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D.C. child welfare law change leaves some behind

By Justin Moyer,

A change in the District’s child welfare laws designed to help adopted children and those with legal guardians has left some without financial support.

Before the D.C. Council passed emergency legislation in 2010, foster parents received subsidies of about $1,000 a month from the District’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) until their foster children turned 21, while guardians and adoptive parents received subsidies only until their wards turned 18.

The new law eliminated the discrepancy, but only for adopted children and those in guardianships who entered the system after May 7, 2010, leaving those already in the system without support checks once they turn 18. According to the CFSA, 142 children with guardians have had their subsidies terminated since the law changed.

About 800 families now receive subsidies from the city.

“Grandfathering in everyone would have been too expensive,” said Mindy Good, a CFSA spokeswoman.

Social workers “hear some gut-wrenching stories about the hardship people are undergoing,” Good said. But “we just don’t have the funds. . . . The intent of the law was not a subsidy, but permanence.”

The unequal subsidies had created a “disincentive” for parents who wanted to establish permanent families through adoption or guardianship, Good said.

But families who made such choices before the law went into effect are struggling to cope after the subsidies end.

One grandmother in Northeast Washington — who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared that publicity would jeopardize attempts to regain her subsidy — began caring for her 11-year-old grandson in 2005 after the death of his father. She became his guardian in 2009.

Although her grandson was spared the D.C. foster system — and the District was spared the expense of caring for the child — the boy had no shortage of problems. He was diagnosed with ADHD, was classified as emotionally disturbed and had learning difficulties.

Bills mounted for school uniforms and food. Although Medicaid paid for her grandson’s allergy medication, a $1059.27 monthly guardianship subsidy helped with other expenses. The grandmother, who has owned her home in Northeast Washington for more than 30 years, has worked for the federal government for more than 25 year but makes only about $49,000 annually.

When her grandson turned 18 in May 2011, she received what she called “half a check,” she said. The next month, she received no check at all. Her subsidy had disappeared, cutting her income by more than 20 percent.

“I’ve borrowed money from all over the place,” the grandmother said, estimating her debt at $12,000 — what her subsidy would have covered had it not ended. Her grandson is heading to an out-of-state college next year, and although he has financial aid, some expenses are not covered. She had planned to retire when she turns 65 in 2013 but now says that’s not possible.

“The same support he needed when he was in high school is the same support I need,” she said.

Wanda Lilly, who was profiled in The Washington Post in 2009 in a story about guardianship subsidies, also says she has suffered since the council tried to fix the subsidy problem.

The guardian of three children — Shamice, 21, Shanae, 19, and Tracie, 17 — Lilly has watched her subsidies disappear as each of her grandnieces turns 18 even as others in the system get three more years of support. Today, she gets a $1,080 monthly check but will lose that when Tracie turns 18 in May.

Lilly has tried to reduce expenses and moved the family to a smaller apartment in Temple Hills, where Shamice sleeps on a blow-up mattress in the living room. But Lilly, who has declared bankruptcy, says she has struggled since losing her job in 2011 after becoming disabled.

“Before I had these children, I could take care of myself at my job, and I could take care of myself very well,” said Lilly. “What child do you know is ready for the world at 18?”

Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center in the District, defends the legislation.

“It was really about pushing forward and getting kids out of care,” said Sandalow, whose organization pushed to extend the subsidy to age 21 for new adoptive families and guardians. One economist estimated that as many as 190 children would move from foster care to permanency because of the 2010 law, she said.

Still, the economic impact of the change is not clear. According to Good, the caregivers of only 17 people age 18 and older received the subsidy during the second quarter of 2012, at a cost of about $19,000. But the number of those 18 and older who benefit from the extended subsidy will increase with time.

“We believe that it isn’t about savings,” Good said. “It’s about incentive to get kids in a permanent home.”

“The law that passed saves the District money, and that was in economically hard times,” Sandalow said. “If it had cost the city money, we wouldn’t have succeeded.”

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