Indiana Extends Foster Care to 23, Ponders Ways to Speed Up Adoptions

While lawmakers push Indiana’s child welfare agency to speed up and support adoptions, the state has green-lit a plan to extend the length of time youth can remain in foster care.

The Indiana Department of Children’s Services (DCS) announced this month that it would extend some foster care services through age 23 for youth who did not feel ready to leave at 20, the current ceiling. Meanwhile, the legislature is considering bills to let foster parents and relatives request the termination of parental rights for birth parents, and to mandate the payment of adoption subsidies, an area in which advocates say Indiana is sorely out of step with most of the country.

All of this is transpiring against a background of growing desperation as the state’s foster care population continues to skyrocket. The number of youth in Indiana care is up 87 percent since 2012, according to federal data, and the number of youth awaiting adoption is up 80 percent.

These moves do echo some of the recommendations made by the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, a firm hired by Indiana to help plan for reform. But none of them address what the group cited as a priority: reducing the state’s use of foster care.

A new law called the Family First Prevention Services Act offers federal money to help states serve more families without removing children from their families. That offer begins in October of this year, but Indiana has indicated its intention to delay implementation of the law.

A Longer Runway for Aging Out

From left, Sen. Hershman, Senate Pro Tem Long, Gov. Holcomb, House Speaker Brian Bosma, Rep. Brown gather as the governor signs the state’s biennial budget bill. Photo courtesy of Gov. Holcomb

Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) expanded foster care to allow youth to access independent living services to age 23, a policy that took effect Feb. 1.

“Our older foster youth need all the help they can receive to ensure a smoother start into adulthood, whether that’s to offset living costs or funding their education,” said Terry Stigdon, Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS) director, in a press release. “Extending services for two more years ensures they have crucial resources at their disposal.”

Indiana extended the age ceiling of its foster care system to 20 in 2012, tapping into federal funds made available from the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act. There is pending legislation that would bring that age up to 21.

In the meantime, the state will use its federal allocation from a different federal stream – the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program – to allow youths some foster care support until age 23.

The state’s Chafee allocations, which are pegged to recent foster care totals, have been steadily increasing from $4.5 million in 2016 to $5.8 million in 2018. But Indiana’s foster care population has skyrocketed, and based on first-quarter allocations in 2019, the state could draw close to $12 million in Chafee funds this year.

The expansion to 23 will allow youth to access independent living services that provide assistance finding affordable housing, teaching budgeting, aiding in job searches and providing financial assistance for education.

According to an Indiana Daily Student article, 121 students older than 18 currently receive voluntary services through DCS and other organizations. According to a recent Fostering Youth Transitions report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, there were 447 youth in care on their 18th birthday and only 129 on their 19th birthday, according to federal data collected in 2015 and 2016.

Any person who turned 21 after February of 2018, and had their child welfare case closed after the age of 16, will be eligible for the new extension, according to DCS spokesperson Noelle Russell. There is a cap on room and board assistance of $3,000 per youth.

Chafee funding was limited to age 21 before the passage of the Family First Act in 2018. A provision of that law permits states who have extended foster care beyond 18 to increase their Chafee ceiling to age 23.

More Support for Adoptions

Kristi Cundiff, the founder and president of the Indiana Foster and Adoptive Parents Resource and Advocacy Group, with her son Dusty, who joined her family through foster care. Photo courtesy of Kristi Cundiff.

Foster parents typically receive about $42 a day per child in Indiana. But in some cases, families willing to adopt foster children are offered far less.

Adoption subsidy struggles are nothing new for the state. From 2009 to 2014, Indiana didn’t pay any adoption subsidies when funding for the program shifted from counties to the state.

“Indiana probably has the most challenging negotiation process of states that have a consistent statewide program,” said Josh Kroll, project coordinator for the Adoption Subsidy Resource Center at the North American Council on Adoptable Children. “It seems like families have a difficult time with negotiating or families are being offered a much lower rate.”

Since the state qualifies for close to a 65 percent match on federal funding for adoption subsidies through Title IV-E – the federal entitlement for family, foster care and adoption services – “for every dollar the state puts in they’ll get back about $2,” Kroll said.

Adoptive parent Debra Moss filed a lawsuit against DCS in 2014 requesting more than $40,000 in unpaid adoption subsidies after she adopted her three grandchildren in 2012 after caring for them as a foster parent for several years. Moss’ lawsuit was ultimately settled out of court, and Indiana families were paid back $15.1 million in subsidies that had been withheld from 2009 to 2014.

Despite the success of the lawsuits, challenges remain, said Kristi Cundiff, the founder and president of the Indiana Foster and Adoptive Parents Resource and Advocacy Group.

Indiana State Senator David Niezgodski has introduced a bill to guarantee adoption subsidies.

“Throughout the subsidy negotiation process, they ask for financial records, they even ask for tax returns,” Cundiff said. “What should be a happy time is not a happy time because it creates a lot of anxiety and frustration.”

