Lawrence Booker had been living apart from his adoptive family for around two years when he learned that his adoptive mother might still be receiving money for his care — money that could have gone a long way toward helping him instead.
The situation Booker faced — a disrupted or broken adoption — is common enough that one New York children’s legal advocacy organization found that, at one point, roughly 20 percent of its voluntary placement foster care clientele had experienced it.
The State Senate is currently considering a bill that would permit child welfare agencies to halt payments to adoptive parents who stop caring for their children, and in some cases transfer those payments to adoptees like Booker.
“The phrase I hear all the time from youth is, ‘I feel like a paycheck,’” said Jenn Strashnick, senior attorney for Covenant House New York, a nonprofit that provides housing for homeless youth, including many former foster youth.
“The point of subsidies was a good thing, and most parents use it for the benefit of the child,” Strashnick said. “We’re really looking at the minority of cases with bad actors, either intentionally adopting children for the subsidy, or sometimes parents who don’t have the resources they need to care for children with diverse needs.”
Despite the narrow scope of the bill currently being considered, Richard Heyl de Ortiz, the executive director of the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York, warns that it doesn’t account for the realities of the family tensions during adolescence.
“I think that the teenage years can be particularly difficult for children who have been adopted and children who have been traumatized,” Heyl de Ortiz said.
“This bill, for example, could penalize parents who have a commitment to their children while their child may have run away from home temporarily, may have chosen to live with a friend, or potentially couch surf. Even though that family is still maintaining a connection, wants that child to return home, and is working towards that.”
The bill’s fate might also be of interest in other states. For example, Iowa’s new child welfare director, Jerry Foxhoven, has considered requiring parents to show records of doctor’s visits to continue receiving the subsidy.
Profiting from a System Meant to “Facilitate Love”
Booker, now 21 and attending college in Georgia, was adopted at around age 7 by a woman he called his grandmother, because she’d fostered Booker’s biological mother before him. He grew up in her home in Cypress Hills, a neighborhood in Brooklyn.
From a young age, he said, relations with his adoptive mom were tense. She was a corrections officer who prioritized obedience, and he was, by his own description, “rebellious.”
He felt the biological children in the family were treated differently than those from foster care. From the time he was 12, he said he had to pay for many of his living and school expenses. As he got older and started working — among other jobs, for a neighborhood community organizing group — he says his access to the kitchen, washing machine and other areas of the home were restricted.
When reached by phone, his adoptive mother declined to answer any questions regarding Booker’s characterizations of events.
In his last year of high school, Booker effectively moved out, living for a time with a friend and then, at age 18, with a Connecticut family he’d met through a summer church camp.
Things seemed much better. Booker grew close enough with the Connecticut couple that he started calling them Mom and Dad, and he got an AmeriCorps job through the New York City Mayor’s Office for Community Schools.
But financially, he struggled. The monthly commute from Connecticut to his job cost $450, accounting for at least one of his paychecks each month.
One day, a co-worker pointed out that, given his age, he might still be entitled to financial support through the adoption subsidy: a mixture of federal and state funds given to parents who adopt from the foster care system. Those funds continue to flow until the child turns 21, unless the adoptive parent is determined to be no longer legally responsible for them, or, in theory, the parent cuts off support.
Booker said he later found out that his adoptive mother was receiving as much as $900 per month for his care, long after he’d left her home.
“I was under the assumption that [the subsidy] was there to make foster kids get adopted,” he said. “It’s really sad to see people use the system that is meant to create families and facilitate love for making a profit. Because that’s essentially what it was.”
He contacted the Administration for Children’s Services, New York City’s child welfare agency, to say that none of the funds were making their way to him.
But their response was puzzling. A social worker told Booker that the agency had no real way of assessing what type or amount of support adoptive parents must give to continue qualifying for the subsidy; a pair of socks might be enough.
As The Imprint’s John Kelly wrote in June:
“There is no federal guidance offering a definition, which means sending a birthday card with a $50 bill inside might count as much as providing a home and paying for college.”
When Booker asked his adoptive mother about it, he said she agreed to give him $375 per month, a fraction of her total payment that fell short of covering even his train fare.
Legislating an Adoption Subsidy Clawback
What happened with the subsidy that was intended to facilitate Booker’s care is the subject of New York’s Senate Bill 6518, a proposal championed by three children’s advocacy groups that would require child welfare agencies to confirm that adoptive parents are still supporting their adopted children and that the adoptions have not disrupted.
SB 6518 would also more clearly define what “support” means when it comes to adoptive parents providing for their children. Under the bill, adoptive parents alleged to have stopped supporting their children will be investigated. If it’s found they aren’t, the subsidy can be simply stopped, transferred to a new guardian, or in some cases routed directly to adoptees who are 18 or older.
