Adoption Assistance Must
Be a Budget Priority
by Diane Riggs, NACAC Staff
Published in the Winter 2008 issue of Adoptalk
The U.S. economy has hit hard times. According to a January 24 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) report, more than 25 states are anticipating budget problems and 17 are already projecting a combined shortfall of $31 billion in fiscal 2009—which in many states begins July 1, 2008.
When faced with deficits, states must deplete reserves, cut expenses, or raise taxes. Unfortunately, rising enrollments and expenditures have made adoption assistance programs a tempting cost-cutting target. As more children are adopted from foster care, and fewer are deemed eligible for federal support, states must spend more and more to support adoptees with special needs. Despite this financial hardship, states should never victimize children and their adoptive families by reducing subsidy payments to balance state and local budgets.
Howie’s father left shortly after Howie was born, and his mother asked child protection to take him away before she hurt him anymore. She said she had “never liked this kid.”
Howie drooled, choked on everything, and was developmentally delayed. Aggressively resistant to being held or cuddled, he screamed and scratched at his face. Eventually he was diagnosed with fetal alcohol and drug effect, borderline autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and attachment disorder.
In addition to paying for Howie’s therapies and supports, his adoptive family had to keep replacing or fixing items he destroyed. Though they dearly loved their boy, his parents were only able to make ends meet because of adoption subsidy benefits. With the assistance, Howie keeps his forever family, and the state avoids the cost of caring for him in a specialized group setting year after year.
While not every family cares for children who have as many needs as Howie, each family who adopts an abused or neglected child from foster care faces a predictably unique set of challenges. Diminishing support is not something these families should have to worry about. And yet California, Maine, and Oregon are all proposing to reduce subsidies so they can balance their budgets.
In California, where the CBPP report projects a $14.5 billion 2009 deficit, the 2008–2009 budget would cut “funding for child welfare services through a reduction in basic care, specialized care, and clothing allowance rates in the foster care, Kin-GAP, and adoption assistance programs.” In total, funding for child welfare services would fall by $168.1 million, and subsidy payments would drop 10 percent, even for families with signed adoption assistance agreements.
In Maine, a $95 million budget hole on January 1 is widening due to lower than anticipated 2007 tax receipts, and pending federal Medicaid rule changes. In Governor Baldacci’s supplemental budget, released January 10, the Department of Health and Human Services’ budget is slated to shrink by $70 million. Among proposed cuts is a July 1 cap on daily adoption assistance payments that is 30 percent lower than current rates.
In Baldacci’s December 2007 $38 million emergency curtailment order, Health and Human Services sustained cuts in mental health and therapeutic services for non-Medicaid-eligible children—including children adopted from foster care whose birth parents’ incomes were “too high.” The children may have needs equal to or greater than those of their Title IV-E-eligible peers, but the federal government does not cover Medicaid or adoption assistance for them, and states are thus left to provide or limit services as they choose.
Oregon is not even on CBPP’s list of states with looming deficits, but legislators there are discussing ways to check the rising tide of adoption assistance payments. Combined state and federal adoption spending, according to a story in The Oregonian, has risen from $88.2 million in the 2003–2005 budget to $129 million in the current two-year budget. An expected 10,705 children will receive subsidies in 2007–2009—about 1,200 more than in 2005–2007. Representative Richardson thinks agencies should find more parents who will adopt without a subsidy and Representative Flores asserts that Oregon should revise eligibility requirements so fewer children can access these payments.
As Mark Courtney—executive director of Partners for Our Children and the Ballmer Endowed Chair for Child Well-Being at the University of Washington—recently asserted, adoption subsidy cuts are “simply a poorly thought-out cost cutting strategy.” Cuts discourage foster parents and others from adopting and, as economist Mary Eschelbach Hansen points out, adoption improves cognitive, educational, social, and economic outcomes for at-risk children in care. In addition, researcher Richard Barth recently reported that the 50,000 children who are adopted from care each year save the government $1 billion to $6 billion.
Youth who leave care without a caring family face a difficult future. Studies note that those who age out of care are much more likely to have educational deficits and periods of homelessness, experience health and mental health problems, and come into contact with adult welfare and justice systems.
Findings published in Ending the Foster Care Life Sentence: The Critical Need for Adoption Subsidies indicate that adoption subsidies are not just less expensive than foster care, they are vital to parents’ ability to adopt. And, though other states are facing budget problems like California and Maine, several have recognized this truth and made child welfare a priority.
On January 14, New Jersey Governor Corzine announced that the state placed a record number of children for adoption in fiscal 2007. And, though facing a $2 billion to $3 billion 2009 shortfall, Corzine’s 2008 Department of Children and Families budget grew $49.4 million. New funds will continue to help the state support at-risk families, prepare foster and adoptive families, and enhance family-centered therapeutic services for children with serious emotional disorders.
Virginia has a projected $1.2 billion 2009 funding shortfall, yet Governor Kaine’s 2008–2010 budget proposal requests a $36.2 million increase to raise foster care and adoption payments. Other increases would strengthen parent recruitment and retention programs, and finance the First Lady’s “For Keeps” initiative, a program that aims to forge permanent family connections for older children in care.
After less than a month in office, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear announced on January 4 that the state’s fiscal 2008 budget is $265 million short. “Nothing is off the table,” he asserted, but neither his Budget Reduction Order for 2008 or proposed 2008–2010 budget includes cuts to child welfare funding. In fact, daily adoption assistance rates rose by three dollars last July 1 (the first day of fiscal 2008).
Economic downturns force governments and individuals to make tough choices. While weighing different options, state and federal governments must:
- Consider the long-term fiscal and social consequences of reducing support for vulnerable children. About 150 parents met recently to discuss proposed rate cuts in Maine. Half said they would refuse new placements if the change takes effect. Most states do not have a surplus of adoptive families, and children in care who never achieve the stability of a permanent family are far more likely to require costly public assistance as adults.
- Offer federal support to all children in foster care and adopted from care regardless of their birth parents’ income. When more children are eligible for federal Title IV-E assistance, states will save money and children who have special needs will more uniformly receive the help and services they need.
- Meet adoptive families’ support needs. Adoption subsidies pay for some services, but families can also benefit from assistance afforded by parent and child support groups, respite care and training opportunities, and contact with experienced mentor families—important options that cost little.
When announcing his emergency curtailment order last December, Governor Baldacci acknowledged that Maine’s families and businesses were struggling. “They have to tighten their belts,” he said, “and government must do the same.”
As states brace for lean years ahead and officials reflect on budgeting decisions, they must remember that belt cinching is the responsibility of adults, not children. It is hardly fair for states to exact concessions from children whom the state has legally orphaned.