Tag Archives: legislation

The Baby Veronica Saga: Denial of a Father’s Rights and Now a $1 Million Lesson

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to: http://huff.to/1iTVzAb

The last time most of us heard about the heart-breaking Baby Veronica case was several weeks ago, when the child’s Native American father gave up his years-long legal battle to retain custody of her, and her adoptive parents promised to maintain ties to her biological family.

Major Indian and child welfare organizations — including the Donaldson Adoption Institute – overwhelmingly decried the outcome as an unjust denial of a father’s right to raise his own child. Many television pundits and some adoption advocates, meanwhile, declared that a sad saga had ended happily because Veronica would now grow up in a loving family.

Alas, it’s hard to fathom how anyone can describe what has occurred — and is still occurring — in this case as “happy.” Furthermore, the saga has not ended at all, and proceeding as though it has would deprive us of the opportunity to learn its many important lessons: about the critical right of fathers (and mothers) to parent the children they create, about the corrosive effects of money on the adoption system, and about thesordid chapter in U.S. history when Native American children were systematically removed from their communities and placed for adoption.

First a quick recap: Veronica’s mother, Christy Maldonado, placed her newborn for adoption with a South Carolina couple, Matt and Melanie Capobianco, in September 2009. Dusten Brown, the child’s father, was preparing to deploy to Iraq with the Army at the time; he subsequently said he was deceived into signing relinquishment papers and sued to gain custody of Veronica, which he succeeded in doing in December 2011. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in July 2013 in favor of the Capobiancos, and Veronica moved back in with them two months ago.

That brings us to last week, when the Capobiancos’ pro bono attorneys asked a court to order Brown and the Cherokee Nation to pay them $1 million in fees. It’s hard to describe this late-stage maneuver — against a nearly destitute father and the tribe that supported his effort to raise his own daughter — as anything except punitive. And it’s even harder to reconcile the request with the cooperative transition to an open adoption that the Capobiancos had promised.

This latest chapter in a young child’s heart-rending saga does offer an opportunity, however, to step back from the details of the custody battle and consider its many important lessons. They notably include the role that money has played throughout this case, which has been replete with ethically dubious actions by the parties who, in the end, prevailed over Brown and his supporters. Here are several examples:

• The South Carolina director of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, which handled Veronica’s adoption, arranged for her own husband – who is an adoption attorney — to represent the Capobiancos. While not explicitly prohibited in South Carolina, such arrangements are viewed as a serious ethical problem in other jurisdictions. The concern is that, in such a situation, it could appear that an attorney had loyalties other than to his/her ostensible clients; in addition, even if the clients had issues with this conflict of interest, they might not risk complaining out of fear that the agency would put their adoption at risk.

• The Capobiancos arranged and paid for Maldonado’s attorney. As a result, there was the prospect — or at least the appearance — of divided loyalties, since the Capobiancos were paying the bills. Though permitted by South Carolina’s lax adoption laws, this is also a practice that has been widely derided as unethical. The American Bar Association in 1987 concluded that the conflicts of interest inherent in such “dual representation” cannot be reconciled because the interests of birth and adoptive parents are so distinct.

• According to several media outlets, the Capobiancos were quite generous to Maldonado during and after her pregnancy. While states generally permit some payment of living expenses for women contemplating adoption for their babies, most set limits as a way of curtailing potential economic inducements for mothers to feel pressured or, worse, to effectively sell their children. While no details have been disclosed about payments to Maldonado, for context, it is known that two judges who reportedly have approved unorthodox payments — such as television sets and breast augmentation surgery — were recently called to testify before a grand jury in Oklahoma (where Veronica was born).

• During her pregnancy, Maldonado cut off all contact with Brown, which prevented him from asserting his right to parent his child. Under South Carolina law, an unmarried father can only contest an adoption he has lived with the mother or has paid significant prenatal expenses. On the advice of her counsel (reminder: paid for by the Capobiancos), Maldonado closed both of these doors by ending contact, even directing hospital staff to pretend she had never been admitted if Brown called. Notably, through the entire case, he was never found unfit. Rather, the final South Carolina court decision — after a remand from the U.S. Supreme Court — said he not only had no right to object to the adoption, but also did not even have a right to a hearing to determine the best interests of his daughter.

