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Testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee on increasing adoptions from foster care

Congressman Reichert, Members of the Committee. I am pleased to submit this testimony to the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the Committee on Ways and Means. I applaud your interest in exploring ways of increasing the number of adoptions from foster care, including through the Adoption Incentives program.

Listening to Parents was incorporated in October 2009 with a mission to “to increase the number of adoptions of children in foster care through changes in state and federal laws, policies and practices that eliminate unnecessary barriers to adoption.”

We believe, and have documented, that there are far more families actively trying to adopt children from foster care than there are children in need of families. Children wait because of systemic barriers to adoption.

Contrary to our common understanding, there are far, far more Americans wanting to adopt children than there are children available. In fact, prospective adoptive parents outnumber waiting children by a ratio of more than 5 to 1.

In a Washington Post editorial on November 5, 2008[1], I drew on the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth,[2] to compare prospective parents seeking to adopt a child with children available in foster care. At that time, there were 600,000 American women actively trying to adopt a child. The survey asked women about the characteristics they would prefer or accept in a child they adopted. Based on the results:

  • 521,400 would adopt an African American child. At the time there were about 41,600 African American children in foster care waiting to be adopted. This implies there were as many as 12.5 prospective parents for each waiting African American child.
  • 351,600 would adopt children ages 6 to 12.  This implies that there were 7.6 prospective parents for each waiting child in this age group.
  • 185,400 would adopt a child age 13 or older. This implies that there were 6 prospective parents for each waiting adolescent.
  • 181,800 would adopt a child with a severe disability, and 447,000 would adopt two or more siblings at once.

There are many reasons why, despite there being more families wanting to adopt than children in need for families, so many children remain unadopted.  According to a 2005 Harvard University study, only one in 28 people who initially contacted a child welfare agency actually adopted a child.[3] Many cited systemic barriers such as bureaucracy, unresponsive child welfare agencies, and lack of incentives in the system to create adoptions.

In March of 2011, Listening to Parents convened an Executive Session of eighteen experts in adoption and family policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government to study some of the barriers that prevent willing parents from adopting children desperately in need of permanent families. Participants included academics, advocates, government officials, foundation leaders, former frontline caseworkers, and adoptive parents. Some of those experts will testify before this committee. In June, 2012, we released a white paper, titled “Eliminating Barriers to the Adoption of Children in Foster Care” [4]. The paper identifies barriers to adoption and recommends some solutions.

Barriers to Adoption

Barriers to adoption from foster care identified by participants in the Executive Session include:

  • Financial disincentives for creating interstate adoptions;
  • Lack of standardized information about families seeking to adopt and about children waiting to be adopted;
  • Insufficient post-adoption support compared to support for youth aging out; and
  • Absence of a robust model for creating adoptions, including effective recruitment of adoptive families; appropriate caseloads, training, and supervision for workers; and significant youth involvement. 

The Problem of Interstate Adoptions

One of the critical barriers identified by the group is the great difficulty of adopting children from foster care across state lines. The adoption of children from foster care in one state to an adoptive family in another is extremely rare in the United States. As I pointed out in a Washington Post editorial[5], according to the Department of Health and Human Services, in 2010, Americans adopted just 527 children from foster care across state lines.[6] To lend perspective, the national weather service estimates that 1,000 Americans are struck by lightning each year. [7]

The problem stems from the fact that the United States does not have a national adoption system. Instead, there is a different system in each state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Moreover, some state child welfare systems are administered at the county level. Each jurisdiction has its own criteria for adoption eligibility and process for recruitment, approval, and training of adoptive families. Unfortunately, through the law of unintended consequences, our current system (including the adoption incentives program) has created profound disincentives for states to allow their families to adopt children from other states.

If a Maryland family adopts a Virginia child, Maryland has essentially wasted thousands of dollars to recruit and prepare a family, with no benefit to any Maryland child. In return, Maryland will receive a child who may well have expensive medical and educational needs. To add insult to injury, under the federal Adoption Incentives program, Virginia will likely receive a bonus of up to $8,000 for placing one of their children in an adoptive family. Maryland will get nothing. Put it all together and each interstate adoption has a “winner” (the state that sends the child) and a “loser” (the state that receives the child).

So each state hoards its own families, greatly limiting matches for children and families across jurisdictions. It is common practice for states to prohibit their families from adopting a child from another state until they have waited at least one year.

Ironically, this is particularly true when a family is interested in adopting the very hardest to place children. If an Indiana family is interested in adopting a large sibling group, for instance, the temptation is strong for Indiana to keep them waiting, in case an in-state group becomes available later, instead of matching them immediately with a group just over the border in Chicago. This issue is particularly significant in large metropolitan areas that straddle state lines such as New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.

Recommendations

The group of national experts that met at Harvard has made the following recommendations to eliminate barriers to adoption.

  1. Reward both sending and receiving states for creating interstate adoptions. In the current system, the state that sends the child to be adopted in another state enjoys a financial gain while the state that receives the child experiences a financial loss. Congress should change incentives so that both states are rewarded when a child is adopted across state lines.
  2. 2.     Establish national standards for home studies and for descriptions of waiting children. Nationwide use of a standard home study, such as the Structured Analysis Family Evaluation (SAFE), will raise the average quality of home studies. A nationwide standard is also essential for increasing interstate adoptions, since mistrust of data from other jurisdictions is a barrier to adoption. Similarly, national standards for describing and disclosing each waiting child’s experiences and needs are critical, both for the process of matching children and parents and for preparing parents to meet the child’s needs. Congress should instruct the Department of Health and Human Services to establish these standards.
  3. Eliminate long-term foster care as a goal. Children with a goal of Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA) exit foster care into “living situations” but have no family. “No family” should never be the plan for a child. Congress should create incentives for states to replicate existing effective initiatives for reducing use of APPLA.
  4. Emphasize funding for post-adoption services. No money is dedicated to post-adoption services while significant funds are set aside for other programs, such as independent living for youth with a goal of APPLA. Children who have been adopted from foster care outnumber those in independent living programs by 10 to 1.  Funding for post-adoption services should be increased so that it is at least equal to that dedicated to supporting independent living. As use of APPLA is reduced and independent living services are less urgently needed, Congress should reallocate the funds currently used for independent living to post-adoption services.
  5. Encourage development of a robust, comprehensive practice model of adoptions from foster care. Congress should support the development and use of a model that enhances the primary emphasis on safety with a more nuanced strategy for permanence. An effective model will feature child-specific recruitment, clearly defined roles and responsibilities for workers and supervisors, and youth involvement in collaborative permanency planning.  Such a model will facilitate training of frontline social workers and supervisors and will make it possible to develop measures of accountability for outcomes.

Adjusting Adoption Incentives to Eliminate the Barrier to Interstate Adoptions

The clearest way to use the Adoption Incentives program to encourage adoptions across state lines would be to make an interstate adoption eligible for an enhanced incentive payment and require that the sending and receiving state split the incentive. In that way, both states benefit when states cooperate to place a child.

Why This Matters- A True Story

For many years I ran an agency in Rhode Island that recruits families to adopt children from the state’s child welfare system. Like many such organizations, we had a waiting child” feature on a local TV station. After a “Tuesday’s Child” spot showing a 7 year old black boy named Justin, I received a call from a woman just over the border in Massachusetts. She was a lawyer. Her husband was a doctor. Both were black. She told me that she and her husband had been considering adoption for several years. They saw Justin on TV. They were moved by his story. They prayed. And they decided that they would adopt this child. In any rational system, I should have been in a state police car racing up Route 95 to get this family- a child’s life was at stake.

But the family never adopted Justin. Rhode Island was not legally able to provide a “home study” to a Massachusetts family. And Massachusetts refused to use precious state resources to prepare a family to adopt a child in another state. Their suggestion was that the couple go through the entire adoption process and, at the end, adopt a Massachusetts child. The couple was horrified. They saw no rational reason why they could not be considered for Justin. So, a family was turned away and a child continued to wait.

I urge this committee to explore ways to adjust the Adoption Incentives Program in ways that would ensure that when a child like Justin is adopted across a state line, the result is as it should be- A child has a family. Parents have a child. And society wins.

 

Thank you.

 


[1] http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2008-11-08/opinions/36841172_1_international-adoptions-adoptive-families-prospective-parents

[2] The National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) is a national sample of 7,643 men and women 15 to 44 that gathers information on family life. The data used here are from Cycle 6 of the survey, which was conducted from January 2002 to March 2003. Centers for Disease Control, “Adoption Experiences of Women and Men and Demand for Children to Adopt by Women 18–44 Years of Age in the United States, 2002  (http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_23/sr23_027.pdf).

[3] Julie Boatright Wilson, Rob Geen, and Jeff Katz., “Listening to Parents: Overcoming Barriers to the Adoption of Children from Foster Care” (http://www.hks.harvard.edu/ocpa/pdf/Listening%20to%20Parents.pdf).

[4] http://www.listeningtoparents.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/No-Adoption-Barriers-White-Paper-4-12.pdf

[5] http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-06-01/opinions/35462622_1_adoptive-families-children-from-other-states-child-abuse

[6] Calculations of Mary Eschelbach Hansen using the Adoption Files of the Adoption and Foster Care Reporting System, which were made available by the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, and have been used with permission.

[7] http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/ams_lightning_rec.htm

Why I Do This Work

By Jeff Katz, Founder of Listening to Parents

For ten years, I was the Executive Director of an organization called Adoption Rhode Island. My agency’s mission was to recruit families to adopt children in the care of Rhode Island’s Department for Children Youth and Families (DCYF). Like many similar organizations around the country, Adoption Rhode Island worked closely with the media to recruit families to adopt. Each week on Tuesday’s Child, a local television reporter would profile a waiting child in need of a family.

And people responded. My agency was one of the best-known non-profits in Rhode Island. We got thousands of calls each year from families that were interested in adopting. Some of them were only interested in adopting a newborn, but each year hundreds of people called us with genuine interest in providing a family to a child in need. The most striking aspect of my time as executive director of Adoption Rhode Island was the genuine concern people had for the children they saw on Tuesday’s Child.

I saw children of all ages, of all races, with all kinds of disabilities be adopted. These children were now treasured members of an extended family. Ten years of recruiting families to adopt children from foster care taught me one thing: every single child in foster care, without exception, has the potential to be adopted and to become part of a family.

But as time went on, something soured. I began to see things differently. I began to see the many ways in which the child welfare system made children wait because of the way it treated prospective adoptive parents.

Each family that begins the process of adopting a child starts with a mixture of hope, fear, and excitement. Over the course of 10 years, I spoke with over five thousand people going through the process, from that first tentative information call to the adoption finalization ceremony in the Family Court. The longer I worked in the system, the more troubled I became by the huge numbers of people who did not make it through the system. I began to see that one-by-one something negative happened to far, far too many families. Calls not returned. Long waits. Home studies unread. While some parents did make it through the process and adopted a child, it was my experience that far more people left the system shaking their head in frustration than ever adopted a child.

After leaving Adoption Rhode Island, I began to study this problem. At Harvard, I organized a national research project that studied how families adopting from foster care experience the process. Working with the Urban Institute, we estimated that 240,000 Americans called an agency each year to inquire about adopting a child from foster care. Fewer than 4% of these families actually made it through the system. The focus groups we conducted documented the many barriers that would-be adoptive parents encountered. Many agencies seemed more interested in screening out “bad” parents than welcoming new ones. We even witnessed an information meeting that began with an announcement that all attendees had to line up to be fingerprinted in the front of the room.

Later, research and analysis showed that 600,000 American women are actively trying to adopt a child and most were open to adopting the kinds of children in foster care. Analysis of federal data revealed the near impossibility of adopting a foster child across state lines (71 children in the entire country adopted across state lines by someone they did not already have a relationship with).