One of the three advocacy groups that called for the bill, the Children’s Law Center (CLC), has been a pioneer in studying disrupted adoptions, founding the Broken Adoptions Project in 2011. Dawn Post, co-borough director of CLC’s Brooklyn office, began working on these issues after noticing that a number of adopted children were returning to family court in need of services and support.
In most cases – around 75 percent of the time, she said – it was due to the death or infirmity of an adoptive parent. But the other 25 percent were adopted children who said their adoptions had failed because of abuse or neglect, including issues like parents locking up food or using excessive corporal punishment.
The Broken Adoptions Project set up a help line, and posted flyers in court, and began to hear from more and more children and youth who had been kicked out of their homes or otherwise abandoned.
Two other prominent New York nonprofits have also championed SB 6518. Lawyers for Children, which represents most New York City children who have been voluntarily placed in foster care, assessed their caseload and found that roughly 20 percent of their voluntary foster care cases — 180 children —involved adopted children who had been returned to the system.
Covenant House New York, which provides emergency services for homeless youth, had also seen substantial numbers of broken adoptions among their clients. Covenant House conducted a four-month survey in 2016 and found that 120 of their clients — approximately 5 to 7 percent of the youth they serve — were adoptees who’d become homeless.
In an email, Julie Farber, the deputy commissioner for family permanency services at the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) said that the agency “currently provides adoption subsidies for more than 17,500 youth who have been adopted.”
Farber went on to say that it had stopped subsidy payments for 500 youth since 2012 because an adoptive parent had stopped providing support for the child.
“While we would expect that there is some amount of under-reporting of such situations the vast majority of adoptive parents are loving parents who care for and provide for their adopted children as any parent would,” Farber said.
In many cases of broken adoptions, the advocates maintain that adoptive parents were still receiving funds for the children’s care, and the money at stake isn’t negligible.
In New York City, subsidies are typically $700 to $1,900 per month, depending on the child’s needs. In some cases, CLC’s Post said they’ve calculated the adoptive parents likely received a total of $80,000 to $120,000 after the adoption had broken, as parents might continue receiving $2,000 monthly subsidies for years on end.
In a current case of one sibling group, Post said, CLC tallied the post-adoption subsidy total as more than $200,000. In another particularly absurd instance, she said, four children were returned to foster care after their adoptive father murdered their adoptive mother. He continued to accrue subsidy payments in jail.
Lacking support, youth from broken adoptions often struggle substantially. Some may be adopted by other adults who take an interest in their lives, or return to biological family. Others become homeless, whether living in shelters or on the streets. Many of CLC’s clients aspire to go to college, but have difficulty obtaining financial aid if their adoptive parents won’t share tax information demonstrating the adoptees are receiving no support.
CLC has begun to represent adoptees in petitioning for child support from estranged adoptive parents, but that’s not an easy matter. Demanding child support in these circumstances is a relatively new area of law, said Dana Dohn, an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Broken Adoptions Project.
The support adoptees can appeal for is also limited, since child support claims are only tabulated from the day a court petition is filed, and not the entire time an adoptive parent was receiving a subsidy without providing care. That can be frustrating, said Dohn, since most clients from broken adoptions often reach out to CLC after they’ve been living on their own for several years.
Some pro bono law firms have weighed taking on civil cases, suing adoptive parents for unjust enrichment. But Dohn said there has yet to be a completed case, and private attorneys are often only interested in taking cases where the adoptive family has assets like real estate that could be attached — not a typical scenario.
“Very frequently, when we have these cases, the adoptive parents have fought tooth and nail,” Dohn said, “and have said they need the money for themselves or their biological children.”
She could only recall one case where the funds were voluntarily relinquished, and in that case, it was still after a child support petition was filed.
Adoption Issues Extend Beyond Subsidies
Betsy Kramer, public policy and special litigation project director for Lawyers for Children, said that in most cases she encounters, the adoptees become estranged from their adoptive families as teenagers.
Sometimes, said Dohn, it’s because tensions grow as adoptees age and seek to reconnect with biological family members, against the wishes of their adoptive parents.
Other times, it’s that children who have been through the trauma of losing their biological family begin to struggle in their adolescent years.
“The broken adoption youth we see are coming to us for similar reasons that youth come to us in general,” Strashnick of Covenant House New York said. “Sometimes they’re kicked out of their homes, sometimes it’s poverty, sometimes it’s a mental health issue since this is the age — older teens — when mental health issues appear.”
