Adoption law change aids foster parents

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The D.C. Council passed emergency legislation on Tuesday intended to make it easier for foster families to provide permanent homes for children, especially older ones, who often languish in the child welfare system.

For years, some foster parents who wanted to adopt or to become legal guardians have opted not to because it would mean an earlier end to the subsidy that many rely on to help care for the children they take into their homes.

Under the new law, instead of losing the subsidy when the child is 18, a legal guardian or adoptive parent will keep the subsidy until the child turns 21 -- the same age at which it ends for a foster child.

Advocates and experts say that few children, let alone those from troubled homes, are ready to support themselves at 18, and they have been pushing the District to recognize that reality.

After a bill to extend the subsidy was introduced last year by council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), the legislation was rolled into a larger child welfare bill sponsored by council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), the chairman of the Human Services Committee.

But when it became clear that the change could ultimately save the District money and that families contemplating guardianship or adoption were holding off to see what happened with the legislation, Brown and Wells accelerated their efforts.

The emergency measure passed late Tuesday afternoon; permanent legislation will need to be passed later this year, probably as part of the larger child welfare package.

Proponents of the change hope that equalizing the subsidy system will encourage foster parents, particularly those housing young relatives, to give the children in their care the certainty of a permanent home.

Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children's Law Center, which lobbied for the change, praised the new law. "I think it's the biggest step forward in getting kids out of foster care and into permanent families in my 10 years here."

Almost a decade ago, when the District created a subsidy for guardianships, the city was at the forefront of a push to encourage extended families to take in young relatives who had been abused or neglected and could not return to their birth parents.

A guardian assumes legal responsibility for a child's care and is typically related to the child. But ties to the birth parents are not severed in a guardianship, as happens in an adoption. For older children, who make up a large share of the district's foster children, that distinction can be important. They might have maintained some relationship with their parents and might not want to take a new last name or to have a new "mom" or "dad."

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