• Moving out Veronica out of Oklahoma after her birth presented another obstacle because of her Native American heritage, which Maldonado disclosed at the outset to Nightlight and the Capobiancos. The adoptive parents were legally required to secure Oklahoma’s permission to move the child to another state, under a federal law known as the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC). They were also required to alert her tribe prior to relocation under the federal Indian Child Welfare Act. The problem for the Capobiancos, Nightlight, Maldonado and their lawyers was that if they followed legal requirements and alerted the Cherokee Nation, the tribe was almost certain to block the child’s removal from Oklahoma and prevent the adoption request from even being filed.

The child’s Indian heritage was not revealed, however, until it was too late to matter. In the initial inquiry to the tribe prior to the child’s birth, Maldonado’s lawyer misspelled Brown’s name and gave an incorrect birthdate, preventing the tribal connection from being made. This misrepresentation was compounded after Veronica’s birth, when Maldonado incorrectly listed her as Hispanic on the forms necessary for ICPC approval. Maldonado later testified that she accurately disclosed her daughter’s heritage with everyone involved at the outset, including the lawyer hired for her by the Capobiancos and Nightlight’s Director (who, recall, was married to their attorney). Maldonado’s testimony raises serious concerns about what everyone involved in supporting the adoption knew and when they knew it. In any event, the result was that the Cherokee Tribe was left unaware, and thus unable to stop the adoption from going forward.

And what of the $1 million request for attorneys’ fees? To be sure, the fact that the Capobiancos’ lawyers initially agree to work pro bono should not prevent them from now seeking payment for their services. Nevertheless, the request has to be viewed in the context of the sordid events that preceded it. Nightlight, the Capobiancos, Maldonado and their lawyers appear to have orchestrated a series of events that resulted in separating an infant child from a fit father who wanted nothing more than to raise his own daughter, and who did so for almost two years until an extraordinary series of legal decisions took his child away. Seen from this perspective, the request could easily be interpreted as a resounding message to any young parent who thinks to stand up to powerful industry that is too often fueled by a profit motive.

If adoption is to be a humane, thoughtful and ethical process, everyone’s rights must be protected from deceptive or predatory practices, and that means mothers and fathers — pointedly including Brown — should never be deprived of their children simply because they were legally out-maneuvered. It also means that a law designed to protect Native American culture should not be skirted or subverted to expedite any single adoption. And it means that statutory and regulatory action simply has to be taken to minimize the corrupting influence of money in a system that is meant to serve the interests of vulnerable children and adults.

Adam Pertman, President of Donaldson Adoption Institute

Bruce Boyer, Director of the Civitas ChildLaw Clinic at Loyola University in Chicago

 

 

Eye-opening Insights Into International Adoption, Orphans, Special Needs and “Re-homing”

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to: http://huff.to/1aFxZ4t

A chilling story has been getting considerable attention in the news during recent weeks: Adoptive parents around the U.S., feeling unable to cope with the severity of their children’s problems, are using the Internet to informally move them into new families — without any professional guidance, support, monitoring, supervision or regulation. The process is called “re-homing,” and it clearly needs to be addressed (i.e., stopped) with targeted laws, policies and practices.

At the same time, this phenomenon needs to be viewed as more than a window into the struggles of a relatively small number of people. Rather, it should be understood as a cautionary tale about what can happen when parents are not prepared for the needs of the children they adopt, and don’t receive the necessary training, support or services to meet those needs (see “Keeping the Promise“). It also should be seen as the tip of an iceberg of unmonitored, unregulated adoption-related activities taking place on the Internet (see “Untangling the Web“).

Finally and pointedly — in the context of a new study by the Donaldson Adoption Institute titled “A Changing World” — the “re-homing” story should be understood as an insight into the emerging realities of intercountry adoption, because nearly all of the children in the news being “re-homed” were adopted from abroad.

The Adoption Institute study shows that a growing number of the girls and boys being adopted from other nations today are not the infants of adoption’s recent past but, instead, are older and sometimes have serious special needs. As a result of this new reality, the study recommends (among many other things) that best practices be created, reshaped and implemented to enable all their families to succeed and, for those with severe problems, to prevent the kind of distress that leads desperate parents to seek radical solutions like “re-homing.”

