Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Adoptive parents and criminal records

    According to news accounts, Renee Bowman, the woman suspected in the gruesome killing of her two adopted children, children for whom she'd first been a foster parent, had a misdemeanor conviction for threatening to hurt someone, twice filed for bankruptcy and lost her home to foreclosure.

    The worst response to this would be some kind of knee-jerk demand to bar anyone with a record like that from becoming an adoptive parent. There are a great many very good, loving parents who have brushes with the law at some point in their lives. As for bankruptcy and foreclosure – a lot of very good people who probably never thought it would happen to them got the shock of their lives when the housing crisis hit.

    There have been many cases across the country where wonderful people, particularly grandparents, have been denied custody of their grandchildren because of some minor and/or long ago offense, and the grandchildren have suffered terribly for it. If the D.C. child welfare agency or Mayor Fenty or the DC council jerk their knees in the direction of some absolute rule that people can't adopt if they've committed a crime like misdemeanor "threats to do bodily harm" it will only compound the tragedy. Indeed, the harm of going to this kind of extreme is aptly illustrated in this column from the Houston Chronicle.

    These kinds of issues in a potential foster or adoptive parent's background should be treated not as red flags, but as yellow flags – cause for caution and cause to slow down. Take a hypothetical case in which the same record turns up tomorrow – so there is no issue of hindsight. In such a case agencies need to ask: What, exactly, were the circumstances surrounding the misdemeanor conviction? Were the bankruptcies a result of irresponsibility or circumstance? Do they suggest someone who might be becoming a foster parent for the wrong reasons?

Those are the kinds of questions which should be answered before a child is placed in any foster or adoptive home.

What we need to know in the Bowman case is: Were these questions asked? Was there a diligent effort to get honest answers? And if not, was that because of pressure to get adoption numbers up?

It is possible that the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency didn't even know about the problems in Bowman's background. The screening was subcontracted to a private agency – and it's not clear how much that agency knew, and how much that agency told CFSA. But now, details are starting to emerge, and they are disturbing. According to today's Washington Post:

In 1999, according to D.C. Superior Court records, Bowman, in a vehicle, pulled alongside [a] 72-year-old man's car and angrily demanded that he pay her for damages to her car caused during an earlier accident. The man, who was with a woman, quoted Bowman as yelling: "I want my $900. . . . If that [expletive] wasn't sitting next to you, I'd whup your [expletive] right now." He said Bowman continued to follow him and threaten him that day, at one point saying she would "get the drug boys around the corner" to break into his house and beat him. Bowman received a 6-month suspended sentenced and was put on probation for a year.

Had Bowman sought to adopt a child for the first time many years later, and had she had a spotless record after this one incident, then there would be reason to proceed with the adoption. But the first adoption occurred only two years later.

But this incident raises other questions: Bowman was foster mother to these children before she adopted them. Was Bowman already a foster parent when this happened? Did CFSA know about the incident? If not, why not? If so, did CFSA, at a minimum, step up supervision of the Bowman home?

And underlying all of this is the enormous pressure for adoption-at-all-costs. If the private agency knew about Bowman's problems and didn't tell CFSA, or never checked her background thoroughly, is that because everyone is under so much pressure to get those adoption numbers up? If CFSA knew and went ahead anyway, is that because of the rewards, financial and otherwise, that come with increasing adoptions?

Federal data show that CFSA's most "successful" year for adoptions – by far – was 2004, the same year two of Bowman's children were adopted. Indeed, this was the one year D.C. did well enough to collect bounties from the federal government because the number of finalized foster child adoptions exceeded a baseline number in federal law. The adoption of two children by Renee Bowman that year probably brought in $16,000 for CFSA. (Again, I am speaking here of bounties paid to state and localities, not the perfectly legitimate subsidies paid to the many good, caring adoptive parents all over the country.)

And it's not just the bounties that put the wrong kind of pressure on frontline workers and agencies. There's also pressure because boosting adoptions is the one and only sure way for a child welfare agency to get good press. How many times have you read some treacly feature story about "adoption day" when the courthouse is opened on a weekend, adoptions are finalized en masse amid cake and balloons etc. Every child welfare agency knows that the good press is guaranteed - and no one is going to look too hard at how the numbers were increased. (By the way, has anyone wondered: Given that child welfare agencies always claim their priority is reunification, why do almost no child welfare agencies anywhere in the country have special days to celebrate reunification?)

As I said two days ago, the main reason bounties and other incentives for adoption-at-all-costs are a problem is not that they will lead to many cases like this one, such cases are very, very rare. But the bounties do create incentives for quick-and-dirty slipshod placements, and that can cause a whole host of other problems for children.

Unfortunately, there already are signs that D.C. is looking at answers that are simple, obvious, - and wrong. According to the Post, some want to divert attention by focusing narrowly on how background checks and screening are done. But that won't change anything if nothing is done about the underlying incentives to ignore what is uncovered during the screening process. Others are talking about "post-adoption monitoring." But that is a contradiction in terms. If an adoptive family is "monitored" by the government after the adoption, then it's not an adoption. It's just foster care by another name. What's needed is not a change in post-adoption monitoring, but a change in pre-adoption incentives.