Children Win in Adoption Subsidy Lawsuit in Missouri
Missouri: E.C. v. Blunt
U.S. District Court
Western District of Missouri
Foster and adoptive parents, as well as other child advocates and social services professionals in Missouri and nationally have reason to celebrate. On May 1, 2006, a federal judge issued a permanent order striking down a state law that included two very damaging adoption subsidy policies that were to be implemented in Missouri. One policy directly affected more than 14,000 adoptive families who signed adoption subsidy agreements with the state entitling their children to benefits until they turn 18, by retroactively making the agreements expire within one year and making them renewable at the discretion of the Director of the Department of Social Services. Another policy would have cut off subsidies to about 2,000 former foster children, based on how much their adoptive families earned, and would have reduced chances for adoption for thousands more children still in foster care.
During the 2005 legislative session in Missouri, legislators passed Senate Bill 539, which included two policies that would have harmed children adopted from the public child welfare system in that state. The first component of the bill terminated all adoption assistance benefits annually through an automatic expiration of a child’s adoption assistance agreement. The second component proposed to use the income of adoptive parents to determine eligibility for their child’s state-funded financial and medical assistance. The “means test” for select adoptive families was set at 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline (or 250 percent, as per the 2005-06 Missouri budget), which in 2006 is about $38,000 for a family of four. According to The New York Times, “Gov. Matt Blunt had pushed the law, saying that adoption subsidies were spiraling out of control and that it made sense to focus money on the neediest parents.” (New York Times, Judge bars subsidy cuts in adopting foster children by Erik Eckholm, May 2, 2006)
A coalition of attorneys throughout Missouri (including St. Louis University Legal Clinic and the law firm of Shook, Hardy and Bacon), along with the New York-based national child advocacy group Children’s Rights, Inc., came together during the summer of 2005 to file a class action lawsuit that would eventually stop Senate Bill 539 from being implemented in August 2005, as scheduled. NACAC, along with the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association (Kansas City) and the Missouri Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition (St. Louis) joined forces to educate parents on the impact of the proposed bill. Jeanette Wiedemeier Bower, Project Manager of NACAC’s Adoption Subsidy Resource Center, was called as an expert witness in the litigation.
In August 2005, Senior United States District Judge Scott O. Wright signed a Temporary Restraining Order that postponed the law from taking effect on August 28, 2006, and scheduled an initial hearing for September 8.
On September 8, after a hearing, Judge Wright issued a Preliminary Injunction Order to prevent the law from taking effect until a full trial could be conducted, allowing the judge to issue a permanent ruling on the class action lawsuit.
The final hearing was held on April 27 and on May 1, 2006 Judge Wright issued a Permanent Injunction Order to bar the State of Missouri from implementing the portions of Senate Bill 539 that negatively changed the adoption subsidy program. The ruling found that the new law violated federal law and the United States Constitution.
Violations of Federal Law
- The clause in Missouri’s S. B. 539 that retroactively made all existing subsidy agreements expire on their one year anniversary, and limited any new subsidy agreements to one-year was found to be in violation of the federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (as amended).
- Judge Wright also found that the clause in S.B. 539 that rendered all subsidy contracts renewable solely at the discretion of the Missouri DSS Director was in violation of the federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (as amended).
- The judge also found that by retroactively interfering with (and eliminating) the contractual rights of children and adoptive parents to subsidies – when these children already had signed contracts with the state entitling them to subsidies typically until they turn 18 – that S.B. 539 violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The clause that allowed for means testing the incomes of certain adoptive families was also found to be a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, as it unfairly penalized some children over others without adequate justification.
The State to Appeal
The Attorney General’s office, which defended the state’s position, filed an appeal within hours of the court’s final ruling. Immediately after the state filed its appeal, Missouri foster and adoptive parents launched a large-scale communication strategy to contact both the Attorney General’s office and the Department of Social Services. On May 3, a meeting was held between the attorneys in the case to discuss a possible settlement and discussions have continued.
To date, Missouri's, Attorney General has agreed to settle on one point. The judge cited the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on state laws that impair the obligation of contracts—essentially saying Missouri had agreed to pay adoptive parents of foster children and could not stop doing so after the fact.
The Associated Press reported the following:
“The Department of Social Services said it will accept that decision. It is our position, after reading the judge's ruling, that we've entered into a contract with those adoptive parents and those contracts should be honored,” department spokeswoman Deborah Scott said Monday. Attorney General Jay Nixon described the department's decision as ‘a dramatic shift.’ I am glad that Matt Blunt has finally recognized his policy was both misguided and illegal,” Nixon said in a statement Monday. “We have had preliminary discussions with the plaintiffs' attorneys on resolving the litigation and look forward to extricating the state from this lengthy legal battle.” (DSS wants to drop part, appeal part of adoption subsidy ruling, by David A. Lieb, May 16, 2006)
Unfortunately, the department wants to appeal two aspects of the ruling. The AP article cited above continues: “’Missouri has the option of restricting subsidies to future adoptive parents of foster children,’” according to spokeswoman Deborah Scott. ... “‘Blunt has asked the department to develop a new means of limiting state spending on adoption subsidies - one focused on the needs of the child rather than just the income of the adoptive family,’ Scott said.”
A future proposal of this nature would likely need to be reviewed by the legislature.
The National Child Welfare Community Weighs In
"This legislation is putting up barriers to kids who are already having a hard time getting out of foster care," according to NACAC’s Jeanette Wiedemeier Bower (Associated Press, “Judge hears more testimony on blocked adoption subsidies law” by Steve Brisendine, April 28, 2006). Wiedemeier Bower testified in a hearing in U.S. District Court that the proposed policies will have the effect of slowing up adoptions in Missouri and children will spend more time in out-of-home care. “If a child has to wait one day longer for a forever family,” she said, “we need to find a better way of balancing the budget. Means testing and automatic terminations of adoption agreements are lose-lose policies.”
John Amman, a law professor at St. Louis University who helped argue the case, described the ruling as an unqualified victory, according to STLToday.com. He said other states should be warned that cutting subsidies poses severe legal perils. "We do hope that this sends a message to the rest of the country," he said. (STLToday.com, Federal judge rejects Missouri law cutting some adoption subsidies by Matt Franck, May 1, 2006)
The New York Times reported: "We hope that this decision will stem efforts around the country to find inventive ways to cut budgets while harming voiceless populations," said Ira P. Lustbader, a lawyer with the New York based, national children's advocacy group Children's Rights that joined in the case with local advocates and parents' groups. "This law made no sense as a legal matter, as a policy matter, or as an economic matter." (The New York Times, Judge bars subsidy cuts in adopting foster children by Erik Eckholm, May 2, 2006)