The “Reason Two” Theory for Tracking Failed Adoptions

There is a major blind spot in national data when it comes to the child welfare continuum, and it is on the back end. The federal government has never established a systematic way to collect information from states about the number of finalized adoptions of foster youths that “disrupted,” ending with a youth heading back to foster care.

The feds might soon be asking. And Youth Services Insider stumbled onto a potential way for states to answer.

A bill waiting for a date on the Senate floor would do exactly that. Within 12 months of the bill’s passage, the Department of Health and Human Services would be required to “promulgate final regulations providing for states to collect and report information regarding children who enter foster care because their adoptions or foster child guardianships disrupt or are dissolved.”

Here is why it’s a big deal: The last major attempts to even estimate how many adoptions disrupted took place in the 1980s and 1990s, in California and Illinois, and both suggested that about 15 percent of adoptions disrupted.

Those studies took place in an era when adoptions from foster care were just beginning an uptick, from about 15,000 in 1990 to 20,000 in 1994.

There have been 670,000 adoptions of children in foster care since 2000, an average of 51,500 per year. If that 15 percent disruption rate still holds, then 105,000 children have experienced their placement into a new family fall apart.

But the problem remains: How can states count disruptions? The Senate bill offers no insight, and it is trickier than it might sound because the finalization of the adoption is essentially the end of the “case,” as it were. And many times, the child’s name will change.

But one child welfare attorney pointed out to us that there is one lasting connection between the world of foster care and the world of adoptive families that could be used to track somewhere between 85 percent of all adoptions: Title IV-E Adoption Assistance.

After further research, we conclude that she could be right.

Adoption Assistance payments provide funds to States to facilitate the timely placement of children, whose special needs or circumstances would otherwise make it difficult to place, with adoptive families.

In practice, these payments are known on the state level as adoption subsidies and they apply to pretty much any IV-E eligible child.

The payments are a split between federal and state funds. Once adoption assistance starts, there are only three ways to end it:

  • 1) The child reached the age that the state cuts off adoption assistance (always 18 or over)
  • 2) The adoptive parents is no longer legally responsible for the youth, and has had parental rights terminated.
  • 3) It is proven that the adoptive parent is providing absolutely no support to the youth.

The first way would simply indicate that the youth has reached adulthood, either at 18 or 21, in the eyes of the state. The third way is incredibly rare, McCartney said, because almost anything can be counted as support.

So if a state can classify its terminations of adoption assistance to be sorted by “reason for,” it would be possible to see the number of payments that ceased for ‘Reason Number Two.”

Not only would it provide the number of disrupted adoptions, it would only count the ones permanently disrupted. A hypothetical: Adoptive parents who had a child re-enter foster care to access expensive mental health services, with the intention of reunifying with them, would not show up as a “reason two.”

By the way, that exact hypothetical was mentioned more than once at a Congressional briefing on post-adoption services a few years back.

Now, the “Reason Two” theory only works if the vast majority of children adopted from foster care are eligible.

  • 1) They are eligible to receive adoption assistance.
  • 2) They actually receive it.

In previous decades, number one was not the case, so number two definitely wasn’t. The eligibility for IV-E foster care and adoption assistance payments was contingent on the income of the child’s birth family.

For a state to claim federal foster care or initiate adoption payments related to a child in its custody, it had show that the income of the birth family was below a poverty level established in the 1996 Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

This is still the case for IV-E eligibility when it comes to foster care funding, although there is increasing interest in changing that. But by 2018, all of the youths adopted from foster care are eligible for IV-E adoption assistance, thanks to changes phased in after the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act.

So soon, all adopted foster youths will be eligible for adoption assistance. But using AA to track disrupted adoptions has nothing to do with eligibility; it depends on the payments actually taking place (and ceasing in some cases)

The national numbers suggest that nearly all of the children eligible for AA receive it. Following are the percentage of eligible children who connect to an adoption payment in recent years:

  • 2009: 88 percent
  • 2010: 90 percent
  • 2011: 90 percent
  • 2012: 92 percent

That rate, YSI, suspects, is high enough to provide a very rich national calculation of the adoption success rate for foster children, and even provide some insight on age and demographic breakdowns with minimal added effort.

The state-by-state breakdown for 2012 reveals that not all states would have a robust representation of its foster care adoptees. There are 10 states where more than 15 percent of the eligible adoptees do not receive assistance payments.

On the other hand, most the high-population states do connect AA with most eligible adoptees. Of the six states that finalized more than 2,000 adoptions – Calif., Texas, Fla., Mich., Ariz. and N.Y. – only Michigan (86 percent) had a rate lower than the national average.

So there it is, the “Reason Number Two” Theory for tracking failed adoptions. We would love to hear from readers with critiques or alternative theories!

Youth Services Insider is mostly written by Chronicle Editor-in-Chief John Kelly

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