Congress approves adoption overhaul, Clinton lauds bill
WASHINGTON (AP) _ With overwhelming support, Congress approved legislation Thursday overhauling the nation’s foster care and adoption system, making it easier to remove children from abusive families.
The bill also gives states incentives to move children into adoptive homes more quickly. President Clinton is expected to sign it as early as next week.
The House passed the measure 406-7, and the Senate approved it on a voice without opposition.
Clinton lauded the bill as historic. ``This legislation makes clear that children’s health and safety are the paramount concerns of the public child welfare system,″ he said in a statement.
``For a lot of little children, this is indeed a historic day,″ said Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla.
Despite broad support, the measure was in serious danger of languishing as the several senators wanted least $2.4 billion in new spending over the next five years to help families that adopt tough-to-place children and aid biological parents trying to reunite with their children.
Ultimately, the House prevailed, persuading the Senate it was more important to pass the fundamental adoption reforms that enjoyed overwhelming support. The final measure spends just $53 million over five years.
At separate news conferences, both sides celebrated the bill’s passage.
``We will not continue the current system of always putting the needs and rights of biological parents first. That’s the way the current system works,″ said Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I.
An estimated 500,000 children are in foster care, where they spend an average of three years.
Legislators blame much of the problem on the interpretation of a 1980 law requiring the government to make ``reasonable efforts″ to reunite families before terminating parental rights. Too often, backers say, those efforts were unreasonable.
Under this legislation, states would not have to make reasonable efforts when there’s been physical or sexual abuse, abandonment or torture.
``We will never know what children’s lives we saved, but this bill will clearly save lives,″ said Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio.
States would have one year to adopt a permanent plan for each child; they now have 18 months. In most cases, courts would have to terminate biological parental rights and free children for adoption who have been in foster care for 15 out of the last 22 months.
The bill also attempts to promote adoptions.
Legislators acknowledged that with 100,000 foster children available for adoption but still waiting, termination of parental rights does not guarantee a new family. In 1995, just 20,000 children in foster care were adopted.
The bill gives states bonus payments for placing children, with extra money for placing hard-to-adopt children. It also guarantees health insurance for hard-to-place children and makes it easier to adopt children across state lines.
Voting against the bill were Reps. Patsy Mink, D-Hawaii; Ray LaHood, R-Ill.; Donald Manzullo, R-Ill.; Zach Wamp, R-Tenn.; Bart Gordon, D-Tenn.; Ron Paul, R-Texas; and Christopher; Cannon, R-Utah.
Not voting were Reps. Bob Riley, R-Ala.; Robert Matsui, D-Calif.; Pete Stark, D-Calif.; James Maloney, D-Conn.; Steve Buyer, R-Ind.; Chris John, D-La.; Dick Gephardt, D-Mo.; Steve Schiff, R-N.M.; Amo Houghton, R-N.Y.; Floyd Flake, D-N.Y.; Robert Smith, R-Ore.; Curt Weldon, R-Pa.; Dick Armey, R-Texas; Larry Combest, R-Texas; Henry Gonzalez, D-Texas; E.B. Johnson, D-Texas; Bobby Scott, D-Va.; Rick White, R-Wash.; and Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo.