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Implications of the abandonment laws, adoption financial incentives, and language tangles

The financial landscape of adoption itself has changed greatly over the past 30 years here in the U.S.. It is important to study for example, what the implications of the new subsidies and tax breaks will be in relation to the legalized child abandonment laws.

Through those past few decades a number of initiatives both public and private have been created geared towards increasing the number of adoptions. While many were conceived of as a way to increase adoptions from foster care for example, the effects have often included private international adoptions as well. This is one of the core problems in adoption, that words like ‘adoption’ itself covers so much, allowing each individual to hear what they want to hear and assume what they want to assume about what they thought they just heard.

To one, upon hearing about an ‘adoption’ they may think of an 11 year old African American boy removed by the state from an abusive home situation, placed in foster care and now in need of permanency, stability and parents who won’t beat him. He is eventually adopted by relatives with state support as they would be unable to take him in otherwise. Had they not adopted him, he may well have remained in foster care bouncing house to house through the years until he aged out at 18.

To another, hearing the same word, ‘adoption’, they may think of a vanity adoption by a wealthy supermodel hoping for the tabloid publicity of childrearing without the downside of stretch marks. She flies off to another country to pick up her child, a photogenic “orphaned” girl amidst the flashing cameras of the paparazzi. Once she been adopted and brought back to the states, she is left to be raised by nannies while ‘mom’ jet sets internationally. When the media glare has waned, she adopts a second and hits the front pages again.

The bottom line is ‘adoption’ can mean both simultaneously.

(I haven’t even gotten into adoption as a means of movement growth, or for theological purposes, both of which play very central roles in not only a percentage of American adoptions, but also is a major factor in some of the recent adoption related legislation.)

Unfortunately, as government and industry has grappled with adoption, they have in many cases made assumptions about adoption as it being a ‘universal good’ and ‘universally child-centric’ even when provably, in at least some cases, far from an act by which parents are there for children in need, it’s clear we are finding children adopted to fulfill adopters needs. While adoption subsides are predicated upon the idea of adoption as inherently an act of altruism, and a civic good to be publicly supported (financially and otherwise), that again, is based merely upon one set of assumptions about the role of adoption and its place in society.

So for starters, let’s get some very basic assumptions about definitions out of the way.

Let’s talk about foster care. People hear the words and often assume you’re discussing an older child who is spending long periods of time in foster care. While often true, you may also be discussing an infant kept in foster care very briefly, a month or less. People also assume ‘adopting out of foster care’ is always being done by a family unrelated to the foster care, while in practice, you often have foster parents adopting the kids, or infants they foster. So to turn the initial assumption on its head, you may have a child just a few days old placed with a foster family, who perhaps a year or two down the line adopt the toddler. The kid has been with them almost from the beginning, but this still qualifies as a foster adoption.

Next, let’s discuss “special needs” kids. People hear “special needs” and immediately jump to the (incorrect) conclusion that one must be speaking of ‘a black kid’ or a child with severe medical challenges. Again, while some certainly are, the “special needs” classification covers many more kids. Some of the other criteria include membership in a minority group, medical conditions or handicaps (physical, emotional, mental), being part of a sibling group, or older than 5 years old, or (notably, in relation to the dump laws) abandoned with custody relinquished to the state. The precise definitions vary state to state (and the District, Washington D.C.).

Finally, let me just make brief mention of HWIs, or “Healthy White Infants”. These are the kids most sought after in the adoption marketplace. As they can be difficult to come by, they tend to pull top dollar.

All three of these must be kept in mind as we go into just a very brief overview of some of the financial landscape of adoption today.

Adoption now exists amidst a web of forms of financial assistance, both public and private. While there are some differences based on whether the adoption is international or domestic, and there has been some scaling of benefits tied to family income, there are now a number of programs offering financial incentives as a means to encourage adoptions.

One of the most important pieces of the financial picture is the Federal Adoption Tax Credit. Some agencies advocate taking out a short term adoption loan to cover the period between the adoption and when families receive the adoption tax credit itself. The tax credit can also be spread across multiple years.

There can be other forms of federal financial support offered to “special needs” or former foster kids through programs like Medicaid for medical assistance and access to social services as if the child were an AFDC recipient.

Fifteen states offer an additional state tax benefit (Arizona, California, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.) Many also offer additional grants and subsidies.

Even if the adoption has not been finalized, if the child has been placed with a family, they are still able to deduct the time the child is with them on their taxes as a dependent.

Federally, you also have the Child Tax Credit.

Beyond the tax incentives, there are also additional subsidies available to many families via the Federal Title IV-E program under the Social Security Act. The Title IV-E Adoption Assistance Program is for kids adopted from foster care and those deemed “special needs”. These monthly checks can continue until the adoptee is 18 or even 21.

(Recently, I blogged about the Renee Bowman case in Maryland and the $800 per child per month subsidy Bowman had been receiving, even as two of her three adopted children were dead, frozen in a block of ice. The third was being abused. None were apparently ever enrolled in Maryland public schools and to date, there has been no evidence the kids received any education at all. None the less, the checks kept coming as they were apparently not tied to actually proving the adoptees they were intended for the support of were still even alive.)

Both state and federal programs also have special one-time payments of non-recurring adoption expenses available for families adopting ’special needs’ kids. The special payments usually relate to the costs incurred in the course of the adoption itself.

