Monday, September 29, 2008

Quick – abolish adoption!

    No, I don't really mean that. On the contrary, although it has often been misused, adoption is a vital component of child welfare, transforming the lives of thousands of children every year. Some birth parents truly are unfit and in many such cases their children really should be adopted.

    But if public and media response to child welfare tragedies were consistent, there would, in fact, be calls to abolish adoption in the wake of a case in the news today.

    It is a case with gruesome and eerie parallels to the case of Banita Jacks, the Washington D.C. mother accused of killing her children and leaving their decomposing bodies in the family home for months. In this new case, The Washington Post reports, the mother allegedly killed two of her children and stashed their bodies in a freezer in the basement. A third child, severely beaten, escaped from the home. In this case, however, the accused is the mother who adopted the children – from the Washington D.C. foster care system.

    After the Jacks case, there was a foster-care panic, a huge rush to take children from their homes – egged on by local media who supported Mayor Adrian Fenty's rush to scapegoat any employee of the D.C. child welfare agency who had come anywhere near the case. And all over the country, horror stories about birth parents killing their children are followed by calls to curb efforts to keep families together.

    So, now that a parallel horror has occurred in an adoptive home, will there be similar calls to rush children back in to their own homes? Will there demands to curb a rush to "adoption at all costs"? Don't bet on it. No, the usual pernicious double standard is likely to kick in: When the accused is a birth parent, it means there's a systemic failure, when it's a foster or adoptive parent, it's a fluke, supposedly fixable by tinkering with background checks or licensing standards.

    In fact, when adoptive parents kill it usually is a fluke – just as when birth parents kill. Though there is strong evidence of an alarmingly high rate of abuse in foster care, the same is not true in adoptive homes; apparently when parents make that extra commitment to adopt, it makes a difference. So, in fact, there shouldn't be a wholesale effort to curb adoption based on this horror story. The kind of consistency I'd like to see would be the kind that acknowledges that both kinds of tragedies are, thank God, extremely rare, and neither should be a basis for setting policy.

    There is one public policy change that should emerge from this tragedy – and one that should not.

    The one that should emerge is a questioning of the practice of paying states and localities bounties for every finalized adoption over a baseline number. The federal government now pays state and local governments up to $8,000 a head for such adoptions. (These are payments to governments – I am not talking here about subsidies to adoptive parents.) So in this most recent case, placing three children in the home of the adoptive mother who allegedly killed two and beat the third may have netted the District of Columbia $24,000. A bill awaiting signature by President Bush includes a provision raising the bounties as high as $13,000 per child in some cases.

The bounties create a clear incentive for quick-and-dirty, slipshod placements. Indeed, the bounties are at the heart of a scandal that has engulfed the State of Kentucky, involving tearing children needlessly from their own parents to rush them into adoptive homes. NBC Nightly News summed up the scandal well in this story.

    There are two other problems with bounties:

They encourage states to place children with families that may not be able to handle them and don't realize what they're getting into – increasing the risk that the adoption will disrupt. No one really knows how often this happens, because child welfare systems rarely ask questions to which they don't really want to know the answers. But some data are available in NCCPR's Issue Paper on adoption.

They have helped create a generation of legal orphans, with no ties to birth parents but no adoption either. The bounties have created a mad rush to terminate parental rights. But terminations are outrunning actual adoptions. That's one reason why the number of children who "age out" of the foster care system with no home at all has increased dramatically since the bounties began.

All of these are greater problems than abuse in adoptive homes – so, in fact, this latest case is not a reason to re-examine the bounties; it's the other problems that demand such a re-examination.

    But instead of looking at the bounties, which are enormously popular politically, there are likely to be calls to demand that adoptive parents be supervised by government in some way. That would be a huge mistake. The whole point of adoption is the message it sends to children: These people are now mom and dad. Period. You are no different in their eyes – or in the eyes of the government – than a child who was born to them. You no longer have to worry that you will be taken away on a moment's notice because some caseworker feels like it. Therefore, adoptive parents should be subject to no greater amount of restriction, regulation or oversight than birth parents. The way to reduce abuse by adoptive parents is to be more careful before the placement, not to stick the child welfare agency's nose into their business afterwards. Otherwise, it's no longer an adoptive home at all; it's just foster care by another name.

    If nothing else, this case illustrates that, whether the accused is an adoptive parent or a birth parent, the worst way to make public policy is based on the latest horror story.