Indiana officials consider funding for adoptions

INDIANAPOLIS - After about a year of fostering toddler Antoinette, Jackie Townsend adopted the 5-year-old she describes as the "prettiest little thing."

That was five years ago, and the Fort Wayne woman has spent the entire time on a waiting list for a state adoption subsidy that has never been paid.

Meanwhile, the Department of Child Services has returned tens of millions in unspent money to the General Fund; lawmakers have cut taxes for corporations and built a nearly $2 billion surplus.

"I love children, but people need a little help," Townsend told The Journal Gazette (http://bit.ly/1p3hzy7), noting the typical needs of a growing child -- food, clothing, school activities and braces. "If there was funding, I definitely think more people would adopt."

Townsend, 53, continues to foster kids through ResCare Youth Services in Fort Wayne, but hopes legislators will reconsider their decision on the subsidy in the 2015 budget session. The amount of money could be as little as $20 a day, depending on the special needs of the child.

"There are so many children out there that really need a good home," she said. "I hope my prayers will be answered and the funding will come through."

Gov. Mike Pence supported a new state adoption credit earlier this year and says he wants to make Indiana the most pro-adoption state in America. But he is staying mum on whether his administration will provide money for the state adoption subsidy.

"We also have initiated a blue-ribbon panel to examine adoption policies in Indiana and other states and I'm confident that topic will be among those discussed," he said. "I'm very anxious to identify policies -- including resources -- that will achieve my objective."

But at least one budget steward -- Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville -- hasn't been convinced.

Two years ago he had a special hearing on the topic, and administration officials said Indiana adoptive parents are receiving other services outside the subsidy that make up for it.

"It's worthwhile to review all sides of the issue," he said. "But if it's just an effort to promote cash payments without evaluating the other services and the rate of adoptions, then I won't be too interested. If the adoption rate is falling, I'm open to it."

Adoption data on the DCS website stopped being updated in April 2012. That year ended with 1,282 adoptions. In 2013, the number dropped to 1,033, DCS spokesman James Wide said. That number is down from a high of almost 1,800 adoptions in 2011.

The 2013 number is the lowest since 2005.

"I personally have not been privy to DCS stats for a number of years," said Chris Morrison, executive director of the Indiana Foster Care and Adoption Association. "I suspect it will show adoptions have gone down based on anecdotal evidence and lack of resources."

Cathleen Graham, executive director of IARCCA, an association of children and family services, said it's a necessary program that should be funded.

"Almost every child that comes through DCS is special needs in some way. The goal of the subsidy is to encourage Hoosiers to adopt them," she said. "The parents are typically working-class, middle-class families, and these children have extraordinary needs. They can't afford to adopt without some assistance."

A restrictive federal adoption subsidy exists, and is slowly being widened. The state contributes to paying part of that subsidy.

But those who are ineligible for that program rely on state subsidies, according to Sen. John Broden, D-South Bend. He said all but Indiana and possibly one other state provide the state subsidy.

Before the Indiana General Assembly reformed property taxes, there was a county adoption subsidy paid at the local level. Then legislators took over the child welfare costs and raised the sales tax to cover that program and all school operating costs.

Somewhere in the shuffle, though, the state abandoned actually paying the subsidy for new adoptions. Those adoptions under the old county system have been grandfathered.

Starting in 2009, new families sign a contract with the state that talks about a subsidy possibly being available when funding is provided. And they are placed on a waiting list for the state subsidy -- up to 1,400 children now. The children are also eligible for Medicaid while on the waiting list.

"It's kind of a game," Morrison said. "We have a program and a waiting list. And some magic day maybe you might get help, if your kids aren't grown by then."

She said most of the children being adopted from the state are special needs, either because of physical and emotional needs or being in sibling groups.

"A decade of research says the availability of a subsidy helps kids leave the foster system and achieve permanence," Morrison said, noting

it costs the state more to keep a child in foster care than to pay an adoption subsidy.

That is why Broden filed a bill this year to mandate the subsidy. That would cost between $8 million and $26 million annually. But because it was a non-budget year, the bill didn't receive a hearing.

Previous DCS Director Jim Payne said people adopt out of love -- not money -- and that adoptions were up despite the lack of the subsidy.

Wide said the agency has just started reviewing next year's budget request and hasn't finalized any decisions on the program.

New DCS Director Mary Beth Bonaventura is on record supporting adoptive parents and trying to get as many tools as they need to help, he said.

But Wide focused on the help the adoptive parents are receiving -- Medicaid and a one-time adoption expense of $1,500.

"Most kids do qualify for the federal adoption subsidy, so it's not a lot who aren't receiving any funding," Wide said. "I know it's a big thing, but it's just not there at this time."

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Information from: The Journal Gazette, http://www.journalgazette.net

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