Nobody consciously discourages good prospective parents from adopting. There are, however, very strong disincentives throughout the public adoption system. And that is why we started Listening to Parents. We want to change the incentives in the child welfare system so that the barriers fall and every single child in foster care can have the benefit of a loving family.

Case Worker Unwilling to Follow Through

My husband and I have just finished our home study and inquired about a girl in North Carolina. My case worker told me that the girl’s case worker would rather not be bothered with the Interstate Compact paperwork. I was stunned. I have a loving home, ready for a child and I feel that this girl would fit well in our home. After reading (of your work) I understood better. It is a real shame that their a lot of kids out there who won’t get the family that really wants them because of somebody’s willingness to not follow through with what should be done.

— Patrice

Ridiculously Long

After learning about foster adoption and signing up immediately I’ve spent the past two years trying to get matched to adopt a teenager. The MAPP process was ridiculously long and the “matching process” obscure. I never got anywhere waiting to hear from anyone, and did everything I could to make connections. I was just about to either give up or start to inquire on sibling groups, when I finally got matched! It’s going really well now.

– Name withheld

Frustrating Process

My husband and I are experiencing all the things that you talk about. No answer to inquiries, phone calls and e-mail not returned. I have been so disappointed by the lack of response we have gotten. Throughout this frustrating process, I have just become more determined to persist and move along. I can certainly understand, though, why so many families give up or get lost in the system. Fortunately, my professional work as an advocate has given me this determination and provided resources that other people may not have.

— Amanda, Utah

Get Rid of All the Unnecessary Work

The bureaucracy is prohibitive. We live in Canada. We just spent 3 long years adopting a sibling to one of our adopted children; it was an international adoption. Of course, it is complicated, but governments, courts and paperwork is what took so long. Obviously, there is work to do to maintain some of the safety precautions necessary to ensure the children are safe, but get rid of all the unnecessary work parents have to do to create or expand their families.

— Wendy , Canada

I Never Heard Anything for Months

I got the link to your article, and I was so glad to read it and see that my experience was “true”. I asked about foster care in approximately March 2009. After three calls I finally received a packet of information two months later. Then I called to find out when the next class was being started, was told it wouldn’t be until approximately August when they would have an introductory meeting. Well, I never heard anything for months, and in the meantime I was looking at ALL the states and picking out kids that I wanted more information about. I sent a few inquiries, got one or two short reply emails telling me that I needed to have a homestudy completed first. This was just two responses out of maybe 28or 29 inquiries.

— Carol

Government Fails to Realize Savings Through Foster Care Adoption

A couple entering a private adoption agency is ushered into an inviting reception area, greeted by a friendly receptionist and offered a cup of coffee or soda, then wined and dined during the whole process. A couple investigating foster adoption is passed through security in an inhospitable government building, asked to sign in by a security guard, and eventually signed up to attend an “information session” for prospective parents (which one of the couples we referred likened to the TV series “Scared Straight”). The reason behind this is obvious. The private agency recognizes that the couple represents a possible income of thousands of dollars, while the government agency fails to realize the possible savings of tens of thousands of dollars from moving a child out of foster care.

Terry

Why does this have to be so hard?

My husband and I are in the final stages of our adoption home study process which has taken over a year. Had it not been for the unconditional love we feel for our two foster children, I am not sure we would have pushed as hard as we did. I kept asking myself,”Why does this have to be so hard? Why is our adoptions worker so distant? What is wrong with us? Are we not good enough to become adoptive parents?”

Rebecca, California

Why I Support Listening to Parents

By Nia Vardalos

Nia Vardalos is the actress and writer of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the number one romantic comedy and one of the highest-grossing independent feature films in history. 

I’m an actress and writer.

I’m also a mom.

My husband and I were matched with our daughter through American Foster Care. There are 129,000 legally freed children in foster care, just waiting for a home. The process of adopting through foster care is actually quite simple. But, finding the information on how to adopt was not easy.