“A Changing World” represents the most extensive independent research into intercountry adoption to date, including into the regulatory framework/treaty called the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption (HCIA). The research was conducted over the past two years by scholars at Tufts University and the Institute; among its components are surveys of about 1,500 adoptive parents, adoption professionals in the U.S. and other “receiving” countries and countries of origin, as well as interviews with senior policymakers in 19 nations.

Key findings in the study, based on the responses from parents and professionals, as well as an extensive literature review and additional research, include:

• More children are remaining in orphanages for longer periods of time, thereby incurring the increased developmental and psychic harm that comes from being institutionalized, while also diminishing their prospects for ever moving into a permanent family.

• Though many prospective parents chose intercountry adoption to avoid contact with children’s families of origin, a fast-growing number change their minds and seek connections — which is leading to a growing increase in international open adoptions.

• Many countries of origin, including the largest ones such as China, are increasingly allowing the intercountry adoption primarily or exclusively of children who have special needs, are older, and/or are in sibling groups (to be adopted together).

• While the overwhelming focus for children in U.S. foster care is finding permanency domestically, American officials are also endorsing adoptions for some of them into families abroad. Ninety-nine children were adopted out of the U.S. last year..

• There is greater transparency and consistency in the international adoption process, as well as an increased focus on the best interests of and protections for children who need families, though there is great variability from country to country.

• The ongoing changes in the world of intercountry adoption have contributed to a steep drop in numbers (from a peak of almost 23,000 adoptions into the U.S. from abroad in 2004 to fewer than 9,000 last year and to rising costs that can exceed $50,000.

Based on its analysis of the research findings, the Institute’s recommendations include:

1. To the greatest extent possible, countries of origin should provide more-complete and accurate diagnoses/records on medical and mental health issues; these are often lacking, so it is more difficult for adopting families to prepare for and meet their children’s needs.

2. Receiving countries should offer more training and resources to help countries of origin improve their child welfare and adoption systems, thereby helping more children while showing that their primary interest is not just increasing intercountry adoptions.

3. Receiving countries should provide preparation, services and supports for adoptive families; the research found they too often do not know where to turn, and the help they need sometimes is not available. Preparation on special needs and openness is critical.

4. To the extent possible given economic and social realities, countries of origin should develop and provide better adoption education and supports for domestic families. The goal should be that more children can be placed in families in their own communities.

5. Adoption practitioners should provide more and better information for prospective and adoptive parents about the prospects/realities of making and maintaining contact with families of origin, and about positive ways to navigate possible relationships.

Intercountry adoption has changed comprehensively in the last few decades — and is still in the midst of its transformation from a robust but largely unmonitored process through which tens of thousands of infants and toddlers moved into new homes annually, into a smaller but better-regulated system serving primarily children who are older and/or have special needs. At the same time, uncountable hundreds of thousands (and probably far more) of boys and girls of all ages remain institutionalized in countries around the globe, many if not most with minimal prospects of ever living in a family or reaching their potential.

The accumulation of greater knowledge about adoption is critical to shaping, improving and implementing the laws, policies and practices that are ostensibly designed, first and foremost, to serve these children’s interests and to enhance their prospects for better lives.

Adam Pertman, President

Ellen Pinderhughes, Senior Fellow

Donaldson Adoption Institute

 

A Family for Life: The Vital Need to Achieve Permanency for Children in Care

Permanency equals a sense of belonging. When it comes to permanency for youth in care, there’s one simple fact: it’s a basic human need that everyone should be entitled to. We should all know where we go at Christmas.

Lisa Davis

This quote from a young woman providing testimony to a Canadian parliamentary committee  underscores the overwhelming, essential nature of belonging in a family – something most of us take for granted and can scarcely imagine being without. The Donaldson Adoption Institute issued a report today, entitled “A Family for Life” – based on extensive research throughout the U.S., England and Canada – on 22 practices that facilitate the adoption of children from foster care. The report provides a preview of and introduction to a book-length Compendium on these innovative strategies that the Institute plans to publish in late 2013.

