Child Welfare Ideas from the Experts, #10: Better Policing of Adoption Subsidies

The Imprint is highlighting each of the policy recommendations made this summer by the participants of the Foster Youth Internship Program (FYI), a group of 12 former foster youths who have completed congressional internships.

The program is overseen each summer by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, with support from the Sara Start Fund.

Each of the FYI participants crafted a policy recommendation during their time in Washington, D.C. Today we highlight the recommendation of Demetrius Johnson, 21, a student at New York University.

The Proposal

Demetrius Johnson, 21, a student at New York University. Photo: CCAI

Demetrius Johnson, 21, a student at New York University. Photo: CCAI

Johnson would pursue, through legislation or administrative program instructions, changes to the way in which adoption subsidies are monitored at the state level.

He calls specifically for two policy changes:

Requiring that states terminate adoption subsidies when the adoptive parent is no longer providing support to an adopted child.

Requiring states to annually “track dissolutions to determine subsidy eligibility, and investigate “all suspected fraud cases.”

The Argument

In 1980, Congress passed the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, which, among other things, provides subsidies to families who adopt children from foster care.

Johnson cites a 2008 study that found between 10 and 15 percent of adoptions dissolve after finalization. And according to work cited by Johnson, many of those adoptive parents continue to receive adoption subsidies.

A 2012 paper by attorneys David J. Lansner and Carolyn A. Kubitschek argues:

Hundreds of millions of dollars of that money may have been fraudulently collected by adoptive parents who no longer support their adoptive children, made possible because the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has prohibited the states from even investigating the fraud. States have lost an equal amount of money.

As a result, Johnson argues, “taxpayers are paying twice for the same child, once in the form of an adoption subsidy to a parent no longer providing care, and once again through foster care expenses.”

In His Own Words

“The experience of my broken adoption even left me homeless at one point in my life; yet the federal and state government continued paying my former adoptive mother.

After finding out approximately how much money she may have received, I was depressed, but more so perplexed. I questioned what had I done to deserve to be treated so poorly and used like this.”

The Imprint‘s Take

There are three circumstances delineated in federal law where an adoption subsidy payment should cease. They are:

  • The child turns 18 (or older, in certain cases)
  • The state determines that the adoptive parent is no longer legally responsible for supporting the child
  • The state determines that the adoptive parent is no longer actually supporting the child

The third circumstance is murky because there isn’t a measurable standard to define “supporting.” Is sending a birthday card with $10 in it “supporting”? Or does that mean putting a roof over a child’s head, providing for them … you know, the actual meaning of “support”? Some states have attempted to define the term “any support,” while others have not.

But that pales in comparison to the bigger problems with how adoption subsidies work: The only person who can report a change in circumstance is the adoptive parent. If a state goes asking about changes, and a parent doesn’t respond, that can’t be held against them and the state is prohibited from pursuing any fraud investigation against them.

Consider that situation for a second. Let’s say you were kicked out by your adoptive parent, and you walk into a child welfare office and said, ‘I’m on the street, my adoptive mom put me out.’

If they call the mom, and she says either “no” or just hangs up, that’s the end of the trail.

So how widespread is subsidy fraud? For aforementioned reasons, it’s hard to know. The best knowledge on the subject comes from New York, where Dawn Post has led the Broken Adoptions Project for The Children’s Law Center.

The project helped identify 143 different adoptive parents who were receiving subsidies after the children returned to the foster care system. New York City’s child welfare director, Gladys Carrion, conveyed that information to the federal government in a letter last year.

There are probably very good reasons that, in the 1980 law, legislators tried to protect adoptive parents from surveillance after finalization. The idea, after all, is that once an adoption is finalized, that child is as much a part of his or her new family as a child born into it.

But the subsidy system is a significant federal and state investment in the child, not the adoptive parent. The Broken Adoptions Project in New York has done amazing work to prove the existence of signifiant fraud. At the very least, Congress needs to pick up the mantle and study the existence of fraud elsewhere, and then consider action on the level proposed by Johnson.

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