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Kill the bill: the Families for Orphans Act and the fraudulent ideology of permanency


Two months ago, we published an article about the Families for Orphans Act 2009, a piece of legislation co-authored by the Joint Council on International Children's Services (JCICS), a trade association for adoption service providers. We do believe in the power of repetition and in the need to oppose this bill, so today we will again pay attention to this attempt to institutionalize federal promotion of inter-country adoption practices on behalf of adoption service providers.

The Families for Orphans Act is the result of a lobbying effort of the so called  Families for Orphans Coalition, of which JCICS is the self-proclaimed leader, claiming to have written this specific bill. The proposed legislation is every adoption agency's pipe dream, unfortunately it is at the expense of children and vulnerable families.

The language of the bill is strongly embedded in the strictly American notion of permanency, which finds its roots in several studies of foster care children in the mid-1970's.

Faced with an explosive growth of children in foster care, researchers studied the effects of long-term foster care versus the effects of adoption from foster care and decided that on average adoption from foster care has better outcomes than long-term foster care. Based on these finding the notion of permanency was developed.

Policy makers, confronted with the explosive growth of children in foster care, sought means to cut the ever growing cost of child welfare programs. The findings that children in foster care fared worse on average than those being adopted, helped create the idea that foster care, which was defined as temporary, was worse than measures that were considered permanent.

Thus the child welfare system itself was declared evil, and getting children out of the system became the ultimate goal. As a result the notion of care landed on the back burner. The only possible care was seen as outside of the system, never within the system.

It's not hard to see why this ideology is so popular with law makers. When the child welfare system is defined as incapable of providing care, no responsibility has to be taken for the welfare of children.

Permanency is defined in two direction, either a child is reunited with its original family, or parental rights are being removed and a child is being made available for adoption. This bipolar approach to child placement negates all circumstances where children are better off in long term foster care, or where they fare best in an institutional setting.

Mark Twain was not entirely off the mark when he claimed:  "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."  The use of the research into the outcome of child placement measures is a perfect example of that. The keyword often missed in the debate about permanency is "average".

It may be true that on average children being adopted from foster care fare better than those that stay in long-term foster care, but that doesn't mean it is true for all children. There are children that cannot live with their parents, but do better when ties with their original family are being maintained. There are children for whom a family-style living arrangement is not in their best interest. There are children for whom informal placement within their family is the best possible solution.

Neglecting the fact adoption only works better on average, has created a rigid ideology in which an artificial preference ladder has been created in which adoption is always better than foster care, which in turn is always better than institutionalization.

This same line of reasoning has been applied to the results of the Bucharest Early Intervention Project. The research performed in this study shows that children in foster care on average fare better than children in institutions. Children in institutions on average show a developmental delay compared to children in high quality foster care.

This particularly study has in the past years been used and abused to great extent to further the cause of inter-country adoption. Dana Johnson , one of the participants in the study has even become a board member of JCICS. In a recently leaked document of the JCICS, the presence of Dana Johnson on their board was mentioned as something that lends the trade organization for adoption service providers some credibility.

The permanency ideology, furthered by inappropriate interpretation of scientific research, has created a one-size-fits-all solution, where tailor-made solutions should be provided. Instead of determining the needs of each child, case by case, family reunification is tried and when that fails, adoption is the default solution.

Family reunification and family preservation, while part of the permanency ideology, are in the context of foster care in the United States, underutilized. Ever since permanency was formalized in the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, budget cuts have gutted family preservation programs, while more and more money has been put into adoption. This is partially due to the cost effectiveness of family preservation programs. The less a program costs, the less money can be spent on lobbying for its existence. Wasteful programs have therefore more longevity than effective programs.

Another reason for the under-utilization of family preservation is fear of repeated abuse. If a child gets abused after being reunited with its original family, the press will vilify authorities. As a result, It is much safer for decision makers to remove a child permanently, even at the risk of abuse in foster care or adoptive families. If re-abuse happens post-placement, it is seen as a separate case, one that could not be prevented, while abuse after reunification is seen in the context of the original removal, hence could and should have been prevented.

To further eliminate the significance of family preservation, child welfare workers have developed the principle of concurrent planning, where the family preservation route is tried, while at the same time making all adoption preparations. Since adoption is the automatic fall back scenario, any failure to preserve a family results in adoption. So it's not unlikely organizations will cash in the money for family preservation, while at the same time go full steam ahead towards adoption. What concurrent planning really does is put two separate flows of money in the hands of one organization, which benefits most when a child is eventually being adopted.

The Families for Orphans Act tries to further formalize the fraudulent permanency ideology in federal legislation, by enabling the State Department with the tools to coerce other countries into adopting America's bipolar obsession called permanency. The proposed law requests the creation of an Office for Orphan Policy Diplomacy and Development, which has a coordinating, monitoring and advisory task. The proposed law also authorizes the President to provide assistance, including trade and debt relief, to foreign countries that buy into the permanency ideology. That provision can and should be interpreted as paying foreign countries to make children available for the inter-country adoption market.

Despite all sorts of lip-service to family preservation/reunification and domestic adoption, all members of the Families for Orphan Coalition have stakes in inter-country adoption. There certainly is extra money to be made by playing along with concurrent planning, but most of the income can be made through inter-country adoption. So the Families for Orphans Act, while claiming to be working in the interest of children in Third World countries, is effectively a law to guarantee an influx of children for the inter-country adoption market.

From a business perspective the act makes perfect sense. Over the years countries have closed their borders time and again in response to corrupt inter-country adoption practices, costing the adoption providers millions of dollars. The Families for Orphans Act allows the United States to legally bribe sending countries to keep their borders open, or to legally bribe sending countries to reopen their borders for inter-country adoption. From a business perspective this is much needed. The number of children placed through Inter-country adoption is dwindling fast, and many adoption agencies are facing bankruptcy, just like their trade association JCICS.

From a moral perspective the Families for Orphans Act of 2009 is an abomination that should be killed. The act redefines "orphans" in such a way that many more children will be deemed adoptable than now is the case. A child placed in a foreign foster care system is defined an orphan, for whom an adoption plan should be made. A sick child, being at a hospital is defined an orphan, for whom an adoption plan should be made. A child living with other family members without legal formalization is an orphan, for whom an adoption plan should be made. A child living with its parents at a shelter is an orphan, for whom an adoption plan should be made.

The act should be called: Orphans for Agencies Act of 2009, that would better reflect the true intention behind this legislation. It creates extra orphans and helps to keep the gravy train running through financial coercion of sending countries.

Actions speak louder than words, so we would like to help bringing this bill to its grave. Readers of this post can make a small contribution to this cause by casting a vote against the Families for Orphans Act of 2009, using this widget from washingtonwatch.com.

by Kerry and Niels on Thursday, 17 December 2009