The nearly two dozen practices examined in “A Family for Life” are important throughout a child’s journey through placement. Some minimize the trauma experienced by girls and boys in the child welfare system; others assist children in coping with life experiences and transitions, thus facilitating their adjustment and placement stability; and still others help to find families and to enhance their ability to successfully parent their children. These practices are grouped into five categories: organizational practices, court practices, recruitment and retention of permanent families, pre-adoptive casework processes, and supporting and preserving adoptive families. The Compendium provides the following for each practice: description, key program elements, lessons learned, outcomes and selected resources.

Here are a few examples of innovative strategies identified in relation to specific practices:

  • The Department for Education in England publishes “Adoption Scorecards” for local authorities, which are publicly available. These scorecards show how quickly children in need of adoption are placed, and they graph local authorities’ performance on several key indicators in relation to the country as a whole, thus giving those local authorities the opportunity to monitor their own performance and compare it to others.
  • The strategic use of specialized adoption staff has been linked with improved adoption outcomes; for example, following the addition of a block of 25 new adoption workers in New Brunswick, Canada, the number of adoptions from care increased by 300%.
  • A project in Colorado, Denver’s Village, uses six Community-Based Diligent Recruitment Teams to target specific geographic areas. When the project began, children waited an average of 34.6 months after termination of parental rights to achieve permanency; after the project’s first four years, the average dropped to approximately 13 months.
  • England requires adoption agencies to assess and plan for any contact that children adopted from care will have with their birth families and to offer all parties support in maintaining contact. Research there indicates a large majority of adoptive parents in direct contact arrangements remained satisfied that contact was in their children’s best interests.

Based on the range of practice knowledge and research synthesized in the Adoption Institute’s Compendium, a number of recommendations appear self-evident:

  • In statute and policy, provide clear requirements for achieving permanency for every foster child who cannot return home and operationalize this expectation through organizational leadership and culture.
  • Facilitate tracking outcomes at every level of the system in order to understand the barriers to permanency and to enforce accountability for achieving it.
  • Use aggressive family-finding and engagement to maximize the use of relatives as permanency resources for children in care, as this contributes to their well-being.
  • Reduce barriers and disincentives to adoption or guardianship with adequate, reliable subsidies to those who make the commitment to becoming parents to children in care.
  • Incorporate sound casework practices that minimize damage to children and youth in the child welfare system by initially placing them with families who are likely resources for alternate permanency; supporting them to understand and cope with traumatic experiences; and minimizing the extent of their losses by stabilizing placements, requiring Lifebook work, and facilitating the level of openness in their best interests.
  • Monitor court timeframes in order to avoid unwarranted delays in achieving permanency – delays which themselves lessen a child’s chances for adoption.
  •  Employ a range of recruitment and retention strategies to find permanent families for children and youth in care, including promoting consumer-friendly practices to retain families who apply to adopt.
  • Provide a continuum of adoption support and preservation services to stabilize at-risk placements and enable families to successfully parent children to adulthood.

Adoption provides a lifetime of benefits for children who cannot return to their families of origin, including the emotional security of caring adults and a committed family to ensure that their needs are met. Gaining a family for life not only transforms the futures of children in foster care, but also brings benefits to child welfare systems, governments and communities. For example, one economist found that every dollar invested in the adoption of a child from care returns about three dollars in public and private benefits (Hansen, 2006). Adoption also delivers societal benefits after these children become adults, such as reduced likelihood of their receiving public assistance, having criminal or substance abuse involvement, or experiencing a range of other difficulties affecting individuals, their families and the communities in which they live.

“A Family for Life,” in a sense, provides a toolkit for doing a far better job for the tens of thousands of children in public care who need permanent, loving, successful families. Child welfare and adoption professionals, policy-makers and governments at every level owe it to these girls and boys to use it.

Susan Smith, Program & Project Director

Adam Pertman, Executive Director

Donaldson Adoption Institute

 

Legalized Infant Abandonment Roils Europe; Where’s the Debate in the U.S.?

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to: http://huff.to/13WOsN7.

