I love the Creating a Family Facebook Support Group for the caring expressed and the information I learn. And since our group is a mixed group made up of adoptive parents, infertility patients, birth parents, adoptees, and former foster youth, I also appreciate that I am exposed to new ideas and sometimes forced to think about issues from a different angle. Such was the occasion last week on two different posts where people were questioning why the foster care system paid adoption subsidies to adoptive parents, but did not provide these subsidies to birth families to help them keep their children from entering foster care in the first place.
The point of these posts was that it would be fairer to the parents and better for children if the money that is being used to pay adoption subsidies would be given to families so that they would not lose their children to foster care. I almost always see both sides of an issue, so it is somewhat surprising to me that I am truly having trouble understanding their position. This blog is my attempt to wrestle with this issue, and I would truly appreciate continuing the discussion in the comments. (A blog felt like a more respectful place to discuss this since commenting on someone’s thread where they shared devastating experiences caused by having their child removed feels disrespectful.)
Children Deserve to Be Raised in Their Birth Families
I think it’s important to start with my basic belief that absent abuse or neglect it is in a child’s best interest to be raised by their families of birth. I also believe that neglect, and even abuse, are sometimes in the eye of the beholder, and our view of what is neglectful or abusive is heavily influenced by culture and socioeconomic status. The first goal of the foster care system is and should be to keep families together rather than find foster or adoptive families for children. In fact, the majority of kids who enter foster care are reunified with their family (51%). To put things in perspective, only 22% of children who enter foster care are adopted, and of those 22 %, a third are adopted by relatives. Adoption is the last resort for kids in foster care.
Problems in Foster Care System
One of the things that I truly appreciate about the Creating a Family Facebook Support Group is that it has opened my eyes to the abuses in adoption, including foster care adoption. I’ve researched in this area for year and I’ve known these abuses exist, but it is one thing to know in the abstract, but a whole other thing to communicate with people who have lived this abuse first hand. The power of our foster care system to remove children from their families is great, and is not always used lightly. And because poverty is often confused with neglect, the poor are substantially more at risk for being the victims of foster care abuses/mistakes.
Just in the last week we have heard from a teen in foster care who got pregnant to get out of an abusive group home only to be told by that she wasn’t qualified to be a mother, and that if she didn’t voluntarily release her daughter to the foster family that took her in, the state would force her and would take all her future children as well. As a young, scared, poor, homeless teen, she had no one to help her and no one to fight for her deep desire to raise her child. We’ve also heard about a case where the wrong children were removed, but even though there was no evidence to keep them, the mother had to jump through the hoops required by the foster care system for 9 months in order to get her children back. Her eldest chid continues to be traumatized by this removal. These parents lived my nightmare.
Why Not Give Subsidies To Birth Families to Help Them Keep Their Kids
Kids generally enter foster care for 2 reasons: abuse or neglect. It is difficult to tell the exact percentage of cases of children being removed that are due to abuse vs. neglect because the distinction is not always clear—at what point does neglect become abuse? It is also difficult because the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCAR) allows more than one reason for removal to be listed, so the causes are not mutually exclusive. Suffice it to say that kids are removed due to abuse significantly less than they are removed for neglect–61% of the time a child is removed due to neglect.
I think most of us would agree that money will not cure the ills of abuse. Yes, I know that poverty adds stress and stress increases risk of abuse, but in general, I think that giving an abusive father who beats his kids a subsidy so he can keep his kids doesn’t make sense.
Neglect can take many forms and far too often poverty can be confused with neglect. No doubt more money would help some parents be able to keep their children, but I believe that subsidies alone would only be helpful in a relatively small percentage of cases.
When discussing whether money/subsidies will help with the issues of neglect, we have to start with the fact that the government does give “subsidies” to the poor in the form of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), WIC, subsidized housing programs, SSI (for special needs/disability), unemployment benefits (if applicable), earned income tax credit, etc. I have no doubt that this is often not enough, but it is at least worth noting that those below the poverty line, including parents at risk of losing children to foster care, are eligible for government benefits.
While parents may be eligible for these benefits at any time, once a child has been removed, parents are often helped to access some of these governmental services as part of their plan to get their children back. In the most recent AFCAR report, 48% of kids removed from their family stay in foster care 12 months or less. Some percentage of these cases, especially those where children were returned quickly, involve cases of improper removal. (No one knows that exact numbers, but we hear horror stories and know it exists.) However, arguably, some of these 48% were given services that helped improve their situation to allow them to get their children back. Of course, sometimes services weren’t needed or didn’t involve services that impacted poverty (e.g. parenting classes, drug or alcohol rehab, finding extended family to take in the child, etc.), but often it does involve job counseling, housing subsidies, accessing SSI benefits, etc. My point is that birth families that lose their children exclusively because of neglect are sometimes being “subsidized” after removal when that neglect is due to poverty.
A real problem that must be addressed to improve foster care is working with families to access these benefit BEFORE the child is removed. Removing a child can cause long-term damage to both parents and children.
Neglect very often includes cases where the parents are addicted to alcohol or drugs—in fact 38% of kids entering the system are removed because their parents are abusing alcohol or drugs. In some states this percentage is much higher, and all evidence indicates that this problem is growing. I’m guessing that we would all agree that giving an addict money will not help them be able to parent their child. The stats aren’t clear, but it looks like approximately only 23% of the cases of neglect do not involve alcohol or drugs.
Why Adoption Subsides Are Important
Adoption subsidies for families that adopt from foster care are intended to help defray the cost of raising a child with “special needs”. The vast majority of kids in the foster care system are considered to have special needs because of the impact of abuse or neglect. Each state is different, but most states start with a base amount for an adoption subsidy based on age and go up or down depending on the individual needs of the child. In research published in 2008, the average subsidy for children adopted from foster care was $390 per month.
Infants are often not eligible for adoption subsidies unless there is evidence of prenatal exposure (and even then adoptive parents very often have to “fight” to get any subsidy and often it is a deferred subsidy). Usually, the older the child at adoption, the larger the subsidy.
The sad reality is that abuse and neglect damages children and raising a child exposed to trauma, including prenatal exposure, is costly in terms of money, time, and emotions. These children often need long term therapy, lots of doctor’s appointments, tutors, special schools, etc. Medicaid covers some of this, but nowhere near all.
I am absolutely in favor of the government giving subsidies to parents who adopt special need kids from foster care because I believe this is in the best interest of kids. It helps kids find permanency faster, while at the same time saving the state money. In fact, I’m in favor of more subsidies. Kinship adoptions in foster care very often receive less in adoption subsidies than non-kinship adoptions. I think we should encourage relatives to adopt, and I don’t want money to be a barrier.
I am not in the least oblivious to the abuses in the foster care system. I’ve read and researched these abuses for years, and I’ve learned a lot from the people in the Creating a Family Facebook Support Group. However, I don’t see subsidies for adoptive parents as lessening these abuses. From my perspective, few people go into fostering or adopting from foster care for the money!
I would love to hear your opinion. Let’s keep this discussion going.
Image credit: Guilherme .