Speed Trap

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In the wake of the new federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), child welfare programs are now hustling to get kids out of the system as quickly as possible–even if that means pushing biological parents out of the picture faster.

ASFA gives foster care agencies a simple, powerful ultimatum: If a child has spent 15 of the last 22 months in foster care, the agency is obliged to file court papers that permanently sever the legal relationships between parents and their children.

The law is already having a big impact in New York, Child Welfare Watch has found. Since the beginning of last year, when the law was implemented, the number of these court filings has shot up by a third.

But while the law speeds up the court process, it does virtually nothing to assure that parents get equally fast access to the services they need to get their kids back, including mental health counseling, drug treatment and help finding adequate housing. It’s long on mandates, but short on new resources.

The latest Child Welfare Watch describes how much trouble parents already have getting the help they need. A survey of city-contracted foster care agencies revealed that caseworkers devoted a tiny portion of their time–from five to 20 percent of their overall working hours–to helping parents get these services.

“There’s a myth that we’re trying too hard to help parents,” says Martin Guggenheim, professor of clinical law at the New York University School of Law and a national expert on children’s and parents’ rights. “But we have not tried hard enough. And now, with the new laws, that could have profound consequences for families that could be saved.”

Adapted from the Winter 2000 Child Welfare Watch, “Too Fast For Families.”