Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Think of the children!!

No seriously, think of the children. And not the bounty.

About a month ago, I listened to an NPR story on "All Things Considered" on my drive home from work, which concerned Native American children in South Dakota being declared "neglected" in high numbers, and being removed from their families and put up for adoption. The implication is that the South Dakota government was using a financial incentive as an excuse to go all Captain Pratt on the natives, killing the Indian and saving the man, by means of placing their kids in white homes. The text version of the NPR story is available here.

Some background on the NPR story:

In 1997, HR 867 was enacted by Bill Clinton, ammending section 473 of Part E (Federal Payments for Foster Care and Adoption Assistance) of title IV of the Social Security Act with some seemingly good-intentioned language, which had some disturbing consequences. Section 473a now contains this (ellipses, brackets, and sentence reformatting are mine):

...the adoption incentive payment payable to a State ... shall be equal to the sum of $4,000, multiplied by the amount (if any) by which the number of foster child adoptions in the State during the fiscal year exceeds the base number of [same]; and $2,000, multiplied by the amount (if any) by which the number of special needs adoptions in the State during the fiscal year exceeds the base number of [same]

In 2008, the 110th Congress passed Public Law 110–351 (the "Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act") which upped this last amount to $4,000, making the total take for getting a special needs kid adopted $8,000.

In basic English, one would assume "special needs" refers to children with mental retardation, epilepsy, behavioral problems, or other conditions requiring specialized care - basically kids that don't fit the happy suburban white couple Disney mold of the perfect kid to adopt. Title IV-E disagrees with that assumption, though. It's context of "special needs" implies only things that would make it harder to place a child with an adoptive family without a financial incentive. It states in section 473c:

the child shall not be considered a child with special needs unless ... the State had first determined (A) that there exists with respect to the child a specific factor or condition (such as his ethnic background...)

This language basically invites states to declare all their black or native populations as special needs. A quick glance at the Child Welfare Information Gateway's Adoption Assistance by State page shows that many states have done just that. The two I want to focus on have been in the news recently for abuses by their Child Protective Services departments: South Dakota in regard to natives, and Virginia in regard to something a little more subtle.

South Dakota's categories for special needs:

  • Eight years of age or older
  • Race or religion (Native American)
  • Member of a sibling group to be placed together for adoption
  • Physical, emotional, neurological, or intellectual handicap or problem
  • Need of a prosthesis, extensive, on-going, or anticipated medical care, or therapy for speech, physical, or psychological problems
  • Adoption by foster parents with whom the child is living is the only appropriate permanency plan
And Virginia's:
  • Six years of age or older
  • Member of a minority race
  • Member of a sibling group that is ready for placement at the same time and should not be separated
  • A physical, mental, or emotional disability
  • Hereditary tendency, congenital problem or birth injury resulting in a substantial risk of future disability
  • A child with a physical, mental, emotional disability or hereditary tendency, congenital problem or birth injury present at the time of adoption but not diagnosed until up to one year after the final order is entered

Does "birth injury" sound a little vague? Hold that thought.

Combine the $8,000 per head federal assistance with defining an entire race of people as harder to adopt, and you have just created a financial incentive to err on the side of removing minority children from their families.

The NPR story focussed on one particular group of kids who were seized from a family guilty of nothing more than poverty, and who had community and extended family childcare available. The story ends on sort of an up-note: A tribal council passed a resolution warning the state of South Dakota that criminal kidnapping charges would be filed if the kids weren't returned. They were returned, along with some snarky comments in the vein of "we can still come take your kids with impunity, so watch your step, Tonto." (The "Tonto" was silent, but implied.) The family of the kids is very worried by those comments, but to me they were an admission of defeat, the bully's retreating "I'll kick your ass" after getting knocked down by his intended victim.

For what it's worth, South Dakota responded to the NPR story, basically declaring their innocence and good intentions, falling just shy of espousing the "white man's burden".

I thought that was the end of it, some Black Hills comeuppance by natives who have been systematically harassed and disenfranchised by whites for centuries, and finally landed a good blow to them. But it isn't. A seemingly unrelated scandal is going on currently in Virginia, and was publicly called out in the Washington Examiner.

In Baby Sabrina's case, there was enough going on to make it a case worth a quick peek by Virginia CPS, namely a diagnosis of "failure to thrive". My reading of the issue on the mom's website is that Nancy was having trouble breastfeeding. The baby lost weight after birth, which all kids do, but did not then regain the lost weight, and in fact over the next weeks lost an additional couple of ounces. Sabrina was admitted to the hospital, fed a lot of formula, and then started gaining weight.

CPS investigated, which they were well within their right to do. Losing weight immediately after birth is par for the course, but a healthy baby who isn't being neglected should recover soon. Sabrina didn't. When CPS investigated, the correct response should have been "thanks for being concerned about our baby. We're trying hard, and now the doctors are helping, and we'll comply with their recommendations because we want nothing more than for Sabrina to be healthy." What they said instead was "fuck you, we're getting a lawyer," which raised the ire of the CPS.

From there, I would have expected a quick resolution, possibly with CPS backing off, or possibly with them temporarily placing the baby with Nancy's mom. Instead, they removed the baby from the family, and put it up for adoption. Why? Two reasons. First, because you don't stand up to the man; he's a spiteful son of a bitch. Second, the "failure to thrive" diagnosis fits well with the Virginia special needs category of "birth injury resulting in a substantial risk of future disability".

In my opinion, and I have nothing to back this up other than a gut feeling, Sabrina's possible status as special needs caused Virginia CPS to side with removal and adoption outside the family, rather than just monitoring or placing her with grandma. Even though the state's legal costs quickly surpassed the $8,000 take. Nancy's site does have a good deal of atrocity propaganda on it, and it's hard to read through that and find the true story, but there are enough questions about the case that it should at least be heard by a federal judge. Maybe they're full of crap and were truly neglectful, or maybe Virginia CPS overstepped, but either way they should get their day in court.

Maybe neither the South Dakota nor Virginia cases are caused by official state evil. Maybe the intentions are always good, with an eye on protecting children and giving them the best homes possible, and after seeing enough bad in the truly neglectful parents, CPS case workers see bad in all parents. I don't know, but I do know that there is a conflict of interest for any state that accepts per-child adoption bounties. Yes, a little rhetorical, but a bounty is what it is. The spirit of the law is to use the money when standard attempts to place the child have failed, but in Sabrina's case as with the South Dakota case, an acceptable placement was available and ignored. So there is at least the perception, a revealed preference, that underfunded state CPS agencies now have an eye on potential federal money, and skew their cases accordingly.

No matter the true nature of the South Dakota and Virginia cases, adding this motivation for funding into organizations tasked with removing children from their homes is a powderkeg, especially in today's world of protesters fighting the police, unemployment bringing children into poverty, and the simple fact that parents who feel their children are threatened are irrational, more likely to put up their dukes than to investigate the proper appeals process. The 473a ammendment to Title IV-E will be responsible for needlessly breaking up families, and for police, social workers, parents, or children getting injured or worse. And it needs to be repealed.

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