A colleague emailed me a few days ago to suggest that I listen to an NPR story headlined “Spread of Baby Boxes Alarms Europeans,” about the growing number of facilities – now in at least 11 of the continent’s 27 countries – where newborns can be legally abandoned. “I’m very glad we don’t have anything like this in the U.S.,” my friend wrote.

Alas, she was wrong. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have implemented so-called Safe Haven laws during the last decade, with exactly the same intent as the Baby Boxes: to save newborns from being left in horrible places (dumpsters and the like) by providing safe alternatives. In Europe, they are hatches at designated buildings into which babies can be placed and then retrieved by trained workers on the other side; in America, they are usually hospitals, firehouses or police stations, where personnel inside can accept the child.

The big difference between their approach and ours, apart from the logistics, is that there’s a substantial debate in Europe over the effectiveness and wisdom of legalizing infant abandonment – with human rights advocates and the United Nations calling for an outright ban on Baby Boxes – while there’s barely a peep in this country because, thus far, lawmakers have accepted this bottom-line argument: “If it saves just one bay’s life, isn’t it worth doing?”

It’s a powerful, emotional, compelling argument. Alas, it is also deeply flawed.

The best social policies result from solid research, thoughtful planning and careful implementation. Unfortunately, these basic standards haven’t been applied to the laws that address the disconcerting, very real problem of infants being abandoned in dumpsters, bathrooms, and other dangerous places.

Instead, with too little information about the causes of the phenomenon or the potential effectiveness of the response, lawmakers nationwide have created these so-called “safe havens” – again, usually hospitals, police stations and firehouses – where new mothers can legally desert their babies, anonymously and without the risk of prosecution.

These well-intentioned laws spread so rapidly during the past decade because they promised an intuitively appealing, easy fix. But complex social problems are rarely resolved through simple, feel-good solutions. So it’s no surprise that the Donaldson Adoption Institute’s examination of the issue, entitled “Unintended Consequences,” not only concluded that there was no evidence the safe haven statutes work, but also found that they had serious drawbacks. The Institute is in the process of conducting research to update this report, which was published several years ago, but indications are that its findings remain true.

In a nutshell, the core flaw in these laws is that a mother who is so distraught or so in denial that she would stuff her newborn into a trash can is not likely, instead, to ask her boyfriend for a ride to the police station. The Institute found that disconnect to be the major reason unsafe abandonments were continuing unabated, even in states that advertised their “safe havens” on highway billboards and in public-service TV commercials.

Women in distress need counseling and support, not to mention pre- and postnatal medical assistance. But these laws don’t even pretend to offer resources to help mothers deliver healthy babies or to resolve the traumas that lead them to jeopardize their newborns’ lives.

This don’t ask, don’t tell approach does open a Pandora’s box, however.

It undermines the established legal rights of biological fathers to parent their own children, for instance, while precluding grandparents and other relatives from helping to care for the mother or her child. Alternatively, it creates the opportunity for irate boyfriends or disapproving family members to coerce an emotionally fragile teenager into deserting her baby, or even to take the child themselves and anonymously abandon it.

Perhaps worst of all, these laws proclaim, loud and clear, that deserting a child is socially sanctioned behavior. That’s an unnerving message for our culture to be sending. And we know anecdotally that it is being heard: Some women who never would have thought to deprive their offspring of genealogical, personal, or even critically important medical information are doing so now, because they’ve been given an option that’s less of a hassle than receiving parenting counseling or filling out an adoption agency’s paperwork.

So there are indeed infants being left at safe havens, but there’s no evidence that many – or perhaps any – of them would have been left in horrible places if these laws didn’t exist. Rather, they very likely are children who otherwise would have been adopted through traditional means or been raised by birth relatives, but who now must grow up without any prospect of knowing the most basic facts about themselves.

The Adoption Institute report raised other red flags, too, from specific concerns such as whether these laws actually encourage women to conceal their pregnancies and give birth unsafely, to the sweeping indictment that anonymous abandonment flies in the face of recognized best practices developed for decades by child-welfare and adoption professionals.

The proponents of safe havens and Baby Boxes most effectively answer criticism by saying their approach is worthwhile even if it saves just one baby’s life.

