Note: This article was updated on April 28.
Between 2000 and 2010, Texas saw its youth population grow by one million. In the same time frame, the state’s youth population went from 40.5 percent Latino to 48.3 percent.
Basic logic would suggest that the state’s child welfare system would undergo a similar shift in demographics, and the number of Latino children in the system and up for adoption would swell.
But that is not the case. The number of Latino foster youth awaiting adoption has increased, but not nearly at the rate that such a tectonic demographic shift would suggest. It is even more surprising when you factor in that in December, Texas lost a class action lawsuit focused on its failure to find permanency for its broader population of foster youths.
“I can’t say that in my experience there’s a specific need that’s not being met as it relates to Latino children,” says DeJuana Jernigan, director of child welfare and residential treatment services at the Depelchin Children’s Center in Houston, who spent a decade working for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS). “It’s just something that’s not been on my radar or brought to my attention as a particular need.”
How is this possible?
DFPS officials pointed to a relatively simple – and surprising, given the political tenor in the state – policy shift. The child protection agency started to issue waivers that permit undocumented immigrants to adopt children from foster care.
“It’s part of the whole philosophy of the agency: recognizing that children first and foremost deserve to be within their own family if there’s any possible way that they can be safe and have a permanent residence,” said Melanie Cleveland, the DFPS division administrator in charge of placement.
After spending more than 30 years working in the Texas child welfare system, Cleveland still tears up when she talks about the people who are helping children in the system.
Cleveland is explaining the partnerships DFPS has with faith-based organizations around the state. That has been a big part of Texas’ success in recruiting families of diverse races and making sure that children enter homes within their communities and cultures.
Earlier that day, Cleveland signed off on two waivers that will allow two sets of children to live with a grandfather and an aunt, both without legal status.
Typically, only U.S. citizens are allowed to adopt children in Texas. But in March of 2012, Cleveland said, the state shifted policy so that when it comes to family, undocumented immigrants can now adopt children they are related to so long as there is a plan in place if the adopting parent is deported.
For example, a grandfather without legal status might adopt his grandson as long as there is someone — perhaps an aunt or uncle— who can care for the child in the event the grandfather is deported.
From the time a child is removed from his or her parent’s custody in Texas, the Department attempts to find a family member the child can live with. When children cannot be reunified with birth parents, Cleveland said, “the first preference is placement with an appropriate relative as an adoptive placement, then transfer of [custody] to that relative with DFPS completely out of the case.”
The vetting process is still rigorous, Cleveland said. Caseworkers check criminal history and conduct full background checks; obtain references and interview family members; ensure the adoptive parent can financially support the child; and assess whether or not the children have a bond with the adopter.
The waiver then goes to a supervisor and finally the director of placement, who makes the ultimate decision.
There is no federal law that prohibits adoption based on immigration status, and many states do not explicitly prohibit such adoptions, according to the San Francisco-based Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC).
But it is unclear how many state or local systems actually are willing to let undocumented relatives or other adults adopt. Officials in Arizona and New Mexico did not return phone and e-mail inquiries about state policies regarding adoption and undocumented relatives.
Four years ago, Michigan’s Ann Arbor News profiled a local judge who felt the air of uncertainty around an undocumented guardian made it impossible to use them for adoptions.
“We wouldn’t allow a person who had an outstanding (criminal) warrant to be a guardian,” Donald Shelton, a since-retired chief judge of the Washtenaw County Circuit Court, told the the newspaper in April 2012. “The reason is that we’re placing that child with someone who may be gone the next day. So that’s right, if they’re undocumented, then they’re not going to be allowed to be guardians because it’s not in the best interest of the children.”
But next door to Michigan, the state of Illinois has permitted undocumented relatives to adopt for longer than Texas. There is no waiver necessary in Illinois; the child welfare code specifies that “Immigration status of a relative caregiver should not hinder the placement of a relative child in the home.”
In any such case, the code states, workers have the “responsibility to develop an emergency care plan for children in the event that their caregiver is detained due to his or her undocumented legal status in the United States.”
Presumably, California still permits some opportunity for undocumented kin. In 1993, a lawsuit filed by the National Immigration Law Center resulted in the following policy shift, stated by the California Department of Social Services in a letter to counties:
“Questionable immigration status may be the basis for rejecting the application or recommending the denial of the petition only when a clear best interest consideration so requires.”
Today, placement with undocumented relatives is common practice in Los Angeles, said Cecilia Saco, who heads up the Special Immigrant Status Unit of the L.A. Department of Child and Family Services. The standard practice, she said, is that undocumented adoptive parents must pass a home study and obtain sufficient identification from their consulate to conduct state and federal criminal records checks.
“We see this occurrence quite often in L.A. County,” Saco said in an e-mail to The Imprint. “Approximately 1,600 [background check] results were obtained this past year from undocumented relatives for the purpose of foster care placement.”
Even in a state or county that permits adoptions by the undocumented, it can be tough to persuade a relative to make themselves known to a government agency. That’s one of the biggest barriers to Latino and Hispanic families adopting children in the U.S., according to Maria Quintanilla of the Latino Family Institute in California. Even those with legal status are afraid, she said, that an agency’s thorough background checks will turn up their undocumented relatives and lead to problems.
When Erika Weissinger, postdoctoral researcher at the University of California-Berkeley completed her dissertation in 2013, titled “Reasons for Attrition among Public Adoption Seekers,” she spoke with people in two Northern California counties who started the adoption process but dropped out before completing the process.
Some of the Latino families told her they faced barriers, such as lack of Spanish-speaking staff or translators in the child protective services agency, which contributed to their decisions to halt their adoption attempts, Weissinger said.
“Latino families I talked to were more likely to experience barriers in the process,” she said. “If they wanted a bilingual social worker, they had to wait longer.”
In the child protective services agency connected with the families Weissinger interviewed, there was only one bilingual adoption case worker. That worker told Weissinger she was “overburdened” because she was the only Spanish speaker involved in the home-finding process.
Part of the reason Texas has been successful in this regard, Cleveland said, is that the state employs a high number of Spanish-speaking supervisors, caseworkers, aides and translators. In areas with particularly high Latino populations, like San Antonio and along the Texas-Mexico border, the agency employs more Spanish-speaking staff than not, says Cleveland.
In areas with fewer bilingual caseworkers and supervisors, the state employs full-time translators. It also pays for an interpreter service that any caseworker can dial into when visiting a household that he or she did not know was Spanish-speaking only.
During court hearings, the same third-party interpreting service is used to relay what is happening to families so they are not left in the dark. Additionally, the agency requires that all offices have forms, brochures and service plans available in Spanish.
Sometimes, even despite the waiver process, the state is unable to find family members who can adopt a child. But, Cleveland said, the agency does not give up that easily.
“If the child is not initially placed with a family member, we are still always trying to find that family member that the child can return to—whether that person is in Wisconsin or they’re down in the valley [near the Mexico border] and this kid is up in Dallas, we continue efforts to place the child with kin or fictive kin.”
Many Latino children have family outside the United States, and Cleveland says the agency’s family-first approach extends beyond the border.
“We have gone through the Mexican consulate before to do home studies on grandparents that were in Mexico,” Cleveland said. “We go that extra mile for the family.”
Holden Slattery contributed to this story.