For children whose biological parents cannot or will not provide appropriate care, adoption is their best hope for a permanent and stable home. At the end of 1996, over 16,000 of New York City's 40,000 foster children had a case work permanency goal of adoption. Yet given the complex and fragmented nature of New York's child welfare system, for many of these children, the realization of that goal could be years away.
In the Spring of 1997, as part of the New York State Unified Court System's Family Justice Program, the New York City Family Court decided to focus its attention and resources on the processing of foster care adoptions. While many of the delays in the process could be traced to other "players" in the child welfare system, the Family Court saw this as an opportunity for leadership rather than an excuse for inaction. The Court's goals were to review its own performance as well as to serve as a catalyst for change and improvement throughout the system.
The result was "Adoption 1700," a City-wide initiative that sought the completion of 1,700 foster care adoptions within a three-month period ending June 30, 1997. This was a most ambitious undertaking: just one year earlier, only 805 foster care adoptions had been completed by the New York City Family Court during the months of April, May and June. But the program proved successful--so successful, in fact, that it was ultimately renamed. Because by the end of the target period, the New York City Family Court had actually finalized adoptions for 2,100 foster children -- the project was retrospectively restyled "Adoption 2100."
The accomplishments of Adoption 2100 are especially significant in light of the recent passage of the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. With this report, the New York City Family Court documents the steps taken, results achieved and lessons learned from this attempt to expedite one part of the permanency process in one of the busiest juvenile courts in the nation.
The Problem: A Permanency Process Fraught with Delay
Under New York State law, two separate legal proceedings are required to achieve the goal of adoption for a child in foster care. First the child must be freed for adoption, through either a voluntary surrender or an involuntary termination of parental rights. This first step can itself take substantial time, as it may require diligent searches for missing parents or lengthy hearings on legal issues. And once the child is freed, a second legal proceeding--an adoption proceeding--must then be commenced and finalized.
In recent years, thousands of New York City foster children have completed the first step on the road to permanency through the termination or surrender of their biological parents' rights. But many have then foundered on the second step--some of them spending years in legal limbo, no longer the legal children of their biological parents, but not yet the legal children of anyone else.
In some cases, the adoption process is delayed because an appeal from the termination case is filed or because an adoptive home must be found for the freed child. But placement in an adoptive home and the absence of an appeal are still no guarantee of speedy resolution. This is because a number of actors in the child welfare system must perform a number of tasks for an adoption case to go forward. Not surprisingly, in a system as complex and fragmented as New York's, breakdowns and delays are common.
Thus, to commence an adoption proceeding, adoptive parents must first be advised of basic procedures and then find and retain counsel. Once counsel is retained, more than a dozen documents and reports required by statute--such as home studies, medical reports and child abuse clearances--must be prepared and gathered for submission to the court. Since many of these documents can only be provided by overburdened public agencies, delays are common. And delay in the receipt of one report may cause information in another to become stale, thereby requiring the preparation process to begin anew.
Once the petition and supporting materials are assembled, they must be filed with the court and reviewed by court clerical staff for formal sufficiency. Those petitions found to be technically deficient--and many are--must await counsel's correction.
Once a petition is deemed formally complete, a judge must review it for substantive sufficiency. Requests for clarification or additional information may follow. When the court is satisfied that the materials fulfill the statutory requirements and establish that the adoption will serve the best interests of the child, a hearing date is set. At that hearing, an order of adoption is entered and the process is finally complete.(1)
The path from freeing to finalization is thus often marked by legal curves and bureaucratic pitfalls. With Adoption 2100, the New York City Family Court sought to ensure that each case remained on track as it made its way through the process.
The basic strategy behind Adoption 2100 was to use intensive court oversight and management to resolve an unprecedented number of foster care adoption petitions within a short period of time. This would be accomplished through a major commitment of court resources--judicial, administrative, clerical and technological-- and through analysis of the functioning of the process as a whole. Whenever systemic "glitches" were identified, court officials would work with the agencies involved to resolve them.
This strategy meant that the court was assuming a new role in the permanency process. No longer would it stand as a passive, remote receiver of information and adjudicator of facts. Instead it would become an active manager and problem-solver, seeking to improve not only its own performance but also the performance of all the actors in the system.
A major partner in the Adoption 2100 effort was the New York City Administration for Children's Services ("ACS"), which also devoted substantial resources to expediting the preparation of adoption petitions for submission to the court.
During Adoption 2100, the Family Court case management process began when a petition and supporting documents first arrived for filing with the clerk. Upon receipt of these papers, clerical staff would enter basic case information into an adoption case database custom-designed by New York City Family Court staff. This database would serve as the basic tool by which individual cases, as well as the court's adoption case load as a whole, would be managed.
For the Adoption 2100 program, additional court staff were transferred to the adoption clerks' offices so that cases could be quickly reviewed, entered into the database and monitored. In some counties, more than three-quarters of the petitions submitted lacked some required documentation. In each of these cases, court staff would send written notice of the omission to both the petitioner's attorney and the Adoption Division of ACS and follow up to ensure that the deficiency was remedied in a timely manner.
