To millions of Americans, state borders are virtually invisible — mere lines on a map that do nothing to block interstate travel, communication or commerce.
But for people who want to adopt a foster child in another state, state lines can loom as large and forbidding as the Berlin Wall.
“What do I tell a little girl who has been waiting for 14 months? Am I leading her on? Is this a big joke?” wrote an anguished Michigan mother who kept a diary on her two-year quest to adopt a foster child from Texas.
In 1997, Congress took aim at geographic barriers in the adoption of children from the foster care system.
The Adoption and Safe Families Act, signed by President Clinton, told states they could no longer “delay or deny the placement of a child for adoption when an approved family is available outside” their jurisdiction. States that blocked adoptions based on geography could face financial penalties.
The law also required states to step up their recruitment of families for children in foster care, especially by using Internet photo-listing sites, and keep records of these recruitment efforts.
Four years later, many adoptive parents and adoption specialists say that, despite the new law, interstate adoption is still not working as well as it should.
Glitches in the system
Dave and Glenda Kinghorn of Meadowlands, Minn., can testify to interstate adoption’s remaining glitches. The Kinghorns, who have adult children, used the Internet in 1998 to find three disabled children in foster care to adopt.
They approached a local social worker for help, but when they told her the children were in Louisiana, the social worker “said she wouldn’t touch us,” said Mr. Kinghorn.
The Kinghorns later learned that their county did virtually no adoptions outside the area. Other adoptive families they talked to were equally grim. “Everything we heard about adopting out-of-state kids was ‘Forget it, you’ll never see it,’” said Mr. Kinghorn.
The Kinghorns switched agencies, perservered and are now the proud parents of four adoptive children, all from Louisiana. But for a while, it was just a “rotten situation,” said Mr. Kinghorn.
Adoption practices in many states haven’t evolved to handle out-of-state adoptions, adoption specialists say. This is because adoptions have traditionally been done locally — it was simply easier to recruit families, move paperwork, arrange meetings, go to court and provide services when everyone lived in the same area.
Interstate adoptions have never been rare, but they were often done in conjunction with relatives adopting a child. If unrelated families wanted to adopt a child in another state, they faced fairly steep travel and paperwork hassles.
This pattern began to change in the 1980s, when the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s led to an explosion of children into the foster care system.
Soon stories were being written about hundreds of thousands of children “drifting” or “languishing” in foster care for most of their lives. Interstate adoption emerged as a possible solution.
Interstate adoption was given a huge boost in the 1990s, with the advent of the Internet and Web sites.
In the past, prospective adoptive families were introduced to foster children by local references or photo-listing books that had pictures of hundreds of children.
The Adoption and Safe Families Act has unquestionably led to improvements in interstate adoptions, say many adoption observers.
“I think real progress has been made simply by virtue of the federal government saying that people should be allowed to adopt anywhere,” said Adam Pertman, an adoptive father and author of “Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming America.”
“That means that a lot of kids who would not have gotten homes before have gotten them,” he said.
Indeed, many adoptive parents, such as Richard Erdman Jr., of Allentown, Pa., say they had an easy time with interstate adoption.
In 1997, Mr. Erdman said, he found a picture of a Rhode Island boy named Brian on an Internet site. Rhode Island officials were elated at the chance to place Brian, who has autism, with an experienced adoptive parent. They flew Mr. Erdman in to meet Brian and helped him with the adoption. Within six months, Brian was in his new home.
However, other families found interstate adoption to be a mixed experience.
Ron and Virginia Peterman of Lutherville, Md., for instance, were considering many children in 1997 when they received information about Michele in Louisiana.
They contacted the Louisiana agency in June and by the end of August, the lively blonde teen-ager was in their home.
“It was like it was meant to be,” said Mr. Peterman, a high school teacher.
But the Petermans had the opposite experience when they tried to adopt a second child, Forrest, from Oregon after seeing his picture in December 1999.
One of Forrest’s social workers in Oregon didn’t seem to know how to do an interstate adoption, which delayed the process by months, the Petermans said in a recent interview at their home.
Then crucial interstate-placement papers got “stuck” on the desk of a Maryland social worker, the couple said. Weeks passed, and it was only until another Maryland social worker took over Forrest’s case that the paperwork completed.
Forrest arrived in Maryland shortly thereafter, but the delay was enormously stressful to the Petermans and Forrest, who was 10 at the time. He has been with the Petermans since August 2000.
“He was anxious about the adoption,” said Mrs. Peterman. “He’d been in the system long enough to know that once you get into the double digits [in age], your chances of being placed with a family are greatly diminished.”
Jim Silcock and his wife, Ann Belles, had similar ups and downs with interstate adoption.
The Silcocks, who live in Huntington Beach, Calif., have adopted 18 disabled boys, including 14-year-old Hunter from South Carolina.
Hunter’s adoption two years ago “was a joy,” said Mrs. Silcock. The South Carolina workers “did everything” to make the process work.
But the couple’s attempt to adopt an 11-year-old New York boy with cerebral palsy failed after more than two years of “lost” paperwork and other inexplicable delays. By the time the Silcocks met the boy, he was a teen-ager and “too attached to his foster family” to be moved, said Mr. Silcock.
“It’s easier to adopt from Romania than New York,” he added, noting that their adoption of a boy from Romania was accomplished in nine months.
Lack of data
Progress in interstate adoptions is hard to track because of the lack of data, adoption experts said.
