Hidden Gems in Adoption Incentives Bill: Counting Failure and Ending APPLA

The Supporting At-Risk Youth Act, a child welfare bill passed by the Senate Finance Committee, leads with reauthorization of the federal incentive payments to states based on adoptions from foster care.

If it can get through the full Senate – not a certainty, we’re told, since some states will suffer from reforms to the incentive calculation – it could pair with the adoption incentives bill passed 402-0 by the House in October.

But in Youth Services Insider’s humble opinion, it will be two unrelated sections of the Senate bill that end up having the biggest effect on the field. First is the requirement that states count failed adoptions, and second is the restriction on a permanency goal that virtually assures a youth will age out of foster care.

Within 12 months of passage, the Senate bill would compel the Department of Health and Human Services to promulgate instructions for states to report how many adoptions and guardianship arrangements have disrupted or dissolved. States will then have to report on this, and HHS will have to aggregate that data.

If this comes to fruition, it will cast a bright-shining light into one of the blindest spots in youth services. We know with some precision how many youths are adopted from the foster care system each year; we have no clue how things go for them afterward.

The last large attempts to do so took place in the 1980s and 1990s, in California and Illinois, and both suggested that about 15 percent of adoptions disrupted. And that was before the number of foster care adoptions nationwide jumped from 28,000 in 1996 to 50,000 in 2011.

There have been a number of hearings and briefings on Capitol Hill in recent years on the subject of post-adoption services, which at the moment is a realm of services with very little financial support on the federal or local level. But a state-by-state count demonstrating the frequency with which adoptions fall apart would almost certainly direct more resources in that direction.

Here’s a looming challenge: How do you count this?

Once a child’s adoption is finalized, his case with a child welfare agency is closed, and his name has probably changed. So there is no child welfare case number or file to follow out of, and then, back into foster care.

Even if that was the case, let’s say a child in one county’s foster care system is adopted by a family in another county, then the child returns to foster care but in his adoptive family’s county. Would that return to foster care show up in any data? It would really depend on the unity of child welfare data collection in that state.

Senator Max Baucus’ (D-Mt.) bill does not make any suggestions as to how one would tally disruption, so the job would fall to HHS. YSI has discussed this subject with Richard Barth, the dean of University of Maryland’s School of Social Work, who was involved in the California research years ago.

We suggested tracking social security numbers, under the premise that if you were to see one twice, it had to mean the youth had re-entered foster care from

Barth suggested that each youth having a social security number to track was less likely than we thought. One data point that Barth said might be common to enough foster youths: Medicaid numbers.

Another outside-the-box idea: a national foster care PIN assignment system. It would certainly cost something to start, but the ability to follow a foster youth’s PIN record throughout childhood (and perhaps adulthood as well) would travel beyond the issue of adoption disruption.

The second intriguing reform in this bill is the ban on using IV-E reimbursements to support foster children under the age of 16 for whom the stated permanency goal is Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA), the federal term for a goal of long-term foster care as opposed to adoption, reunification or a guardianship.

For teens 16 and up, child welfare agencies would have to demonstrate to a court the reason why APPLA was a rational goal.

Such a restriction would essentially say to states: If you want to set children and younger teens on a path to age out, you can do so without help from the federal government. And if you want to give up on finding a family for older teens, you need better have a good reason.

At the federal level, there is no love for APPLA. Leaders in Congress who helped set it up as an exception in 1997 regret doing so, and a former foster youth interning on Capitol Hill last summer made an eloquent argument as to why it’s a bad idea.

But the view from 20,000 feet is much clearer. Plenty of state and local leaders would probably say, without microphones or tape recorders around, that there are definitely youths below the age of 16 who have no chance of reunification with their families and no prospect for adoption.

We could look back in five years and say that the tightening of APPLA was a harbinger of the new federal philosophy on foster care. Two foundations (Annie E. Casey and Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative) are pushing for limitations on how long IV-E funds would support any youth, especially those in group care.

The APPLA language in the Baucus bill emanates from legislation introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who share’s those foundation’s interest in curtailing congregate care.

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

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