Adoptions of D.C. Foster Children Drop Sharply, Spurring Dismay

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 20, 2009

The number of D.C. foster children being adopted is falling precipitously, frustrating child welfare advocates who say the city's Child and Family Services Agency is not doing enough to find permanent homes for hundreds of children who are unlikely to be returned to their parents.

Only 68 children were adopted in the first nine months of the District's current fiscal year, leaving the city unlikely to reach even last year's total of 119, which was less than a quarter of the roughly 500 children eligible for adoption.

Just four years ago, during a major reform push, 314 children -- almost half of those the city sought to place -- were adopted.

"It's taking the District far too long to find permanent homes for children in foster care," said Priscilla S. Skillman, who monitors the foster care system for the Council for Court Excellence, a nonpartisan advocacy group.

The continuing decline in foster care adoptions is a legacy of the city's long, uneven effort at reforming its child welfare system and a sign of the many challenges that remain for CFSA, the Family Court and other agencies.

A year ago, CFSA was in turmoil. A new director, Roque Gerald, the agency's fifth leader in five years, had been appointed. The deaths of the four children of Banita Jacks, who had drawn attention but no decisive action from CFSA, unleashed a wave of complaints about abuse and neglect that overwhelmed the agency. For months, everything else, including adoptions, nearly came to a halt.

Since then, the backlog of complaints has been cleared and the agency has been able to turn more attention to the 2,000 or so children who are in foster care and whose fates are a core part of CFSA's mission.

But critics say that even before the four children were killed and Jacks was arrested, the agency had not been doing enough to eliminate practical and legal obstacles to adoption and other long-term options.

Advocates complain that CFSA still does not do enough to identify people who might be able to adopt a particular child, such as a family friend or a former teacher, and that social workers are too often content to leave a child in a foster home that is safe and stable but almost certainly temporary.

Advocates also note that the city, which pays a subsidy to foster parents until a child is 21, ends support for most adopted children at 18. In addition, the District's child welfare system has typically taken much longer than a year to terminate parental rights, often waiting until an adoptive family is identified.

Gerald, a psychologist and CFSA veteran, acknowledges that the agency has a way to go.

He said he is not satisfied with the 23 percent adoption rate recorded last fiscal year. Maryland, with a 43 percent rate in 2008 and a 59 percent rate in 2009, and Virginia, with a 35 percent rate in 2008, are both placing children at a better rate than the District, although with a mix of cities, suburbs and rural communities, both states are different than the District.

"We're not where we need to be in terms of either adoptions or permanency," Gerald said. "We're approaching, but we're not there."

But he also said some drop in adoptions was predictable after the big push the agency made in the middle of the decade, when it moved through many cases that had languished.

Today, he said, the pool of children eligible for adoption contains many difficult cases. Half of those who are not in a potentially adoptive home are 12 or older. Two-thirds are part of a sibling group that wants to be adopted together. And almost two dozen have disabilities.

"Clearly, that's going to be much more complex in terms of adoptions," Gerald said.

A long-running federal class-action suit against the District and its child welfare system set finding permanent homes for foster children as one of the performance measures for CFSA.

Adoptions Together, a private adoption agency that has worked with the District for years, has a new contract and new mandates. One is to jump-start cases in which a family has agreed to adopt but the process has stalled, said Janice Goldwater, the agency's executive director.

Sometimes it is a matter of cutting through red tape, she said. In other instances, it's not so simple. "Sometimes," Goldwater said, "they are not as committed to the adoption as they originally indicated."

The organization also is also helping CFSA dig more deeply into children's lives for people who might be open to adopting them. "It's looking at the child's world and at each person in that world as a resource or a link to a resource," Goldwater said.

Neither a court-appointed monitor nor the lead plaintiff, Children's Rights, appears ready to say that CFSA has made enough progress on adoption. Children's Rights has argued in recent months that the District should be held in contempt for its failure to meet a number of court-ordered benchmarks.

"Working with that private agency, yes, that's good, but the city needs to do much more," said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights.

The District says it will do more but wants to be released from court supervision, which has spanned almost two decades. A hearing on a city motion to set a timetable for ending the supervision is scheduled for Monday in U.S. District Court.

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