New York Could Be First State to Take Closer Look at Adoption Subsidies

When adoptions from foster care fall apart, youth often end up back in foster care, with a biological relative, or on the streets. But in most cases, the government still provides financial assistance to the adoptive parents.

There is little appetite for close scrutiny of households once they have agreed to take in a foster youth, because adoptive homes are not considered to be different from the homes of biological families.

But many adoptive parents do sign contracts to receive support subsidies, and a bill has been introduced in the New York Senate that would empower the state to more closely regulate those payments.

Senate Bill 6518, introduced by Tony Avella (D), would have the county social services agencies verify that adoptive families remained intact and investigate allegations that parents had cut off support to adopted children.

The bill has been fueled by advocates in New York City, including the Broken Adoptions Project of Children’s Law Center. As more becomes known about the rate at which foster youth adoptions succeed and fail, we might see interest in such legislation elsewhere in the United States.

A statewide coalition of foster and adoptive parents in New York said it supports the bill’s intent, but has concerns about several of the measures it proposes.

“We certainly wouldn’t advocate in support of parents who’ve washed their hands of a child continuing to get a subsidy,” said Richard Heyl de Ortiz, executive director of the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York (AFFCNY).

“This bill attempts to solve that problem,” de Ortiz said, but as written “it just doesn’t seem like it’s the right solution.”

At the center of this legislation are the subsidies sent by the state to adoptive parents. These payments are often a blend of federal and state funding that parents receive via a signed contract.

Once the tap flows on adoption subsidies, there are only three reasons for it to stop:

  • The child has attained the age of 18 (or the age of 21 if the State has determined that the child has a mental or physical disability which would warrant continuation of assistance);
  • The State determines that the adoptive parents are no longer legally responsible for support of the child; or
  • The State determines that the adoptive parents are no longer providing any support to the child.

Historically, the phrase “any support” has been pretty loosely interpreted. 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.

“The federal guidelines provide very little to the states in terms of clarity,” said Dawn Post, co-borough director and head of the Broken Adoptions Project for The Children’s Law Center in New York City. “You’re more likely to get in trouble if you cut it off, but you’re not in trouble at all for letting them continue.”

The New York legislation starts by codifying the phrase “any support” to some extent:

“Any support” shall be limited to support that is directly for the benefit of the adopted child that meets the food, clothing, education, medical and shelter needs of the adopted child and that has an identifiable value.

During last year’s Foster Youth Interns (FYI) program in Washington, D.C., New Yorker Demetrius Johnson put a human face on this issue. His policy recommendation to better police adoption subsidies was sparked by his own experience with a broken adoption in New York City.

From Johnson’s policy recommendation last year:

The experience of my broken adoption even left me homeless at one point in my life; yet the federal and state government continued paying my former adoptive mother.

After finding out approximately how much money she may have received, I was depressed, but more so perplexed. I questioned what had I done to deserve to be treated so poorly and used like this.

The U.S. will have its first national data on disrupted adoptions next year, but the indicators are already strong in New York City that it is a significant issue. Post said one local organization, Lawyers for Children, studied its caseload of foster youth and found that 20 percent were kids who had been adopted.

“That’s 150 to 200 children, and that’s one law office,” Post said. She said Covenant House, which serves homeless youth in the city, estimated that 120 adopted children enter their shelter each year.

Avella’s bill does not order county agencies to patrol adoptive homes for compliance with these terms, a move that would almost certainly be seen as an overreach. Instead, it sets up two avenues in which the support of adoptive parents would be investigated.

First, the bill would require each adoptive family to certify to the county agency that it is living up to “obligations pursuant to any adoption subsidy agreement entered into … including their obligation to provide support for the child.”

If an adoptive parent refuses to certify, or simply fails to acknowledge the request to do so, the social service agency is then able to investigate to determine what the situation is.

The other avenue toward investigation would be a report to the agency. If an agency receives information that provides “reasonable cause to suspect that the adoptive parent is longer providing any support to the child,” it is instructed to review the adoptive relationship to determine whether the parents retain official custody and whether they are offering any support.

In the event that a subsidy is terminated for adoptive parents, the funds would be redirected based on the child’s scenario. The subsidy can transfer to a new guardian, to the youth if he or she has reached 18, or it can be simply terminated if the child is in foster care. Post said the final scenario could save the state about $12 million.

AFFCNY Executive Director de Ortiz said the bill should draw a clearer line on parental intent, focusing the language of the bill only on bad-faith actors.

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“If a family has washed its hands of a child, then proceeding to revoke the subsidy is absolutely appropriate,” he said. “I’m more concerned about other situations.”

He referred to scenarios in which older youth might test parents or act out by running away when the parents are genuinely making an effort. Though the bill would not require a revocation of the subsidy in that situation, it does allow for it.

“You have parents trying to do the right thing, keep a family intact, and the teen is encountering issues, decides to run away,” de Ortiz said. “The family is still working toward reunification, still supporting the child. It doesn’t seem logical to penalize them.”

AFFCNY also objects to the bill’s vague identification of “the social services official” as the party empowered to patrol and regulate subsidies.

“That is way too wide open,” de Ortiz said. “What training does this person have? It’s so poorly defined, and the result could be that cases are handled too subjectively.”

He said a state-level official could handle the process in a more uniform way.

“If it was more clear about who was empowered to begin the process of review, this may be something we could support,” de Ortiz said.

Avella’s legislation has grounding in recent state policy. In February of 2016, the state Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS) issued new instructions to county agencies in a memo that includes the same definition of support and basic instructions on how to proceed with a review of a subsidy when parents don’t certify their agreement.

But New York is one of the few states in which counties operate child welfare with little more than oversight from the state agency.

“Information starts at the top, and doesn’t filter down uniformly,” de Ortiz said. “I could see absolutely where this would not be implemented.”

Post said the New York City agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, “doesn’t do anything when they don’t get the verification back. For years I’ve tried to get numbers in terms of how many are not returned and was unsuccessful.”

At Children’s Law Center, Post is working on developing a raft of supporting organizations to back Avella’s bill, which does not yet have a companion in the New York Assembly. Early supporters include the Urban Youth Justice Center and Children’s Rights, a national organization that seeks child welfare reform through litigation.

de Ortiz said AFFCNY had worked with Avella last week on an unrelated issue, but hadn’t heard anything about the introduction of the subsidy bill.

“I imagine we’ll reach out, and express some of our concerns directly,” he said.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.