House, Senate Committees Make Deal on Adoption Incentives

Key House and Senate Committees have agreed on legislation that would renew federal adoption incentives, require states to count failed adoptions, and prohibit states from using long-term foster care as a viable form of permanency for most teens.

The bill, H.R. 4980, is a negotiated compromise of six different bills and has the backing of the Republican-led House Ways and Means Committee, and the Democrat-led Senate Finance Committee. It could come up for a vote as early as July, when the House returns to session.

“I am committed to seeing this effort cross the finish line quickly so vulnerable children in foster care don’t end up in the streets, homeless shelters or the juvenile justice system where they are more likely to fall victim to pimps and traffickers,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), in a statement announcing the bill’s completion yesterday.

The bill would change the way that adoption incentives are calculated, setting a new mechanism for determining awards. Guardianships would for the first time be included in the incentives calculations.

Under the current system, states receive awards for youths in three categories: $4,000 multiples for younger children and special needs children, plus $8,000 for adoption of children above the age of nine.

States received awards based on a comparison of current-year numbers to its performance in 2007, the most recently established base year. This bill would peg incentives to a “base rate” mechanism, in which current-year adoption totals were compared to a calculation factoring in previous-year adoptions and the total number of children in state care during two previous years.

It also includes new categories with higher incentive awards:

  • $4,000 awards for improvement on overall guardianship placements
  • $5,000 awards for improvement on overall adoptions
  • $7,500 awards for improvement on guardianship and adoption of children between the ages of nine and 14
  • $10,000 awards for improvement on guardianship and adoption of children older than 14

“Having helped create the Adoption Incentives program…I know by providing states with incentives for adoptions we can encourage them to do more to help these children,” said House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.). “We have already seen great progress in increasing adoptions since this program was created in 1997, and it is our hope to continue this progress with this bill.”

H.R. 4980 would also require states to track and report disruptions to finalized adoptions and guardianships, one of the biggest blind spots in research on the child welfare system. The few sample studies on the subject suggest that up to 30 percent of adoptions fail.

The bill instructs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop a method for collecting data on youths who “enter foster care under supervision of the State after finalization of an adoption or legal guardianship.”

States would also have to spend 30 percent or more of their incentive money on post-adoption and post-guardianship services.

The bill would eliminate Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA) as a viable option for youths under the age of 16. APPLA is a designation under which child welfare systems set youth on a course to age out of foster care into adulthood, essentially conceding that they will not be reunited with family or adopted.

APPLA was established in 1997 with the idea that it would afford organized aging-out services as an exception to the rule. But even the creators of APPLA concede that its use became far too common.

“We wanted it to be a last resort,” said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), speaking at a roundtable on APPLA back in 2012. “Over time,” it has become “an obstacle to reunification or adoption.”

For those older teens who are designated for APPLA, the legislation requires biannual reviews of their status. Caseworkers will need to demonstrate “unsuccessful efforts made by the state agency” to find another permanent option for the youth.

Among the other provisions in the bill:

Trafficking Victims: States would have to develop protocols for “expeditiously locating any child missing from foster care,” and determining if exploitation was involved in the circumstances.

States would also face new trafficking-related entries to the central pipeline of data from the states to the federal government, the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS). States would have to identify the annual number of children in foster care who are identified as trafficking victims, and differentiate between those who were trafficked before and during foster care.

Normalcy: States would need to establish some single or regional authority system responsible for developing and enforcing “prudent parenting” standards for foster homes and group care facilities, meaning a context for permitting foster youths to participate in age-appropriate activities.

Further, each foster home or group setting would need to have one adult trained and responsible for making those decisions.

Family Connection Grants Survive: Last year, the House moved legislation that would have paid for the popular Family Connection grants with an offset from the unemployment insurance program. But the legislation did not move on the Senate side, and in December that offset was used to forge the overall fiscal 2014 spending deal.

This bill would give the Family Connections grants a one-year lifeline, permitting $15 million for fiscal 2014.

Youth empowerment: Systems would be required to involve foster youths above the age of 13 in case planning, and permit those youths to add up to two people to a case planning team.

Identification required: Youth who are in foster care for more than six months must exit care with a birth certificate, social security card, all health insurance and medical information, and state identification.