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Stratton 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 regain custody.

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 white.

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 service.

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, Barnes said.

“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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