All 50 states have failed to comply fully with federal child-welfare standards designed to protect kids from abuse and neglect, according to reviews since 2002 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Not a single state met a particularly important standard, which says children in foster homes should have "permanency and stability in their living situations." Other common deficiencies: caseworkers not visiting kids often enough, kids failing to receive promised health services and kids suffering abuse or neglect.
States are now undergoing a second round of reviews. Unless they improve, they face fines.
About 523,000 children are in the U.S. foster-care system, 20% of whom are eligible for adoption, according to HHS figures. Nearly 90% are considered "special needs" and eligible for a subsidy because they are disabled, a member of a minority group, older than 8 or the sibling of another child in the system.
A 1997 federal law emphasized permanent placements by requiring officials to decide more quickly whether children should be reunited with biological parents or put up for adoption. That year, 31,000 kids were adopted from foster care. Since 2000, about 50,000 have been adopted each year. States get bonuses for finalizing a high number of adoptions.
Child-welfare experts see many reasons why children fall through the cracks, with some ending up in a secondary private network. "There's a lot of blame to go around," says Victor Groza, an adoption expert and social work professor at Case Western Reserve University. He criticizes both private agencies that arrange international adoptions — for not providing better post-adoption services — and adoptive families — for not preparing better for possible problems.
Kent Markus, director of the National Center for Adoption Law and Policy, says the public has "enormously high expectations" for its child-welfare system but doesn't fund it adequately. He says many large families may do a commendable job, but states may need to track them more closely.
Wade Horn, HHS' assistant secretary for children and families, says states need to do a better job of recruiting potential adoptive families, monitoring homes and providing post-adoption services.
Whatever the problem, those who suffer most are the children.
"The worst thing is to languish in foster care," says Horn, a psychologist. "The more instability in a child's life, the worse the child does. Kids need stability."