The latest child protection horror story from New Jersey – this one involving a couple charged with starving and neglecting their adopted children – has sparked a debate over whether states have rushed adoptions for special needs kids in order to collect federal bonuses.
The case broke in October when a neighbor of Raymond and Vanessa Jackson’s in the town of Collingswood saw a boy going through his garbage at night and called police. The boy turned out to be 19-year-old Bruce Jackson, who weighed just 45 pounds.
The Jackson’s three other adopted boys, ages 9 to 14, all weighed less than 50 pounds as well. All were removed from the home. Investigators charged that the boys had been living largely on peanut butter, pancake batter and nonfood substances such as wallboard.
The Jacksons deny abusing or neglecting the boys, saying they suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and eating disorders.
Three girls in the family – two adopted and one foster child – appear to have been well-fed. The Jacksons also have five biological children. Altogether, 11 children were living in the house.
The case prompted debate over the possible unintended consequences of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, which sought to increase adoptions by, among other things, paying states $4,000 for each child adopted above previous annual levels. States get another $2,000 if the child is classified as “special needs.”
Since 1997, every state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have qualified for a total of more than $160 million in incentive bonuses under the act. Congress extended the program for five years in November.
Richard Wexler, executive director of the Virginia-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said the adoption incentives amount to a “bounty” system that “encourages quick and dirty slipshod placements.”
Proponents of the act say the payments have helped states improve adoption preparation and concerns about rushing adoptions are based on theories stemming from anecdotes and spread largely by a New York Times story in late October.
The House Ways and Means subcommittee on human resources convened a hearing on the New Jersey case Nov. 6 and a hearing on Nov. 19 that focused on how states monitor vulnerable children, including foster and special needs children who are adopted.
The rush-to-adopt issue was raised briefly at the first hearing, when Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights, a New York-based advocacy group, testified that some states have increased adoptions “by including many clearly inadequate families, as the Jacksons appeared to be … just to ‘succeed’ by boosting their numbers.”
The subject also came up in during consideration of the adoption incentive program, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) noting on the Senate floor that “there have been some reports lately” that the program “has put children in dangerous situations by creating a strong financial incentive to place children for adoption out of foster care without regard to their safety or well-being.” A Clinton aide said the senator was referring to the article in The New York Times.
“I have seen those reports, and I disagree with their premise,” responded Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). “The primary goal of the Adoption and Safe Families Act is to make the safety and well-being of children paramount in child welfare decisions.” In order to get funds, he said, “states must develop a plan to assure safety and permanency for children who enter the state’s foster care system.”
Wexler said provisions designed to safeguard against improper placements by threatening state funding are inadequate. “There is no way you can measure whether you are rushing children into adoption slipshod,” Wexler said.
Proponents of the program say states do not receive enough money through the bonuses to warrant rushing into adoptions.
An analysis of the act’s impact, conducted by the School of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and released in October, found no evidence for the claims that states were carelessly rushing to get kids adopted.
The study analyzed the states’ success at increasing adoptions, and did not investigate allegations about unsafe placements. But “we didn’t find anyone that had this sense that states were ... rushing to find families,” said Mike Shaver, deputy director of Fostering Results, a public education and outreach campaign based within the Children and Family Research Center at the school of social work.
The number of disrupted or failed adoptions of hard-to-place foster children has increased since the act was implemented in 1997, Shaver said. He said that should be expected, given the large increase in the number of special-needs children who have been adopted. He said the important figure is the percentage of adoption cases that are disputed, which has declined.
Joe Kroll, executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children, said the incentives program has done a remarkable job in encouraging states to adopt more foster children.
“While recent articles suggest that federal incentive payments for increased adoptions are what put children at risk, the opposite is true,” Kroll wrote in a letter in response to the Times article. “These payments give states a chance to improve pre-adoption preparation, system operation and post-adoption support.”
The Jackson case has also raised questions about how state agencies should treat workers involved in such incidents. New Jersey’s Division of Youth and Family Services moved to fire nine workers involved with the family, which was visited by social workers more than three dozen times in the past three years.
The firings prompted public protests by the local chapter of the Communications Workers of America, which represents the social workers, charging that the state had scapegoated the staff without dealing with the roots of the problem, such as overwhelming caseloads.
Supporters of the family also say the authorities rushed to judgment, and have created a website about the case.