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Advocates: Suit over unpaid subsidies emblematic of DCS' shortcomings

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Adoptive families who’ve sued the state and likened the Department of Child Services to deadbeat parents for failing to pay promised subsidies to people who adopt foster children aren’t alone in feeling slighted, child and adoption advocates say.

“It is bringing a lot of hardship on a lot of families,” said Dawn Cooper, director of the Indiana Post Adoption Network. “It’s definitely an issue that needs to be fixed.”

Focus_foster_2014-0630_141113-15col.jpg Debra Moss of LaPorte displays photos of three brothers she adopted from foster care. Moss is the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit involving DCS’ failure to pay adoption subsidies. (IL Photo/Dave Stafford)

Cohen & Malad P.C. of Indianapolis last month sued DCS on behalf of about 1,400 Hoosier families that adopted special needs children from the foster care system and claim that they were denied subsidies that had been promised “if funding becomes available.” The suit contends those parents are owed more than $100 million.

Debra Moss of LaPorte is the lead plaintiff in the class action and an adoptive mother of three brothers in foster care. At a news conference recently, Moss said it was “heartbreaking” that DCS had returned hundreds of millions of dollars to the state treasury since the subsidy payments stopped being made in 2009.

“How is DCS any different from the birth families they had to be taken away from” for failing to support the children, Moss asked, comparing the agency to a deadbeat parent. She said she cares for her adopted children on her Social Security income and that the subsidy – about $18 per day per child – would allow her to better meet the boys’ needs.

The extra money might allow her to sometimes buy their clothes from places other than thrift stores, for instance. “I thank God I can sew,” she said.

DCS spokesman James B. Wide said in a response to inquiries, “We are aware of the lawsuit, however, it is our policy to not provide comment on cases that are pending or in litigation.”

In 2009, DCS assumed responsibility for making the payments from counties that had done so previously. The department later placed families on an adoption subsidy waiting list that said subsidies would be provided if funding became available. Meanwhile, from 2009 to 2013, DCS returned more than $236 million to the state, according to the lawsuit.

Attorneys said Indiana appears to be the only state that isn’t making payments to families as an incentive to adopt children from the foster care system. Cohen & Malad managing partner Irwin Levin said while Indiana claims a budget surplus, “they’re creating this surplus on the backs of these kids.”

At the same time, keeping children in the foster care system is costing the state more – $25 per child per day or more – compared with the subsidy that’s capped at 75 percent of the state’s care costs.

Attorneys also suggested the state’s failure to pay the subsidy is a factor in the adoption rate in Indiana plunging by 35 percent since 2009.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 38 of 50 states decreased foster care populations from 2000 to 2012, but Indiana bucked the trend. During that time, the total number of Hoosier children in foster care increased more than in any other state except for Arizona and Texas.

Focus_foster_bars.gifChris Morrison, executive director of the Indiana Foster Care and Adoption Association, said the allegations in the suit seem to reflect a culture within DCS. She believes DCS Director and former Lake Superior Juvenile Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura thinks adoptive parents should receive financial help, but agency attorneys who negotiate adoption subsidy agreements play hardball, often starting with the presumption that even parents who qualify are entitled to nothing.

Morrison said in some cases, attorneys have made adoptive parents “feel intimidated and ashamed for even thinking about attempting to get money.” She recalled a parent being told in one DCS negotiation that if she couldn’t afford to care for her adopted children that she should get a second job.

“Fiscal responsibility is one thing; slapping people in the face with this rhetoric is quite offensive, actually,” she said.

Most foster parents who would seek adoption have the experience to know how much a child’s care costs, and available subsidies often don’t cover the costs of care, Morrison said. Statistically, foster children are likely to be adopted by lower- to middle-income parents who are related to their adopted children a little less than half the time.

“We know these children have high levels of need, and it doesn’t go away just because they’re adopted,” she said.

Shelbyville attorney Mark McNeely is a former welfare attorney and a past chair of the family law section of the Indiana State Bar Association.

McNeely is currently representing a couple in their late 50s who applied for a subsidy to help raise a grandchild who is blind, deaf and developmentally delayed. They were denied.

“Hopefully, the state will reconsider,” he said. “At this point, it may take a strong arm of the court.

“There are a multitude of reasons we have these helpless children, and something really needs to be done,” McNeely said. “If we don’t help them at this point in life, we’re going to be paying their hospital bills, therapy bills, whatever bills they’re going to have in the future.”

Morrison said DCS’ posture has been counterproductive to efforts of her organization and others initiated more than a decade ago to encourage adoption of foster children, and as a consequence the population of foster parents available to adopt children has declined considerably.

“Adoption creates a better life for our foster children and for our community,” she said. “It prevents homelessness, it prevents institutionalization and it prevents crime. It’s a win-win.

“We practically begged people to adopt children out of the foster care system,” Morrison said. “Why wouldn’t we help them?”•
 

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