All public and private interstate adoptions are supposed to pass through a 40-year-old legal framework called the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC).
States, however, do not have to report on how many ICPC adoptions they process each year, which makes it hard to know what is happening with interstate adoption, said a House aide who is familiar with adoption laws.
When the Adoption and Safe Families Act was being debated, “Congress was assured that the ICPC was working well, but the states are not cooperating with it at all,” said the aide. As a result, interstate adoptions “are as stalled as ever.”
Moreover, even though Congress said states would be penalized if they blocked or delayed adoptions based on geography, “without investigations, oversight or data,” the penalty is virtually meaningless, said the aide.
Dennis Eshman, manager of an association for ICPC officials, said he had 1999 and 2000 ICPC data from 14 states. But with so few states reporting, he admitted, “there’s not even enough to extrapolate from.”
The only other source of ICPC information is a national survey conducted periodically by the National Council for Adoption.
The group’s Adoption Factbook III, issued in November 1999, showed that interstate adoptions amounted to 6.3 percent of the 115,689 domestic adoptions in 1992 and 6.6 percent of 108,463 domestic adoptions in 1996.
New data won’t be available for at least two more years, said council President Patrick Purtill.
Anecdotally, interest in interstate adoption seems to be growing: People associated with Internet support groups such as www.friends-in-adoption.org and www.adopting.org say they are constantly seeing more inquiries about interstate adoptions.
Internet photo-listing sites are also mushrooming, featuring thousands — instead of hundreds — of pictures of waiting children.
“One of the biggest changes has been in the way states do recruitment for children,” said Sue Badeau, an adoption consultant and mother of 22 children, 20 of whom are adopted.
When the National Adoption Center in Philadelphia started its “Faces of Adoption” Internet site in 1995, some state social workers were happy to place their foster cases on it, said Mrs. Badeau, who worked at the center at the time.
“But others were very reluctant. They said, ‘Why should I show a child on the Internet when I’m just going to get inquiries from other states and I’m not going to place this kid in another state?”
Today, “Faces,” which is located at www.adopt.org, features 3,500 children online and adds about 350 children a month, said Carolyn Johnson, executive director of the National Adoption Center.
To date, 419 children have been adopted from the “Faces” site, and at least 177, or 42 percent, were interstate adoptions, she said.
While the “Faces” site is the largest, there are around 100 Internet photo-listing sites that feature children in the United States waiting to be adopted, said a spokesman at the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse.
One area of adoption that hasn’t been modernized is the home-study process, said adoption experts.
The home study — a detailed review of a prospective adopter’s life history, finances and living conditions — is the all-important passport in adoption: Without the home study, families cannot pursue children, agencies will not talk to each other, social workers cannot make a match and children cannot be adopted.
Prospective adopters typically pay between $700 and $1,700 for their home study, according to the 2001 Adoption Guide, published by Adoptive Families Magazine in New York City.
The irony is that while many state and agency workers may be willing to place their foster children anywhere, there are some workers who view the families they recruited, trained and prequalified as “their families,” said Mrs. Badeau.
Public agencies run up costs doing home studies of families and “don’t want them to go somewhere else,” said Joe Kroll, executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children in St. Paul, Minn.
The Kinghorns of Minnesota ran into a major home-study problem when they tried to adopt three foster children from Louisiana.
After paying thousands of dollars to a private Minnesota adoption agency, the Kinghorns were stunned when the agency said it wouldn’t release their home study to another state.
An agency worker later said she would release the home study — for a fee of “$10,000 per foster child or $30,000,” said Mrs. Kinghorn.
“Apparently, [the private agency] would make more money on adopting special-needs Minnesota kids than they would on kids from out of state, because Minnesota would pay more for the kids,” said Mr. Kinghorn.
The Kinghorns turned to a public agency in Minnesota, but ran into a new problem — the county social worker.
First, the worker said she was too busy to do an out-of-state placement, and then she said she would not do the adoption “because you are white and the kids are black,” said Mrs. Kinghorn.
The Louisiana children’s social worker, who is black, “blew up at that,” said Mr. Kinghorn. “She told the state of Minnesota, and the state forced the county to get involved.”
Once the state officials took action, the adoption of the three children was finalized fairly quickly, said the Kinghorns. Their subsequent adoption of a fourth Louisiana child went “as smooth as ice,” said Mr. Kinghorn.
With interest in interstate adoption growing, adoption experts are compiling lists of solutions to address to the barriers in the process.
Social workers need more training on how to do interstate adoptions, and a national standard for homes tudies should be designed so states can accept each others’ documents more easily, said Madelyn Freundlich, an adoption researcher with Children’s Rights Inc. in New York.
There are also “real fiscal and resource barriers” in interstate adoption, such as travel costs and pre- and post-adoption services, which may need more federal and state funding, she said.
But the biggest change has to be one of attitude, said Ms. Freundlich.
“I think many people in the states still have difficulty letting go of ‘their’ children or ‘their’ families,” she said. With proper counseling and leadership, social workers will cease to be “so territorial.”
Meanwhile, to the children in foster care, moving to another state can be undesirable if it means leaving siblings or other established relationships.
But being adopted by the Petermans in Maryland made sense to Michele, now 18, even though she spent most of her life in Louisiana’s Cajun country.
“If I had restricted myself to the area I was living in, I would not have a family,” she said simply. “And this is the family for me.”