The site, called AdoptUSKids.org, contains pictures and brief biographical sketches of thousands of children in foster homes available for adoption. The hope, officials said, is that by putting faces on the process of looking for a child, more will be chosen.
"This site is an example of using technology for a very compassionate purpose -- linking families with waiting children," Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson said in a statement. "This administration is committed to helping our nation's children in the foster care system be adopted into loving, caring homes. This new Web site is one important way we are achieving that goal."
Since the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act, which removed obstacles to adoption and gave states incentives to increase placements, there has been nearly an 80 percent rise in the number of children adopted out of foster care. But 134,000 kids still await adoption, officials said.
Many have so-called "special needs," such as physical or emotional disabilities that may scare prospective parents away. They are generally older, and some have siblings. Most are minorities, predominately black, which also hurts their chances of finding a home quickly, said Susan Orr, the HHS official overseeing the Web site.
"Families will often say, 'I don't have the temperament to handle a teen,'" or a child with a birth defect, Orr said. "But by showing them a picture, they see a face and they learn a little bit about a child or a group of children. And then they'll say, 'With these kids, I could do that.'"
Of course, the Internet is visited by more than the altruistic with the best interests of children at heart. So to discourage predators, the site is password-protected and set up so that even families approved by their state of residence to adopt can't contact children directly. Instead, they must go through social service liaisons to set up meetings.
"We put up firewalls so that folks who had deviant interests in mind couldn't get at the children," Orr said.
In fact, the site isn't exactly new, but revamps a pilot site begun in 1995 by the National Adoption Center. Called "Faces of Adoption," that program was designed to connect people interested in adoption with state foster care agencies, and to "spread the word that children were waiting to be adopted," said Gloria Hochman, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia-based group.
The first placement came in June of 1996, when a 15-year-old boy named Steven was chosen off the site by a family in Alaska.
In many ways, Steven embodied the reason for the project's existence. A legally blind teenager with mild retardation and cerebral palsy, Steven's chances of being adopted by conventional means were slight. However, Hochman said, the Web site casts a wider net to draw families willing to take on these special needs cases.
Faces of Adoption ultimately led to some 700 placements of children with pictures posted on the site, Hochman said. But she estimates that another 1,000 or so families a year found other children after visiting the site and contacting their local foster care systems.
The new version of the site was launched with 3,000 children, a number officials hope will reach 6,500 in the coming year.
Of the 134,000 children in foster care, 64,000 have clearance to be adopted, meaning they have no legal parents, Hochman said. Nearly two-thirds of this group will be adopted by their foster families and 16 percent by relatives, leaving 12,800 in immediate need of adoptive parents, Hochman said. That doesn't include the 14,000 or so children yet to receive clearance who won't have placements when they do.
Still, Hochman said the Web site will help make a dent. "We feel very good about the success" of the idea, she said.
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