ACS’S 'KID' GLOVES

Date: 2007-09-16
Source: nypost.com

ACS’S 'KID' GLOVES

CITY LETS ADOPTERS $COFF AT CHILD LAW

By BRAD HAMILTON and ANGELA MONTEFINISE

September 16, 2007 -- The city has lost track of hundreds of adopted kids, even as it continues to pay their parents as much as $19,000 a year per child, The Post has learned.

Between 30 and 40 parents each month don’t respond to “verification” letters from the Administration for Children’s Services seeking proof the kids are healthy and still living with their adoptive moms and dads.

And the ACS does nothing to follow up - no site visits or calls are made, the agency admits - or verify the information that parents do provide them, such as school reports or medical records.

Adding to the problem is an exodus of adoptive families. Currently, 24 percent of families who have adopted New York City children no longer live in New York state.

Meanwhile, payments to adoptive parents have climbed steadily and now total a record $376.2 million - up from $243 million in 2000 - as officials push to encourage adoptions over long-term foster care.

The result is a system vulnerable to abuse, as in the case of Judith Leekin, the Florida mom charged with taking more than 1 million in New York subsidies for 11 adopted city children while abusing them.

Leekin, the ACS says, knew how to play the system, responding to its annual questionnaire each year but sending in phony report cards and other records to keep the checks coming.

The ACS has since opened fraud investigations into 327 other families, The Post has learned, checking to see if they, too, have become adoption mills where greed takes priority over parenting.

The agency is hoping to avoid another nightmare after Leekin was found running a house of horrors where she allegedly turned her children into prisoners, tying them up or handcuffing them, forcing them to sleep on a tile floor in their own filth and denying food, medicine and schooling.

The full extent of the horror is still being exposed.

A neighbor of Leekin’s in Port St. Lucie told The Post on Friday that she had no idea there were 11 kids living in the house because she had seen only one small boy, who used to spend hours weeding the yard in the hot sun.

“That was the best-kept house on the block,” said Carmen Rodriguez, who lives across from Leekin’s house, which is now shuttered and empty.

Despite the ACS probes, the agency says its hands are tied on subsidies, claiming weak state and federal laws stop it from withholding payments to parents who ignore letters.

The letters ask if parents are still caring for their adopted children and for proof of school attendance and medical care.

They warn that subsidies may be withheld if the recipient doesn’t respond.

But the money is not stopped. State laws and court decisions that went against the ACS on the issue have forced the city to pay, even when parents ignore verification letters, the agency says.

Many other states have the legal authority to revoke subsidies and don’t hesitate to pull payments if parents don’t comply. In Connecticut, adoptive families must sign a new subsidy contract every two years or the state cuts them off.

In New Jersey, parents must provide proof every 12 months that they’re still legally responsible for the child and providing financial support.

In Pennsylvania, childprotection agencies are mandated to verify annually that the families’ circumstances have not changed.

But in New York, all that’s required is for local authorities to remind” parents every two years of their “obligation to support the adoptive child.” The policy says nothing about revoking subsidies.

Also, other states, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, Texas and Florida, provide adoption support only until the child is 18 years old.

New York pays until age 21.

With 19,933 adoptionsubsidy recipients on the books in July, that works out to an average of $18,873 in payments to adoptive parents per kid per year.

Subsidies are determined by the child’s physical and psychological condition: $677 a month for a “normal” child; $1,089 for a “special needs” child; and $1,652 a month for an “exceptional needs” child.

Between about 350 and 500 parents a year blow off the ACS questionnaire, but authorities can do nothing to follow up. Interviews and site visits are prohibited by state and federal laws, the agency claims. In any case, many families are long gone: 4,702 have moved out of state, the ACS says.

The ACS says it’s now working with state and federal officials to get the legal go-ahead to cut off parents who don’t reply to its letters or who send in bogus paperwork.

But because there are no legal grounds for cutting off the cash, nonresponders still get the subsidies - half of which are supplied by the feds, 37.5 percent by the state and 12.5 percent by the city. The city has lost three times in court when it tried to withhold payments.

In 2002, an administrative law judge shot down an ACS bid to suspend subsidies to the adoptive parents of two handicapped boys who had been sent to live at residential treatment centers.

Under current law, adoptive parents are only required to sign a statesupplied subsidy contract, which says they have the “responsibility” to inform local authorities if they stop caring for the kids. Payments are subject to an annual review, the contract says.

But payments are almost never reviewed. One current and one former ACS caseworker told The Post that the agency all but ignores adoptive families.

“I had to check up on an adoptive family once that had lost touch with the agency,” said the current staffer.

“It turned out the mom just forgot to send in the forms and the kid was fine. But that was rare. I hardly ever check on those kids.”

An executive of a prominent New York adoption agency confirmed what the ACS told The Post.

“ACS really has no recourse whatsoever,” he said. “They may call up and say, ‘Hey, remember that form?’

The parent says, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ Then the phone hangs up, and that’s that.”

New School adoption expert Andrew White said, “Overall, the subsidy is a very positive thing,” because kids tend to come from poor households and have faced “a lot of trauma.”

But he added, “You’d think government would have some basic authority to make sure they’re getting something in exchange for the subsidy.”

In the wake of the Leekin scandal, the ACS says it’s made several changes to try to stop abuse.

Parents who want to adopt will now be fingerprinted, which will help root out those who use false identities - as Leekin allegedly did - to get subsidies under multiple names, the agency says.

“We believe that Leekin was one individual who purposefully set out to defraud the system through the use of false aliases, by hiding the children she’d previously adopted during subsequent adoptions,” said ACS spokeswoman Sharman Stein.

Stein stressed that the number of adoptive parents who don’t send in verification letters is “relatively small.”

She added, “Some of them may send in the information or do so the next year.”

ACS Commissioner John Mattingly said in a statement to The Post, “Our guiding principle must be that publicly financed adoption subsidy funds be spent for the support and welfare of the adoptive children.

“While this is what happens in the vast majority of cases, in those situations when that is not the case, the payment of subsidy money can and should be stopped.”

Additional reporting by Julie Kay in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

brad.hamilton@nypost.com

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