I’d like to change that.

I support Listening To Parents because every child deserves a permanent family. The best way to achieve that goal is to change the adoption system and make it more welcoming to the very parents who are trying to adopt these children.

Here is a bit of my story, adapted from a piece I wrote for the Huffington Post:

A few years ago, my husband Ian Gomez and I adopted a little girl.

…not because an adopted child seems to be the latest Hollywood must-have accessory. But because, after ten years of banging my head against the brick wall of infertility, I accepted there was another plan for me. And (cue music swell) motherhood turned out to be the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done with my life. Really.

It wasn’t easy to adopt an American child. I tried many routes that fell through or didn’t work out. Then I waited on many lists. The phone didn’t ring.

A common misconception is that to get a kid you just have to go to another country and be as pretty as Angelina Jolie. As studio executives and movie reviewers have informed me again and again — I’m not.

So I asked — don’t we have orphanages in the States? I found out no, we don’t. But we do have 500,000 kids in foster care. 129,000 are legally freed for adoption and waiting for a family. I was stunned.

I realized there was simply no reason to not adopt an “older child.” Why not? 129,000 legally freed children with no home? In a white hot moment, I knew this was what I had been waiting for.

And now I want to write that it was really easy. But, no. No, it wasn’t.

Not sure who to approach, I went directly to the State and said I was open to any sex, age and ethnic background. They were not exactly welcoming. In fact, they were abrupt and off-putting and said it would take quite a while before a child was placed in my home. I asked about the 129,000 children who were already legally freed. I was told there was a process and that I had to be patient through the legal system. I explained I thought I would be connected with a child who was waiting for a home. Again, they explained I had to trust their procedures. I now felt apprehensive, thinking I might get lost in yet another situation that wouldn’t resolve in a positive way. I worried I was entering a very bureaucratic situation.

At this point, it had been years of trying so many routes, of waiting on so many lists. Then, I remembered… when I was in the cast at The Second City, we used to improvise in front of an audience. That’s a trapeze without a net. In this same way, I felt…I just had to jump. So I said, “okay!”

I was sent away with a thick packet of fingerprinting forms and a daunting Home Study kit.

Then, I discovered something – a Foster Family Agency. That’s when things finally accelerated.

While it sounds like a private adoption agency – it’s not. First of all, it’s a free service. An FFA is a network of social workers who will help you through the process. They’ll guide you through the paperwork, home study and evaluations. They are wonderful, kind and compassionate people.

Nine months later we were “matched” with our then-three year old daughter. Working with a private attorney, our adoption was finalized within a year.

And yes, she is perfect. When our daughter came to live with us, she turned our house into a home. To say she’s adapted well would be a huge understatement. The experience of transitioning this child was astonishing and well, just too personal to go into now. We kept it quiet for almost a year to protect her privacy and to give her time to adjust.

Then, as the holidays approached, my husband and I thought about all those kids in foster care waiting for a family. We decided to announce our daughter’s adoption to raise awareness of National Adoption Month. Since then, I have become active in promoting the adoption of children from foster care. I am the National Adoption Day spokesperson because there are so many perfect kids out there, like our daughter, who are just waiting for a home.

So, why do I support Listening to Parents? Because I know, from first hand experience, that too many parents find the process of adopting from foster care to be illogical and unnecessarily difficult. I’ve met many parents who either weren’t properly informed of how easy it is, or gave up on the system, and adopted infants or went abroad. I would never disparage anyone who goes outside their own country to adopt – a family is a family. But, the expenses and unknown factors of going abroad are erased when adopting from American foster care. It is virtually cost-free and the entire history of the child must be, by law, disclosed. And, foster care does not discriminate – it is open to all prospective parents. There are 129,000 American kids waiting in foster care. And, statistics show there are far more parents than that, trying to adopt.

I believe in the mission of Listening to Parents- to remove the unnecessary barriers that keep kids in foster care. I support Listening to Parents and hope you will too.