CWLA Testimony to Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources for the Hearing on Adoption Reunion Registries and Screening of Adults Working with Children
June 11, 1998
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Mr. Chairman and members of the Human Resources Subcommittee, my name is Ann Sullivan. I am the Director of Adoption Services at the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA). CWLA is a 78-year-old national association that is made up of over 900 public and private voluntary agencies that serve more than two million abused and neglected children and their families.
CWLA member agencies provide the wide array of services necessary to protect and care for abused and neglected children, including child protective services, family preservation, family foster care, treatment foster care, residential group care, adolescent pregnancy prevention, child day care, emergency shelter care, independent living, youth development, and adoption. Nearly 400 of our agencies provide adoption services that enable children to secure loving, permanent families. Over 650 CWLA agencies link vulnerable children with foster families and kin placements.
My testimony today addresses existing state practices for the screening of prospective foster and adoptive parents for criminal backgrounds. CWLA has long been an advocate of ensuring the safety of abused and neglected children. CWLA's standards for the practice of child welfare recommend a thorough review of any prospective foster or adoptive parent's background to determine that person's fitness to undertake the responsibility for the safety and well-being of a child. Conducting criminal background checks is one component of assessing an applicant's suitability to adopt or to become a foster parent. Many other factors are also taken into account, such as the individual's emotional stability, flexibility, ability to identify and meet the needs of a child, experience with children, willingness to seek help when problems arise, and the type of child desired. These factors are considered in a process of mutual assessment through a series of interviews and training sessions related to adoption and foster parenting.
CWLA's Standards of Excellence for Foster Care state that foster care agencies should conduct a criminal background check on all prospective foster parents and all other adults living in the household. This standard states that child welfare agencies should not select as a foster family any household in which an adult has a substantiated criminal record of child abuse, spousal abuse, or a criminal conviction, as evidenced by FBI, state and local criminal record checks for any crimes against children or for any violent crimes, including rape, assault, and murder. Convictions for nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors should be handled on a case by case basis, taking into account the nature of the offense, the length of time that has elapsed since the event, and the individual's life experiences during the ensuing period of time. CWLA's Standards for Adoption Services state that, to the extent the law allows, inquiries regarding applicants should be made to law enforcement authorities. Further, the Standards suggest that agencies should weigh judiciously any unsubstantiated allegation made against applicants.
Just last year, this Subcommittee put together a bill which was passed into law, the Adoption and Safe Families Act "ASFA" (P.L. 105-89). States are now required to provide procedures for criminal records checks for any prospective foster or adoptive parent before the foster or adoptive parent may be approved for placement of a any child receiving Title IV-E federal foster care or adoption assistance.
The new law stipulates that the State have in place procedures for criminal background checks, unless the State elects otherwise. The procedures require that prospective foster or adoptive parents not be approved if a criminal record check:
ASFA allows States to opt out of these new requirements by either passing a state law that exempts the State from these new requirements, or if the Governor of the State notifies the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in writing that the State has elected to be exempt from these requirements.
- reveals a felony conviction for child abuse or neglect, for spousal abuse, for a crime against children (including child pornography), or for a crime involving violence, including rape, sexual assault or battery;
- if a criminal record check reveals a felony conviction for physical assault, battery, or a drug related offense, if the felony was committed within the past five years.
CWLA is in the process of tracking States' progress in implementing ASFA. As part of that effort, we have just completed a survey of the States to determine their practices regarding criminal background checks on potential adoptive and foster parents.
We found that States are currently in the process of reviewing their own policies and practices in order to ensure full compliance with the new ASFA requirements. Key findings include:
We hope that this information is helpful in your efforts to ensure that all children remain safe and are nurtured in permanent homes. We look forward to working with you to enhance the protection and care of the nation's abused, neglected and vulnerable children, and to help the federal government meet its commitment to assist States in that effort.
- Only two States, New York and North Dakota, do not require criminal background checks for prospective foster and adoptive parents. Both these States will need to pass state legislation to come into compliance with ASFA.
- All other States reported that they conduct criminal records background checks utilizing at least statewide data.
- Twenty States routinely access national as well as state criminal background databases for prospective adoptive and foster parents.
- Of the States that routinely utilize only statewide data for criminal background checks, the majority indicated that if a prospective foster or adoptive parent has moved from another State within the past few years, then they will utilize national criminal record information.
- Just a handful of States indicated that they will have to make changes in their State laws so that prospective foster or adoptive parents may not be approved if a criminal record check reveals a felony conviction for child abuse or neglect, spousal abuse, a crime against children (including child pornography), or a crime involving violence, including rape, sexual assault or battery.
- Sixteen States indicated that they will have to make changes in their State laws to comply with the ASFA stipulation that approval must be denied if a criminal record check reveals a felony conviction for physical assault, battery, or a drug related offense, if the felony was committed within the past five years.
- No State reported the intention to opt out of the ASFA requirements to conduct criminal background checks for all prospective foster or adoptive parents.
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