Cundiff speaks from personal experience. From 2008 to 2010, she and her husband were foster parents for a 6-year-old boy named Dusty with cerebral palsy and autism. His grandmother was struggling to parent two of her grandchildren and asked for help from Indiana DCS.

When Cundiff first met Dusty, he was living in a residential treatment facility. Over time, the Cundiffs built a strong bond with Dusty and his grandmother and ultimately wanted to adopt him (with her blessing). But the state, which was perfectly willing to pay them as foster parents, would not offer any adoption subsidy.

“In 2010 when I wanted to adopt, I had four biological girls in high school and college costs looming,” Cundiff said. “What they offered wouldn’t have covered the gas money to get him back and forth to therapy. I was traveling 40 miles four days a week. DCF wouldn’t support permanency for him.”

“Some families, they will negotiate a subsidy that is somewhat fair when others get nothing,” said Cundiff, who is also the founder and president of the Indiana Foster and Adoptive Parents Resource and Advocacy Group. “We have our state that’s not willing to support permanency of those children.”

State Senator David Niezgodski (D) has filed Senate Bill 398 to require the state to provide a subsidy to people who adopt a child with special needs, and establish a minimum amount up to the amount families would have received if they continued fostering the child. The bill would also require the state to set aside funds in the adoption assistance account to pay for the subsidies.

“We can do better,” Niezgodski said. “We want to make sure they have the tools to not only love these children, but are able to take care of them.”

A hearing about Niezgodski’s adoption subsidy bill is scheduled for Feb. 18. Advocates Kroll and Cundiff plan to testify.

A Faster Path to Permanency

While the low adoption subsidies offered to families is impacting permanency for foster youth, so too are delays on filing for termination of parental rights (TPR), Cundiff said. According to the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997, states are required to initiate proceedings to terminate parental rights when a child has been in foster care for 15 out of the last 22 months. There are three exceptions to that requirement: if the child is living with relatives, the agency documents a compelling reason that parental termination is not in a child’s best interest, or when the state has failed to provide services for reunification.

The state’s most recent federal child welfare review noted that “case review results demonstrated that timely filing of TPR is an area of challenge for the state.”

Sens. Erin Houchin (R) and Eddie Melton (D) have filed Senate Bill 1 to allow foster parents or relative caregivers to file for a termination of parental rights if the 15/22 timeline has been reached and a petition has not been filed by DCS or by an advocate for the child.

“At one point, we had 5,000 kids waiting for TPR,” Houchin said in a news article. “There were so many kids … in the system, some much longer than 15 months, up to two years or more. It’s not a good situation for the state of Indiana fiscally and certainly it is [good] for kids languishing in the process. ”

The bill is meant to allow foster parents and kin to take action if they feel the child welfare system is supposed to, but is not.

“It’s not a foster parent’s job, but if [DCS is] not willing to do that, someone has to step in to give these children permanence,” Cundiff said. “It’s not a conflict of interest when you have a child sitting and waiting and waiting for permanence.”

State Sen. Jon Ford (R) has similar provisions included in SB 534, which also establishes that foster parents have a right to attend and speak at court hearings on behalf of the children in their care.

According to federal data, the number of Indiana children whose parents’ rights have been terminated is up 21 percent since 2012. The number of children waiting for adoption is up 80 percent.

A System in Need of Reform

The number of youth in foster care has risen nationally every year since 2012, and Indiana is a leading driver of that surge. There were 11,190 youth in Indiana foster care in 2012, according to federal data; by 2017, the total was 20,904.

Data provided to The Chronicle of Social Change for its “Who Cares” project on foster care capacity suggests the state could see a decline in 2018. Last month, the number of youth in foster care was 14,749, according to DCS.

The state hired the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group to assess the child welfare system and make recommendations for reform. In a report released last July, the group said Indiana should bolster its ability to serve families without removing children, and narrow its maltreatment definitions to “exclude neglect which is based solely on poverty or limited, one-time lapses in parental judgment.”

The report did also recommend the extension of foster care to age 23. It also said DCS should study “outlier” counties where children in care stayed for a disproportionately long time to “determine what factors contribute to cases remaining open for lengths of time that exceed the state average by 20 percent or more.”

The Family First Prevention Services Act, which was signed into law a year ago this month, offers for the first time to let states seek reimbursement for foster care prevention under Title IV-E, the entitlement that currently supports only foster care and adoptive placements. As of October, states can draw IV-E funds for 12-month blocks of mental health, substance abuse and parenting services aimed at helping parents at imminent risk of losing custody of their children.

The law also limits federal funding for placements into group homes to two weeks – currently, there is no time limit on funds for those “congregate care” options. To help states prepare for that shift, the Family First Act permits states to delay implementation of the law for up to two years.

Noelle Russell, a spokesperson for DCS, told The Chronicle of Social Change that the agency has told the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that it will take a delay.

“In November, we indicated our intention to delay implementation for one year (meaning we hope to implement October 1, 2020),” Russell said, in an email.

John Kelly contributed to this article.

Note: This story was updated on February 12 with a more current count of youth in foster care.

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Kim Phagan-Hansel
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Managing Editor for Fostering Media Connections