfare system by adoption; $6,000 per special needs child and $4,000 for each other child.
In 1999 Congress held hearings to check up on their latest efforts. Testimony reported that 40 out of 45 states reviewed showed increases in the rates of adoptions. Illinois, for example increased their adoptions from about 2000 in 1996 to over 4000 in 1998. Similar increases were seen in other states. So it seems that the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 successfully accomplished what it sent out to do.