Additionally, there are now numerous employers who offer their employees various forms of adoption assistance. Beyond family leave time, some workplaces offer matching funds or even outright financial assistance as part of their employee benefit packages. See the Dave Thomas foundation’s “Top 100 Adoption Friendly workplaces for 2008″ full list of America’s 2008 Top 100 for a sampling of what some workplaces offer to encourage their employees to adopt. (Dave Thomas, and the Dave Thomas foundation are yet another topic for another day. Don’t get me started… .)

An entire private industry has grown up around the financing of adoptions. Some portions of it are subsets of the banking industry, others are foundations or funds, some religiously motivated (adoption for movement growth or theological reasons.) Many offer low interest adoption loans.

Yes, you can even find places like the (evil) adoptiondotcom telling potential adopters they can put the kid on the their credit cards (suckers!) or better still,

If you can pay off the entire balance within the introductory period of a zero interest credit card, you can use this option free of interest.

While they advocate paying it off immediately, that’s hardly how most Americans relate to the plastic in their pockets. Care to contemplate the interest rates on that one? (Just what is the APR on little Suzy, anyway?)

Then there are those who, for example view “special needs” kids as their christian mission field , or “unreached people group”, (link opens a PDF) thus adoptions can become evangelical ‘missionary work’ (and potentially a suitable venue for “missionary funds”.)

More generally, there are those who view adoption itself as part of bringing children/so called “orphans” into “the house of the Lord” such as Steven Curtis and Mary Beth Chapman’s Shaohannah’s Hope, this too is another form of missionary work. The foundation is one of many such, (gathered under umbrella organizations such as the Christian Alliance for Orphans,) focused upon recruiting churches to fund church member’s adoptions, or “building the church” through adoption by way of “adoption ministries,” as a form of christian movement growth.

Perhaps the single most notable aspect of the adoption for movement growth schemes is that unlike most adoptions which are individual families making individual decisions, adoption for movement growth is marketing and resources geared towards mass adoptions, many people pooling resources so that many families can adopt as a means to benefit the entire structure. Lest one be quick to dismiss such, contemplate what has historically happened when religious groups decide to harness the power of the state for their political purposes.

Finally, there are those who simply stick their virtual palm out on the web and ask for cash to fund their adoption, usually via Paypal. For those who feel the need for a little more reciprocity while handing over the cash via Paypal, you’ll find couples using any number of gimmicks such as adopt-a-pixel. (Their about page is pretty standard.)

In any case, the above focuses upon the financial encouragement of adoption on the individual family level with structures such as government and private industry providing financial incentives, but there are additional financial incentives within the state adoption system itself.

States that are able to move larger numbers of kids out of foster care and into adoptions are given financial bonuses. Larger monetary rewards are available for placing kids deemed “special needs” (which yes, by definition, in some jurisdictions is going to include newborns and infants who pass through the “safe haven”/legalized child abandonment apparatus.)

The incentives to the states (& District), initially created under the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 had expired back at the end of September of this year, but have just been reauthorized and now expanded under the (just signed) Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008. The new law provides special financial incentives moving older kids faster, and increases the existing bonuses for placing “special needs” kids. Additionally states (& the District) are now required to notify those adopting, or considering adopting a foster child about the adoption tax credit.

The problem is, these incentives are based purely on the numbers, quantity not quality. States (and the District) earn bonuses purely on moving kids, not on whether or not these are good placements nor whether or not the placement is what’s best for the child.

Now coming back around to kids entering the system under the legalized child abandonment laws (dump laws/baby Moses laws/”safe haven” laws,) these same financial incentives will also apply to any kids adopted after being legally abandoned.

Legalized child abandonment at the local level has in actuality built a new door into the child welfare system. As in most states, the abandoner is considered ‘anonymous’, the infants (as all states other than Nebraska focus on either ‘newborns’ or ‘infants’) enter the system as essentially tabla rasa (blank slate) kids. They come with no ‘baggage’, usually no cultural history, nor medical history, no ‘pesky’ birthparents to be easily found at a later date, and in some cases no fathers (as the dump laws run roughshod right over many father’s parental rights.)

Perhaps most importantly, no high price tag. Why? Because once dumped they are wards of the state, usually placed in temporary foster care until a permanent adoptive family can be arranged for them.

Adoptions out of foster care can come at low to no cost to prospective adoptive families. Through the process, as I’ve documented above there’s an (et-hem), WEALTH of resources available to couples wishing to adopt dumped kids, and once adopted, the state may in fact pay them through ongoing monthly subsidies for taking the kid, up to potentially age 21.

At a time when international adoptions are undergoing constrictions with countries closing and agency consolidation, the dump laws provide a new domestic source. Not just any domestic source, a source that will provide some number of HWIs.

One of the biggest questions surrounding the dump laws relates to the redistribution of the now state collected kids. Are they being adopted in an equitable to all comers manner, or is there a certain degree of ‘line-jumping’ favouritism playing out in who gets them? Many couples wait long years for a child, while others, often with personal or political connections have been able to rapidly adopt the ‘dumplings’.

Rather than going for top dollar out on the open market, the state will actually end up paying couples to adopt them in a perfect storm of inverse economics.

We’re back to how words like foster care, or “special needs” take on whole new meanings when applied to the legally abandoned kids. These ‘foster adoptions’ or “special needs” adoptions will be often be of healthy white infants, the single most sought after commodities in the adoption market. Adopters will be paid to take them off the state’s hands, month after month.

With a deal that sweet who the hell needs stretch marks and childbirth?

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