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State Adoptive Effort for Needy Children Criticized

Social services: Using O.C. case as example, legal advocacy groups say program breaks law by placing certain financial strictures on prospective parents.

September 24, 1997|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — In a sharp indictment of the state's effort to find permanent homes for abused and disabled foster children, two legal advocacy groups charged Tuesday that the program violates federal law and discourages Californians from adopting needy children.

The charge was made on behalf of an Upland couple who abandoned plans to adopt two children because of policies set by the state and enforced by Orange County officials, who have jurisdiction over the children.

"This is not unique," said Carole Shauffer of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center, one of the groups challenging the state's program. "There are many, many families in many counties who are deterred because of these policies. The result is that children are being denied permanent, loving homes."

Shauffer's group and another San Francisco organization, the National Center for Youth Law, outlined their complaints Tuesday in two letters--one to Orange County and one to Eloise Anderson, director of the state Department of Social Services.

The letter asks that plans to remedy the problems be made within 30 days. If no progress occurs by then, a lawsuit will be filed, Shauffer said.

Anderson was out of town Tuesday, and other state officials declined to comment. In Orange County, the director of social services, Larry Leaman, said he would investigate the charges.

"If this turns out to be a barrier to adoptions that can be knocked down, then I think we'd be all for it," Leaman said.

The attack comes at an awkward time for Gov. Pete Wilson, who wants to accelerate the adoption of so-called special needs children, a group that includes youngsters with physical and mental disabilities and those who were abused or neglected by their birth parents.

More than 22,000 such children are adrift in the state's sprawling foster care system, awaiting adoption.

To help rescue special needs children from an unstable life in foster care, the state and federal governments jointly fund the Adoption Assistance Program. The program provides adoptive families with monthly aid to cover counseling, physical therapy and other expenses.

Although the program may sound expensive--the budget is $140 million this year--maintaining a child in foster care costs taxpayers almost three times more.

Tuesday's letter says the state's administration of the Adoption Assistance Program violates federal law. Specifically, California is illegally using a "means test" to deny adoptive parents aid if their annual income is considered too high, the letter says.

The Upland couple, for example, want to adopt two siblings they have been caring for as foster parents. When they filed their paperwork, however, Orange County officials told them they would receive no adoption assistance because their annual income exceeds $60,000, Shauffer said.

She added that the couple, who have four children of their own, are currently receiving about $1,100 a month serving as foster parents for the siblings, ages 10 and 3. They cannot afford to go forward with the adoption if it means losing all of that financial support, Shauffer said.

"Clearly, this sort of policy is creating a disincentive for people to adopt," Shauffer said. "It keeps kids in foster care rather than helping them find permanent homes--which the state is legally mandated to do."

Federal regulations say that once a child is found to be eligible for adoption assistance by virtue of a disability or other special need, parents may not be denied aid "because of the level of their income or other resources."

"The purpose of the Adoption Assistance Program is to provide incentives for families of any economic stratum and to remove barriers" to adoption, according to documents from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Shauffer said the state is also violating federal law in a second way--by forcing parents to undergo a reassessment of their financial circumstances every two years. In some counties, the evaluation frequently leads to cuts in aid.

"Families are reluctant to make an irrevocable, lifetime commitment [to adopt] when the social service agency will only commit to payments for two years," Shauffer said. "They fear, with justification, that their payments may be reduced or eliminated."

Several adoption experts echoed those conclusions and agreed that some families are denied aid based on their income level--and then choose not to go forward with the adoption.

"This is definitely an issue that warrants attention," said Graham Wright, president of the California Adoption Agency Assn. "Any time a family feels any uncertainty about their financial ability to carry through with the adoption, it's going to prevent the adoption from happening."

Lansing Wood, president of a Palo Alto support group for adoptive parents, said the state policy unfairly expects families "to be willing to go bankrupt in order to adopt a special needs child."

"Many of the children available for adoption today are extremely needy and create extraordinary costs," Wood said. "The federal law is there to give parents assurance that they don't have to sacrifice everything when they adopt. That assurance has to be there if we want to keep these kids moving out of foster care."

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