The Adoption Subsidy: Good Intentions Unfortunate Realities

Despite alarming cases of abuse, the child welfare system still lacks strict safeguards to make sure parents who earn fees to care for children actually provide a nurturing home.

Dawn Post / citylimits.org
June 7, 2013

The adoption subsidy system in New York State is subject to abuse by adoptive parents who no longer have adopted children in their care. This regular and visible abuse of the system is particularly concerning given the well-publicized case of Judith Leekin. In 2007, Leekin was charged in Florida for abuse and maltreatment of her eleven adopted children, all of whom she adopted in New York City. In addition to the abuse allegations, Leekin was charged in federal court for fraudulently obtaining adoption subsidies received from New York. Because the children adopted by Leekin all suffered from some physical or mental disability, she was eligible for and received elevated adoption subsidies for the care and maintenance of each child. In total, Leekin received approximately $1.68 million in adoption subsidies from the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (NYS OCFS).

Following this alarming case, stricter standards to monitor children who continue to live with the adoptive parents and to ensure that they are being properly cared have not been enacted. This is alarming because of the financial abuse which results in cases where these children are placed back into foster care. Placement can result from a voluntary placement, delinquency, PINS or abuse and neglect case. In these circumstances, adoptive parents continue to receive the adoption subsidy even though the child is no longer in the physical care of, or receiving support from, the adoptive parent, and the permanency plan is one other than return to the adoptive parent.

Prior to the adoption finalization adoptive parents sign an adoption subsidy and non-recurring expenses agreement. This agreement states that the subsidy payments will continue to be paid to the adoptive parent until the child’s twenty-first birthday provided that they support the child. The importance of the adoption subsidy is highlighted in the legislative intent of the law which created it. That is, to promote permanency and eliminate, if not substantially reduce, the number of hard to place children in long term foster care situations. Certainly, the legislature did not intend that the adoptive parents continue to receive subsidies for the care of these hard to place children when the children are returned to long-term foster care situations (precisely the situation that the subsidy was intended to avoid). However, because the adoptive parent continues to receive the adoption subsidy until the child’s twenty-first birthday, even if the adolescent is returned to foster care, there is no incentive for the adoptive parent to work on services to keep the child or, following placement, to plan for their return. As a result, a number of adolescents placed remain in care indefinitely.

It seems that the state only ends an adoption subsidy if an adoptive relationship is formally dissolved. While conceivably the city or state could sue the adoptive parent for child support, it is virtually unheard of. Because of its limited nature, the family court cannot vacate the adoption subsidy. As a result, unless the adoptive parent voluntarily stops accepting payments or turns over the adoption subsidy to the agency or to a new caretaker, the adolescent’s care is, in effect, paid for twice by taxpayers.

Ultimately, it is the adoptive parent’s responsibility to update the agency yearly regarding the child’s educational status. However, there is no affirmative obligation placed upon the agency to track the progress of the family. The agreement essentially assumes that the adoptive parent is going to be forthcoming about the parent’s relationship with and care of the child. Although it is possible that the failure to provide the educational status update would alert officials to investigate an adoptive child’s situation, it is unclear what would happen as a result and how that would occur. Additionally, the state is not required to verify educational documents submitted, thereby allowing individuals such as Leekin to submit fraudulent documents falsifying the children’s school records to receive monetary support without actually providing for the adopted children.

The indictment against Leekin by federal authorities seemed to make clear that had the state been aware of Leekin’s treatment of the children, as well as her abandonment of one of the children in particular, it would have ceased providing her with the adoption subsidy. A civil lawsuit filed against the city in 2009 on behalf of ten of the children (the eleventh disappeared while in Leekin’s care and is presumed dead) because of the city’s failure to effectively monitor the children and Leekin was recently settled for $9.7 million.

However, almost six years after Leekin’s scam was uncovered, this issue should have been addressed and better safeguards put in place to monitor children who have been adopted and the subsidies that are attached to them. This is not to say that there are not a lot of fabulous adoptive parents who remain committed and available no matter what the circumstance. Surely they would not be opposed to the state imposing stricter standards requiring agencies to follow up on adoptive parents to ensure that children continue to live with the adoptive parent they were placed with. In addition, NYS OCFS and NYC Children’s Services should create administrative procedures to suspend the adoption subsidy when children are placed back into care.

While state authorities may feel hamstrung by federal regulations to terminate the adoption subsidy, in the alternative, they should pursue collecting child support on behalf of the child that is no longer in the care of the adoptive parent receiving the subsidy.

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