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Adoption Subsidies Get Little Oversight
Md. Deaths Put Spotlight on D.C.

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 9, 2008

The District is paying $27.6 million a year in federal and city funds, with little oversight, to hundreds of parents who adopted children from the city's foster care program.

The recipients have included Renee Bowman, who adopted three girls from the District and last week told police that she placed the bodies of two of them in a freezer at her home in Southern Maryland after one starved to death and the other died in a fall.

District officials are considering strengthening controls over the subsidy program by requiring evidence that children are enrolled in school or have been immunized. There was no record of school attendance by the three adoptive daughters of Bowman, who received $2,400 a month under the program.

"Because it's a subsidy, you can require school attendance, immunization and other things," said a District official who is not authorized to discuss the case. "It's just to verify that the child is still under the care of that individual receiving the subsidy, and those are the things we are considering."

The money is provided under the federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, which was enacted to keep foster children from languishing in a government system.

Foster children often bring with them the scars of physical and emotional abuse, and the subsidies are intended to improve the chances of finding permanent homes.

Bowman became a foster parent in 1999, when she took a little girl into her home. In 2001, she adopted the girl and took in two more foster children, sisters, who officially became her adopted daughters in 2004. The youngest of those girls, a 7-year-old, was found wandering a street in Southern Maryland last week, frightened and showing signs of abuse. She led police to Bowman's home, telling them that her mother had beaten her and killed her sisters. Officials removed the bodies of two children from Bowman's freezer but have not officially identified them.

Bowman received $800 a month for each girl, almost double the national average of $444 per child for an adoption subsidy, according to federal statistics.

In the District, subsidies are provided for the adoption of foster children who meet a special-needs requirement, said Mafara Hobson, spokeswoman for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). She said the provision applies to virtually every foster child adopted in the city. A special-needs child in the District includes any child older than 2, a member of a racial or ethnic minority group, a member of a sibling group or a child with a disability.

As of August, subsidies had gone to support the adoption of 2,295 District children. The money is intended to help the children begin anew as part of a family, and a variety of programs are available to help with the transition. Most foster children have special needs because of the conditions that landed them in foster care, and their adoption is often financially challenging for the families, experts said.

The federal money requires a matching contribution from the city. Until Oct. 1, half of the subsidy was federal, and half was local. As of Oct. 1, 30 percent of the payment is District money, and 70 percent is federal money. The District pays subsidies monthly and seeks federal reimbursement quarterly, Hobson said.

Adoptive parents across the country were horrified by the Bowman case and the scrutiny it brings to a program that has found permanent homes for hundreds of thousands of children. Even with limited oversight, most children end up in safe and supportive families, advocates said.

Experts, however, said some child advocates disagree over whether government intervention should end with the adoption of a foster child.

"One message is that you are just like every other family when you adopt and you shouldn't be stigmatized," said Richard P. Barth, dean of the school of social work at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. "On the other side, some say you get a check from the government, you're being subsidized," and oversight could be acceptable.

But many adoption advocates say that such oversight would be a return to the overbearing government monitoring that bogged down social service agencies when the adoption subsidy was created in 1980, said Jeanette Wiedemeier Bower, who has studied adoption subsidies for 14 years for the North American Council on Adoptable Children.

Initially, most states required social workers to check on families receiving adoption subsidies.

"But that created this huge administrative bureaucracy, with a huge amount of money tossed out the door for someone to check a box every year and say, 'Why yes, they do have Down syndrome -- again, this year,' " Bower said.

"I think the trend over the last five years around the nation is to get away from more oversight," Bower said, pointing out that states are putting more resources into the front end of the adoption vetting process, doing background checks, fingerprinting and conducting intensive home studies of prospective parents.

The District sends renewal letters to adoptive parents receiving a subsidy, one of the few federal requirements attached to the program. Families are asked to alert the government if there is a change in a child's eligibility for the subsidy, but parents will not be penalized if they do not respond, officials said. In the District, recertification is an annual process, as it is in 30 states, according to the North American Council on Adopted Children's studies.

Seven states require recertification every two years; two states ask families to check in every three years; and three states vary their check-in schedules from one to five years, according to the council.

In Alabama, adoptive parents receiving money for a child with special medical needs are required to arrange an annual checkup from a doctor. But the rest of the states have no such requirement.

The subsidy is one of the most complicated aspects of foster care adoptions, child welfare workers said, and it is viewed as a stigma by some adoptive parents.

"When I adopted, I told them I don't want the money. I just didn't want it because I was so worried that people would think I was doing it for the money," said Marilyn Egerton, deputy director of the Foster and Adoptive Parent Advocacy Center in the District and the adoptive mother of four children.

"My social worker told me that money belongs to the child," said Egerton, who remarked that she is still embarrassed about that exchange. "She told me, 'It's not yours, and you don't have the right to not take it for that child.' "

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