For parent advocates, the answer to the problem of broken adoptions is clear: More needs to be done to keep families together. It's not just about investing more in preventive services, executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP), says, but about recognizing that "in the most fundamental of ways," we as a society are "not doing enough to build communities that are conducive to healthy family life…[including] access to living wage employment, decent affordable housing, safe schools, health care. This is why families fall apart," says Arsham.
Lauren Shapiro, the founder and executive director of the Brooklyn Family Defense Project, which represents parents with child welfare cases, notes that New York currently has a model of foster care that encourages biological parents and foster parents to move beyond their natural distrust to work together in the best interest of the child. Shapiro suggests that if the child welfare system focused its resources on recruiting foster parents committed to partnering with biological families not just in the short term but for the long haul, it might offer a better model of permanency for children with ongoing ties to their families of origin. "For me, the problem is that the law is very limited in terms of options, and the idea that children need a village doesn't really fit very well into it," says Shapiro.
Sarah Gerstenzang, executive director of New York State Citizens' Committee for Children, says long-term foster care is never the answer. Gerstenzang recalls the three years she waited to adopt the child she brought into her home as a baby as three of the hardest years of her life, both because of the constant intrusion of child welfare officials into their existence, and because of the painful uncertainty that came with the wait. (New York state has one of the longest wait times before adoption in the country, at a little over four years compared to the national median of two and a half.)
"Children don't have social workers regularly involved in decisions about lives. They have human beings that they're attached to, not paid employees. All the data supports that kids do better when they're out of foster care," says Gerstenzang.
Common ground emerges
Despite these differences, what is perhaps most significant these days is that adoption advocates and child welfare officials themselves say the child welfare system needs greater flexibility to meet the real and psychological needs of individual children and to insure the creation of at least one life-long committed relationship for every child who comes through the child welfare system, no matter what form that relationship takes.
In an interview with City Limits, ACS Commissioner Ronald Richter agreed that "for some young people, part of the reason adoption is disrupting is because their perception of natural family is being disrupted." Richter points to New York state's newly implemented subsidized kinship guardianship program as one hopeful alternative.
Up until now, children with relatives who were willing to raise them could do so through kinship care, which overrides ASFA timelines and allows a relative to care for a child indefinitely while remaining part of the foster care system. Subsidized kinship guardianship, on the other hand, creates a financially supported permanent legal relationship between a child and an adult outside the child welfare system. Unlike adoption, it involves no termination of parental rights. Rather, it allows relatives who are willing to raise their family member's child to do so without having to be in the position of legally replacing that parent. It allows children to find a permanent home outside the foster care system without having to accept new parents or a new identity. And a parent can petition to have it undone, if that parent's life circumstances and ability to parent improves.
In 2008, Congress passed legislation that allowed the federal government to pay states to subsidize kinship guardianship—providing guardians with financial support roughly comparable to the support they would receive if they were foster parents—and on April 1, 2011, New York state implemented the Kinship Guardianship Assistance Program, or KinGap. As of December 17th, 176 KinGap applications had been approved for processing in family court, though so far only 17 children have "achieved permanency" and exited the system through KinGap.
In his first Strategic Plan Update, Commissioner Richter called for ACS to work actively with agencies to identify cases where KinGap would be appropriate. He says that this a different message than ACS has sent in the past, when the attitude was: "Adoption was really the right permanency plan and kinship guardianship was not something we favored."
But Richter also acknowledges that KinGap is limited, in that it is only viable in situations in which a relative is available to step up to be a permanency resource for a child. When asked if similar options should be available for non-kin, he said, "Yes. The challenge is subsidizing it…You know, it took us a very long time to get [kinship guardianship]." Without federal support and federal funding, Richter explains, the states have little flexibility in what they can offer children and families.
For Zimmerman and Post, this lack of flexibility works against the best interest of children. In their report, they suggest that the creation of a national system of child welfare that pays bonuses to states not for adoptions, but for better outcomes and more stable homes, might do a better job of creating those life-long relationships that experts say are so important for the well-being of young people as they grow into adulthood.
In adulthood, an adoption works
Strangely, for Tanya (whom we met in chapter 1), life-long commitment has in the end come in the form of adoption.
After Tanya was kicked out of her home, she went to live at a residential treatment center. There, she said, a lot of people saw a lot of good in her and she thrived. She became an officer on campus. She joined Urban Word, an organization that teaches young people how to write and perform spoken-word poetry. She connected to the basketball coach, who encouraged her to start working out.
She also started smoking, a habit that her adoptive mother had always tried to shield her from. Still, Tanya thought she had finally been freed to come into her own, and that she would never need a family again.
But when it was time for her to leave campus, the workers on campus encouraged her to accept an offer to go to the home of Mary Keane, a recruiter for You Gotta Believe!, who had already adopted a number of teens out of the foster care system. Tanya thought it was as good an offer as she was going to get, so she went.
"I ended up being very attached to Mary," says Tanya. "Just the fact that she always wanted to say hi to me every day, and that she acknowledged the pain I went through. Mary was amazed by the fact that I still had a spirit, that my spirit didn't die out."
On campus, Tanya had been a model resident. But it was different in Mary's home. Tanya tested Mary again and again. She smashed things impulsively. She was rude. She smoked marijuana. When Mary grounded her, Tanya simply ignored her authority and walked out the front door. "I've had a lot of kids in my home," says Mary, "but no one pushed me the way [Tanya] pushed me." Mary says it was only because she had been working with traumatized teens for years that she was able to weather all that Tanya put her through.
But Mary didn't adopt Tanya for eight years. The relationship was too volatile, there were other children waiting in line for Mary to adopt, and then Tanya got caught up in an addiction to PCPs. It was a time when both Tanya and Mary wondered if Tanya would come out the other side whole. During this time, Tanya also learned that her biological mother was alive, but that she denied ever having Tanya and her sister.
Eventually, Tanya's focus shifted to recovery, and to building a life. Today, Tanya is an emergency medical technician. She also volunteers for FIERCE, a LGBTQ organization, recruiting young people to become activists like herself. This past Halloween, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, she and Mary made it official. Tanya was 23.
Tanya says she wanted to be adopted by Mary because if anything ever happened to her, it would be Mary whom officials would contact, and this makes Tanya feel more secure in the world. When asked if she would have wanted to be adopted by Mary if she had never been adopted in the first place, Tanya tells me she doesn't like to think in hypotheticals. Still, Tanya adds, it feels good to be adopted by someone she loves and who understands her. It feels good, she adds, that "this time it was my decision."
READ MORE: One Foster Child's Choice: Not To Be Adopted
S.D. held out hope that her parents would bring her home. That never happened. But avoiding adoption was her choice—and it was a wise one, her lawyer says.
City Limits coverage of child welfare issues is generously supported by the Ira W. DeCamp Foundation.