I have an alternative suggestion: Let’s aim higher. Let’s conduct the solid research, and then do the thoughtful planning and careful implementation. That way, we can develop policies that help women who face crisis pregnancies, prevent infant abandonment – and maybe, just maybe, save all the babies’ lives.

 

Adoption Subsidies: A Vital Tool for Families Adopting from Foster Care

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to: http://huff.to/RhtYve.

More than 104,000 children in the United States are waiting in foster care to be adopted by permanent, loving parents. These girls and boys, who are on average 8 years old, typically remain in temporary situations for over three years before being placed with “forever families.”

The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 aimed to help waiting children achieve permanency by requiring states to provide subsidies to parents who form families through adoption, thereby removing financial barriers that prevented many of them from doing so. These subsidies, at a median of just $485 a month, help families meet the basic needs of their children, including such critical services as health care, therapy or tutoring to address their sons’ and daughters’ physical, mental, cognitive and developmental challenges.

Adoption assistance helps many families adopting from the child welfare system – the vast majority of whom are foster parents (54%) or relatives (31%) who have very low incomes.Nationally, nearly half (46%) of families adopting from care are at or below 200 percent of the poverty level. State data reveal a similar trend: In Illinois, one study found most (56%) of families had annual incomes under $35,000 (excluding subsidies) and another found almost one-third (30%) had annual incomes under $20,000 (including subsidies).

Many parents report they could not have afforded to adopt without a subsidy. Among adoptive and prospective adoptive parents of foster children in a multi-state study, a big majority (81%) said subsidies were important to their decision to adopt and more than half (58%) said they could not have done so without them. In a study of success factors associated with families’ adoption of children from care, two-thirds (66%) of parents said they needed the subsidy to be able to adopt. The top barrier to foster care adoption cited by African American families is the lack of financial resources to support additional children.

According to economic analyses, subsidies “have a positive and statistically significant effect on adoption rates” and “subsidy policy is the most important determinant of adoptions from foster care that is under the direct control of policymakers.” A Department of Health and Human Services’ evaluation found that “adoption subsidies are perhaps the single most powerful tool by which the child welfare system can encourage adoption and support adoptive families.”

Finally (for now) research shows that adoption yields cost savings versus foster care. One economist found that every dollar invested in adoption of a child from care returns about three dollars in public and private benefits. Another study concluded that the government cost savings for the 50,000 children adopted annually from foster care ranges from $1 billion to $6 billion.

Despite all of this evidence (and more) about the value of adoption subsidies, when states experience budget shortfalls, they often decrease child welfare spending – including by limiting adoption subsidy amounts and/or restricting eligibility. To counter this trend, the Adoption Institute and the North American Council on Adoptable Children have created advocacy materials for parents, professionals and other activists to use at the state level. These resources are available at http://www.adoptioninstitute.org/advocacy/subsidies.php; they include:

  • An Issue Brief, “The Vital Role of Adoption Subsidies: Increasing Permanency and Improving Children’s Lives (While Saving States Money),” that presents research illustrating the critical value of subsidies to parents, states and, most pointedly, to children who need families.
  • Resources with state data (as well as general legislative, budget and child welfare policy sources) to supplement the national information in the Issue Brief. This information is designed to make the most compelling case possible to state legislators and their staffs.

As part of this campaign, the Adoption Institute and NACAC are seeking feedback from adoptive parents and child welfare professionals about the specific need for adoption subsidies in their states and any proposed limits to those subsidies, as well as their experiences educating lawmakers’ offices. To provide input, ask questions or offer suggestions, please visit: http://www.adoptioninstitute.org/advocacy/subsidies.php.

In an era of increased emphasis on evidence-based policy, maintaining adequate adoption subsidies is not only in the best interests of children, it is a sound investment in an effective strategy to saves states money. Modest payment increases of 10 percent could result in nearly 100 additional adoptions from foster care in a state in one year, while reducing these allowances undercuts vulnerable children’s chances of placement in secure families, gaining stability in their lives, and achieving better outcomes and prospects for their futures.

Georgia Deoudes, Policy & Legislation Director

Adam Pertman, Executive Director

Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute