Children Bring Home The Bacon
By Allison Hart
Jack and Kathy Stratton’s nine children have proved to be a
veritable cash cow for the Mecklenburg County Department of
Social Services. The Stratton children have been in foster
care for nearly two years, ever since the DSS removed them
from their home on charges of neglect. The Strattons have
steadfastly denied the charges, and have been fighting to
During that time, the DSS, through federal funding, has been
receiving $9,971.73 per month for the Stratton children, while
paying out only $3,600. Net profit: $6,372 per month.
The numbers may seem numbing, but they’re not surprising. In
fact, in reading the 100 or so pages of the 2000 US House of
Representatives Ways and Means Committee’s report on foster
care programs and adoption incentives, two common threads sew
these federal laws together: Parents accused of abuse or
neglect have very little protection under the Constitution;
and there is a money trail following every foster child who
moves through the system.
Under federal guidelines established in 1980, children in
foster care are eligible to receive funds from a block grant
to states called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
As a condition of receiving TANF funds, states must operate
foster care and adoptive assistance programs under title IV-E
of the Social Security Act.
In 1997, Congress enacted significant changes to title IV-E,
namely adding a push to terminate parental rights (TPR) in
cases where children have been in foster care for 15 out of 22
months. The new legislation, a Clinton initiative called the
Adoption and Safe Families Act, called for these TPR
proceedings to begin 12 months after a child’s placement in
foster care, rather than the 18 months required by the old
legislation. Both the Illinois Supreme Court and the Nebraska
Supreme Court ruled that portion of the Adoption and Safe
Families Act unconstitutional because it presumes parents are
unfit simply because their children have been in foster care
for 15 months.
The law also authorized incentive payments to states to
increase the number of foster and special-needs children who
are placed for adoption. Lawmakers said the purpose of the
legislation was to keep children from languishing in foster
care for years of their childhood. But some critics say the
adverse result is that families are being torn apart at a much
higher rate since the new laws were enacted.
In fiscal year 1999, the latest information available for the
2000 report, the federal government set adoption goals for
each state that were equal to the highest number of adoptions
in any preceding year beginning with 1997.
States are paid $4,000 for each foster child adopted out over
their goal in a given year. For example, North Carolina had an
adoption goal of 467 in 1998. The state did not meet its goal
that year, therefore it did not earn adoption incentive money.
Conversely, in 2001, North Carolina exceeded its goal of 1,244
by 37 percent, bringing in more than $623,000 in Title IV-E
money and placing the state third in the nation for the amount
of adoption incentive money received that year. California
placed first and Missouri placed second.
Children with special needs bring in even more money. As
Mecklenburg County DSS personnel have pointed out, North
Carolina classifies a child as having special needs when he
has an existing medical condition, is physically, mentally or
emotionally handicapped. But a child who is a minority, who is
of a certain age or who has brothers and sisters also
available for adoption can also be classified as having
special needs. Those children carry an extra $2,000 above the
$4,000 if they are counted in the group that was adopted over
the state’s goal.
According to Cheryl Barnes, national director of the DSS
watchdog organization Child Protective Services Watch, the
children social workers removed from Jack and Kathy Stratton
could bring in a large amount of money if they were adopted.
The children are in a large sibling group, some of them are
teenagers and two of them have been diagnosed as having
special mental, physical or emotional needs. But the smoking
gun in the Stratton case, Barnes said, is that they are
racially mixed. Their mother is black and their father is
Barnes has conducted research nationwide about how families
are affected by child protective services and juvenile courts.
Her figures show that 60 percent of abuse and neglect claims
against children in Mecklenburg County who are racially mixed
were substantiated in 2001, compared with 43 percent
substantiated cases against black children and 35 percent
substantiated against white children. It could just be
coincidence, but Barnes calls it discrimination.
Barnes also claims child protective services can get more
money for holding children in foster care. Under title IV-E
legislation, the Foster Care Program provides open-ended
matching payments to states for the costs of maintaining
certain children in foster care. The match also helps pay for
administrative, child placement and training costs.
According to the House committee’s report, the average
estimated monthly number of children in title IV-E foster care
more than tripled in the U.S. between 1983 and 1999. During
those same years, federal spending on title IV-E foster care
increased from $395 million in 1983 to $4 billion in 1999.
That same year, North Carolina spent $64 million of those
funds on maintenance payments, child placement services and
administration, information systems and staff training.
Based on those 1999 figures, North Carolina received $1,107.97
per month per child in foster care from title IV-E funds. The
state paid out on average about $400, or 36 percent, per month
to care for foster children. The remaining $707 – allocated
per child in foster care – is used for administration. Thus,
Barnes said, the DSS is getting $9,971.73 per month for the
Stratton children, while paying out $3,600 for its net profit
of $6,372 per month.
Still, DSS personnel and some Mecklenburg County officials –
most notably Board of County Commissioners Chairman Parks
Helms and DSS Director Richard “Jake” Jacobsen – have denied
that the DSS has any financial incentive to remove children
from their homes and keep them in foster care.
Mecklenburg County DSS officials have said that all the money
it has received through state and federal foster care and
adoption programs goes toward helping the children they
What Barnes said she finds most interesting is that the
federal government pays out thousands of dollars for foster
care and adoption programs, yet earmarks little of that money
for programs to help keep families together – the alleged
number one goal of Child Protective Services.
Just this week, a Charlotte-based adoption agency won a $1
million grant to recruit black men to adopt. That kind of
money is not available to keep biological families together,
“If you want to go and open up an agency to promote the
adoption of foster kids, you can get a federal grant easy,”
she said. “But, if you want to open an agency that provides
family preservation services, there is no money for that.”
Federal grants, though, are available to states for family
preservation under the program Promoting Safe and Stable
Families. Before the 1997 legislation, at least 90 percent of
the funds had to be used for family preservation services and
community-based family support services.
In 1997, Congress added two additional categories to the grant
program: time-limited family reunification services and
adoption promotion and support services. The statute does not
specify a minimum amount that must be spent on any particular
service, nor does it exclude services for adoptive families in
the family preservation category.
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