Once a petition was deemed formally complete, it would be docketed and forwarded to a judge for substantive review. Staff would continue to monitor the case during this stage as well, seeking to ensure that petitions were reviewed within the 60-day time frame established by court rule, that any judicial requests for additional information or documents were promptly complied with, and that cases were calendared for finalization as soon as possible.
To help with the increased judicial workload that Adoption 2100 generated, a contingent of upstate Family Court judges was recruited to review petitions and preside over finalization proceedings. This was the first time that Statewide judicial resources have been tapped to assist with a New York City Family Court case processing initiative.
The intensive court oversight process quickly uncovered three problems that were delaying the processing of many adoption petitions: outdated and/or incomplete home study reports, delays in fingerprint processing, and outdated or delayed child abuse registry clearances. The Family Court took an active role in devising collaborative strategies to resolve each of these systemic problems.
The court thus met with ACS concerning the home study issue, and ACS soon assigned more and better trained caseworkers to units performing this critical task. After contacting the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, the court was able to secure a commitment that all fingerprint requests would be processed within five days. The court also worked out an expedited procedure for dealing with incomplete or unreadable print cards so that flawed requests could be quickly corrected and resubmitted. To reduce delays in child abuse registry clearances, the court worked to encourage the use of clearances processed directly by ACS rather than referred out to the State Department of Social Services.
While the Adoption 2100 program is now over, these systemic improvements continue to promote expeditious handling of adoption matters. Thus, in the first three court terms before the commencement of Adoption 2100, 229 adoptions--and average of 76 per term--were finalized. In the five terms since the program, 778 adoptions--or 155 per term--have been completed.
After the end of the Adoption 2100 program, New York City Family Court staff manually reviewed a sample of 450 cases heard during the project for a better understanding of the foster care permanency process. This review confirmed that Adoption 2100 had succeeded in expediting the processing of adoption matters. The average resolution time for cases in the sample was six months from filing to finalization, a 30% reduction of the Citywide average resolution time in 1996. Not surprisingly, petitions that were complete when filed proceeded more quickly. A review of a subsample of 299 New York County cases revealed that complete petitions were resolved in an average of four and a half months; incomplete petitions took, on average, ten months to finalize.
Indeed, the processing of the adoption petition was by far the speediest stage of the permanency process. In the sample examined, an average 6.2 years (74 months) had elapsed between a child's entry into foster care and the finalization of an adoption petition.(2) The bulk of this time (3.75 years, or 45 months) was spent in foster care prior to being freed for adoption. And close to two years (an average of 23 months) passed after being freed before an adoption petition was filed.
Future Plans for Adoption Case Processing
The extraordinary results of the Adoption 2100 program demonstrated the value of rigorous judicial management of adoption matters as well as the benefits of inter-agency cooperation. Although the highly intensive efforts of the program are now over, the New York City Family Court has developed a new adoption case management plan for the future that builds on these basic lessons. Under the new case management plan:
In addition, Family Court administrative staff will be expanding its adoption case database to capture more detailed case information, which will allow for more detailed analyses of the adoption caseload in the future.
By focusing court resources and attention on the processing of foster care adoptions, the Adoption 2100 project yielded both extraordinary short term results and long term improvements in the handling of these matters.
Removing systemic inefficiencies in the processing of adoption petitions is important. Yet clearly there is room for improvement throughout the permanency process. The New York City Family Court has a number of other initiatives underway that address pre-adoption foster care issues, including:
dedicated foster care review parts that scrutinize the status of children who have been freed for adoption but not yet adopted;
cooperation with ACS in a program supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to implement a little-used statutory procedure for commencing an adoption proceeding immediately upon the entry of a surrender or termination order;
development of a pilot "Family Drug Treatment Court" that will provide intensive judicial oversight of substance abusing parents to promote speedier achievement of permanency goals in these cases.
In all of these projects, the Family Court is applying the same basic strategy that made Adoption 2100 so successful: creative organization of court resources, collaboration with the other participants in the child welfare system and most importantly, a continuing willingness to ask "how can we do better?"
Last December, President Clinton announced a national commitment to "giving the children waiting in our Nation's foster care system what every child in America deserves--loving parents and a healthy stable home." As the New York City Family Court's Adoption 2100 project demonstrated, courts can play a key role in realizing this national goal. By scrutinizing internal procedures as well as the performance of the system as a whole, the Family Court can serve as a focal point for the identification and correction of systemic inefficiencies--and through that process, ensure that more children grow up in the healthy and stable homes they need and deserve.
1. Charts attached at the end of this report set forth the amount of time 450 children randomly selected from the Adoption 2100 program spent in the three stages of the foster care permanency process -- from foster care to freed for adoption, from freed to filing for adoption and from filing to finalization of adoption.
2. The average of 4.3 years cited at page 16 of the main text encompasses all foster children including children surrendered, voluntarily placed, returned to parent and/or placed with a relative.