Wednesday, November 25, 2009

For many years I ran an agency in Rhode Island that recruited families to adopt children from the state’s child welfare system. Like many such organizations, we had a “waiting child” feature on a local television station.

After a TV spot showing a 7-year-old black boy named Justin, I received a call from a woman in neighboring Massachusetts. She was a lawyer. Her husband was a doctor. Both were black. She told me that she and her husband had been considering adoption for several years. They saw Justin on TV. They were moved by his story. They prayed. And they decided that they would adopt this child.

But they never did. Rhode Island was not legally able to provide a “home study” to a Massachusetts family. And Massachusetts would not use precious state resources to prepare a family to adopt a child in another state.

The simple fact is that it is virtually impossible to adopt a foster child across state lines in the United States. Unless Congress acts to eliminate these barriers, this tragedy will continue to repeat itself every day.

At the time of the most recent National Survey of Family Growth, 600,000 American women were actively trying to adopt a child. The vast majority were willing to adopt the kinds of foster children we label as “hard to place” - black and Hispanic kids, older kids, kids with disabilities.

It is a national scandal that 25,000 children “age out” of foster care each year while willing adoptive parents are ignored because they are in the wrong state or even the wrong county. It is the worst form of slander to tell these children that no one wanted them.

How rare is interstate adoption? According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 311, 993 children were adopted from foster care between 1995 and 2003. With the exception of children adopted by relatives, only 1 in 533 children were adopted across state lines.

In 2003, the most recent year for which we have data, states reported that only 71 children were adopted across state lines by non-relatives. For perspective, the National Weather Service estimates that 600 Americans are struck by lightning each year.

Given the intensity of the need and the number of families that want to adopt, how is this possible? The primary reason is that we do not have a national adoption system. Instead, we have 50 different child welfare systems, each with its own process for adoption eligibility, recruitment, approval and training.

As a result, the process of adopting a child in foster care from across state lines is complicated, time-consuming and expensive, work that is beyond the reach of most overworked child welfare workers or overburdened child welfare agencies.

Even worse, our current system has created profound disincentives for states to facilitate and support adoptions across state lines. In a system where each state is only interested in the well-being of its children, states have very strong incentives to keep their families.

Each state pays the cost of recruiting and preparing their own families, with no compensation if the family adopts a child from another state. In other words, each interstate adoption has a “winner” (the state that sends the child) and a “loser” (the state that receives the child).

In the current system, it makes more sense for a state to keep an in-state family waiting indefinitely than to match them immediately with a waiting child in another state. This issue is particularly significant in large metropolitan areas that straddle state lines such as New York City, Chicago and Washington. In Washington, for example, while more than 150 children “age out” of foster care each year without being adopted, the nearby states of Delaware, Virginia and Maryland only finalized four out-of-state adoptions by non-relatives during one recent year. Contrast all of this with international adoptions. In 2008, American families adopted more than 17,000 children from other nations.

Incredibly, this win-lose pattern holds true across county lines within many states. North Carolina has 100 counties. It is extremely difficult for a family in Raleigh to adopt a child in Durham. This gets particularly complicated when you consider the vast number of variables for both prospective parents and waiting children. Parents entering the system do a great deal of soul-searching to decide what kind of child they are able to parent. When a pediatric nurse in a small community says she wants to adopt a child with spina bifida or other developmental birth defect, she may wait years before one is available in her community. Meanwhile 50 miles away, in another county, a child waits.

The extreme rarity of interstate adoptions of foster children is not common knowledge. For many years, it has been buried in federal statistics. But these numbers are very real and represent a tragic loss for many of the 125,000 children in foster care who are waiting to be adopted.

Congress must change federal law to eliminate the extreme disincentives to the adoption of foster children across state, and even county, lines. Children in foster care, and the parents who want to adopt them, deserve no less.

Jeff Katz is the executive director of Listening to Parents, a national organization designed to eliminate barriers to adoption of children in foster care.

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