Unlike CLC and Lawyers for Children, Covenant House typically serves “kids who slipped through the cracks of other systems,” Strashnick said. Many of them have suffered unreported child abuse and neglect or the complications of family poverty, violence, substance abuse or mental illness.
But some youth coming from broken adoptions contend with an additional sense of injustice: that their adoptive parents are benefiting financially while they’re homeless.
The bill to patrol adoption subsidies is not without opposition. The Adoption and Foster Family Coalition of New York has expressed concern over the way the bill would have county agencies investigate alleged misuse of the payments.
The coalition is also worried that adoptive parents trying to make a difficult situation work might be mistaken for true abandoners.
Earlier this year, Heyl de Ortiz, of the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York, told The Chronicle that he worried about scenarios where adoptive parents would be penalized because of a young person’s behavior.
“If a family has washed its hands of a child, then proceeding to revoke the subsidy is absolutely appropriate,” Heyl de Ortiz said. But he noted other possibilities, such as teenagers running away from families who are sincerely trying to make things work.
But Covenant House’s Strashnick said that’s not what her organization sees.
“We’re not seeing people running away and saying ‘I want to get this money from my parents,’” she said. “We see so many kids who have no idea their parents are receiving money for them … A lot of youth have told me, ‘I don’t care about getting the money. I just don’t want my parents to get it.’”
Richard Wexler, the executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said the real issue is on the front end of the adoption process, where he said federal funds have incentivized systems to move rapidly toward adoption, foregoing a more careful screening process.
He pointed in particular to the adoption incentives established in the 1997 federal Adoption and Safe Families Act. The act created federal bonuses for states of at least $4,000 for each adoption out of foster care, which he said created a “profound incentive” to speed up the termination of parental rights and the finalization of adoptions.
While politicians “are glad to go after payments to a few rogue adoptive parents, they’re not about to touch the much bigger problem of payments to states that lower the standards for adoptions in the first place,” he said. “If politicians were serious about curbing fraud, and abuse, and adoption disruption, they’d remove the incentives to do a lousy job screening potential parents before an adoption is ever finalized, instead of trying to find new ways to make all adoptive parents second-class parents afterwards.”
ACS Deputy Commissioner Farber disagrees.
“The incentives don’t drive decision making at the foster care agency/case planner level,” Farber said.
New York State received an $846,000 incentive payment in fiscal 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The state has received a total of $6.74 million in incentives since 1998; 80 percent of those funds came in two fiscal years, 2003 and 2004.
According to a recent study by Open Minds, New York State spent $2.2 billion on child welfare in 2013 and $2.7 billion in 2015.
Nonetheless, Dawn Post said that when she first began looking at the question of broken adoptions she’d been struck that conversations in New York City government were dominated by talk of how to finalize adoptions more quickly, while nobody discussed the reality of disrupted adoptions.
“Anyone in family court knows this is an issue,” Post said, “but when you’re dealing with federal regulations and laws that are very time-focused and connected to funding, what people are looking at is how can we get adoptions to move faster.”
One of the few other jurisdictions beyond New York City to have measured its rates of disrupted adoptions is Delaware, which Post said conducted its own study of its child welfare system, and found far lower rates than NYC. In part, Post said, that’s likely due to the state’s robust post-adoption services program, something that hasn’t been an ACS focus until recently, she said.
“This is the first year we’re seeing some good post-adoption services put into place,” Post said. “That might help, but it’s only as helpful as people who know about it.”
In the meantime, that leaves the problem of continuing subsidies for broken adoptions unresolved.
In September of 2016, Lawrence Booker filed a petition through the New York State family courts to dispute the years when his adoptive mother was receiving subsidies. She was ordered to pay him $1,237 per month, to cover his educational and basic needs. He’d won, but by the time he had, he was only five months away from his 21st birthday, at which point the subsidies stopped.
Booker is involved in another ongoing civil case about the subsidies, which he hopes can set a precedent for other broken adoptions where adoptive parents are continuing to receive money for children they’re no longer supporting.
SB 6518 is on hold until the legislature returns in 2018. The coalition of groups pushing it plans to use that time to drum up more support.
“I think this bill isn’t going to end the problem of adoptions falling apart and of adoptive parents rejecting their children, or children being adopted into families that aren’t forever families,” Kramer of Lawyers for Children said. “But it will certainly go a long way towards addressing the problem of adoptive parents collecting a subsidy they shouldn’t be collecting.”
CORRECTION, November 29, 2017: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Jenn Strashnick’s first name as Jean.
Kathryn Joyce is the author of The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption and Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. Her work has appeared in Highline, Pacific Standard, The New Republic and many others.