California may soon enact legislation to protect children from being moved from one adoptive family to another without legal oversight. The practice, known as “rehoming,” has been found to expose adopted children to abuse and has highlighted loopholes in the U.S.’ child welfare system.
Introduced last February, California Senate Bill 1040 amends the state’s family and penal codes to provide pre- and post-adoption services to families, and to make what is called an “unregulated custody transfer” a criminal offense punishable with up to one year of prison and/or a fine of $1,000.
It also criminalizes the act of advertising children for unregulated transfer and requires the state Department of Social Services to convene a working group to address the lack of services available to families with internationally adopted children.
Bill author Jerry Hill (D–San Mateo) said he introduced the legislation “to help curb this harmful practice and make sure there are services available to these families so re-homing isn’t what these families think of doing to their children”.
The bill covers children under 14 years of age, but Hill said he is working to increase the age limit to include all minors.
Unregulated transfers occur when legal parents transfer the custody of a child to non-family members while purposely bypassing child welfare authorities. In some cases, children privately re-homed have been sexually abused in the new family.
This practice mainly affects adopted children. Though exact data is unavailable – something the federal government is working to change – hundreds of children every year could be victims of rehoming. Studies estimate that 1 to 5 percent of adoptions in the U.S. dissolve, some of which can potentially result in cases of rehoming. Between 2008 and 2012, 635,000 adoptions (domestic and international) were finalized in the United States.
According to a Reuters investigation published in 2013, 70 percent of rehomed children have been adopted from abroad. With 1,820 intercountry adoptions finalized since 2012, California is the second top receiving state after Texas.
In a report published last September, the U.S. Government Accountability Office underscored that parents resort to unregulated transfers mainly because they face difficulties in accessing the post-adoption services they need “to cope with or avoid reaching a crisis point in their adoption.” Fears of stigma and of criminal or financial repercussions also play a role.
As was pointed out in the Reuters investigation, rehoming parents often advertise their children online. One such platform is provided by CHASK, a Christian organization whose aim is to “point birth moms with special needs children to possible adoptive families.” CHASK representatives declined a request to be interviewed for this story.
Child experts, lawmakers and judges have raised concerns about the dangers that unregulated transfers pose to the safety of children. “Adoptive parents should not be taking matters into their own hands and rehoming children into families that have not been properly vetted,” said James Langevin (D-R.I.) in an interview. Langevin is co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth and introduced two bills to curb rehoming in 2013 and 2015.
According to Langevin, unregulated transfers expose children “to undue stress and trauma and, in some cases, abuse or mistreatment. The only long-term solution will be to prevent families from choosing to re-home a child in the first place.”
Rehoming has also become a matter of increased international scrutiny for the U.S. Last February, in its latest report on the optional protocol to the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, which covers the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography, the U.S. government dedicated two paragraphs to this issue. Though the information was scant, this marked the first time the issue was included in such a report.
“The U.S. government is deeply concerned by any activity that bypasses legal protections for children and places them at risk,” said Ambassador Susan Jacobs, the U.S. Special Advisor on Children’s issues. “We remain committed to ensuring that protective services and reliable safeguards for the well-being of all children are in place.”
An inter-agency working group convened in 2013 by the U.S. Office of Children’s Issues continues meeting regularly to develop a coordinated, preventive response to unregulated transfers. According to Jacobs, agencies at the federal, state, and local levels are working together “to close loopholes that may exist” in order to help inter country adoption families in crisis. “Outreach and education can ‘pull back the veil’ on this issue so that families who are struggling feel comfortable asking for help,” Jacobs said.
Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Maine and Wisconsin have adopted legislation to curb re-homing. Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina and Ohio are discussing bills to this effect.
“Clearly, California having its own laws to protect these vulnerable children is essential,” Hill said. He also hopes that Congress too will take “a serious look at this issue and act.”
The bill is now under review to assess its financial impacts to the state and could be approved by the end of August.
Stefano Montanari is a freelance journalist based in Europe.