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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release November 19, 1997
                            PRESS BRIEFING BY 
                      DOMESTIC POLICY JENNIFER KLEIN       

The Briefing Room

12:46 P.M. EST

MR. TOIV: Good afternoon. As you know, the President is going to sign the adoption legislation today, and here to brief on that is Jennifer Klein, who is Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, works closely with the First Lady's Office on these issues.

MS. KLEIN: As Barry said, today the President is going to sign historic legislation to change the nation's child welfare system. It's a fitting time to do this because November is National Adoption Month. The bill passed Congress with really hard work on both sides of the aisle and intense work by the administration and overwhelming bipartisan support.

I want to just take a step backward and tell you where this started. First and foremost, the First Lady has been committed to this issue for more than 25 years and has really been a leading force in the administration on adoption and child welfare and particularly on many of the provisions that are actually in this bill. A little less than a year ago, the President issued an executive memorandum directing Secretary Shalala to come back within 60 days with specific recommendations on strategies to move children from foster care to permanent homes and to double the number of children adopted or permanently placed by the year 2002.

The report came back to the President on February 14 of this year and it outlined a very ambitious agenda with three key principles -- the first was that every child deserves a safe, permanent family; second, that children's health and safety should be the paramount concern; and third, that foster care is not -- is by definition a temporary situation, not a place for children to grow up.

The Adoption and Safe Families Act that the President is going to sign today reflects those principles and includes many of the specific recommendations in that report. First, in terms of the goal, the bill actually in its preamble makes very clear that the health and safety of children must underlie all decisions in the child welfare system. And there's a number of provisions to that end.

A key one is the clarification of the reasonable efforts standard. The law both reaffirms the importance of making reasonable efforts to reunify families before children are placed in an adoptive or other permanent placement. But it also makes clear that there are certain circumstances where the child's safety is at stake where states are not required to keep children with their parents, such as cases where the child has been abandoned or tortured or chronically abused. At the same time, the legislation also reauthorizes the Family Preservation and Family Support Services program, which provides services to help families stay together whenever possible.

Second, the legislation ensures that foster care is temporary, as it should be. It sets time limits and it promotes the adoption of children who can't return to their homes. In that vein, it includes the President's plan to provide financial incentives to states to increase the number of children who are adopted each year, and it authorizes $20 million for each of five years to do that.

And in addition, the time that children must wait for hearings is shortened. Currently, there is an 18-month length of time for children before any permanency hearing is held. That's shortened to 12, and even shortened further for children who have been in the foster care system for a longer period of time. And finally, the law ensures that children with special needs will keep health insurance when they are adopted. Those are the outlines of the bill, and I'm happy to take any questions you have.

Q Don't you expect all of this to go through court litigation to actually take children away from their parents? I mean, I'm speaking from a lack of knowledge, but wouldn't there be all these obstacles every inch of the way?

MS. KLEIN: Well, the purpose of this bill is actually to help courts do their job better. For example, the reasonable effort standard that I mentioned, that's a standard that has been imposed in law, and in many cases, although this was not the intention of that provision which came into law in 1980, it has prevented courts from actually getting children moving to the right place, either back with their birth parents or in another situation if that's not going to work. And what this law does is clarify that standard so courts have more of a clear direction of what to do and how to do it more quickly.

Q There's a move in some states to restrict adoption to married couples only. Does the President have any thoughts on any restrictions that should be placed on who adopts?

MS. KLEIN: We haven't addressed that yet.

Q Does he intend to?

MS. KLEIN: I think the President feels strongly that -- first of all, I think that's a state decision. But, second of all, that states decide who the appropriate families for adoptive children to go to, and the most important thing is to look from the perspective of the child, of where that child is going to be the most safe and loved.

Q Who decides that?

MS. KLEIN: Basically, that's a state decision.

Q Is there a special system set up to check and make sure that more children are getting adopted? How are you going to monitor this law?

MS. KLEIN: Part of what was in Adoption 2002, the President's report, which is now in this law, is to set a goal of doubling the number of children that are adopted by the Year 2002. Last year it was 27,000 children by 2002; it would be 54,000 children out of the foster care system. And one of the things that's part of that provision is a tracking system. And it's actually sort of interesting because it's the first time there's every been performance-based standards in the child welfare system.

Q Were there federal adoption laws before this one?

MS. KLEIN: Yes. The first federal adoption law, the one before this, which was also the first, was passed in 1980. Thank you.

END 12:55 P.M. EST