Broken Adoption Symposium; Getting It All Out On The Table

Jaquan Melton, Judge Bryanne Hamill (ret.), LaToya Lennard and Demetrius Taylor-Johnson

“Are you listening?”

The views and insights of young people in foster care or who have been should be heard and incorporated not only into case decisions that affect their lives but, critically, they should be at the table when policy decisions are made on a more global and systemic level.

I was proud to work with a panel of youth in the development and planning of the Broken Adoptions Symposium held in NYC on October 23rd which was attended by over 250 people in person and over 800 via live webcast from 46 states, the District of Columbia, Canada, and Australia. Significant leadership was in attendance, including the ACS Commissioner and many of her top staff, other legal organizations as well as current and retired judges.

In particular, the youth panel was incredibly moving to hear their stories of loss, trauma, and resilience in their own powerful and eloquent words and they inspired audience members to strive for better outcomes for children in care particularly as they related to broken adoptions, adoption subsidy misuse, and post-adoption sibling visitation.

And it began with Jaquan: “I feel like I have lived in a world where my voice has never been heard. I ask you now, are you listening? I am more than a paycheck! But that is how I feel I have been treated for years – not as a child, not as a human being, but just a means to a paycheck.”

After enduring years of abuse and neglect, Jaquan was finally kicked out of the home of adoptive mother when he was 17. To his shock, Jaquan learned years later that his adoptive mother continued to receive the adoption subsidy long after he left her Broken Adoption Symposium; Getting It All Out On The Table home. An estimated $38,400.

The Adoption and Guardianship Assistance Program allows states to terminate subsidy payments for only three reasons:

  • If and only if the child is above 18 years of age (or 21 years-old with a disability)
  • If the state determines that the adoptive parent or guardian is no longer legally responsible to support the child
  • If the state determines that the child is no longer receiving any support from the adoptive parent or guardian.

While the last provision seems like it would stop this sort of misuse, Congress does not provide states with the tools necessary to determine if a child is no longer receiving support from the adoptive parent. Congress instead requires individuals to act on their good will and inform the state if they are no longer supporting their child. Some parents are aware of this loophole in the law and use it to milk the government at the expense of the welfare of their children.

In some situations, children who are returned to foster care after an adoption have tax dollars paid twice for their care–one payment to the foster care agency and one to the adoptive parent. If states effectively use the data they collect from broken adoptions, they can fight to curb these egregious cases of subsidy misuse.

Jaquan’s call to action: “At a minimum, money should not go to adoptive parents who no longer care for their children. Better regulations need to be put into effect to check on the care of the child and to ensure that the money follows the child whether they live with someone else or become independent (even if it was forced on them) like myself. It is sad that I suffer with trust and knowing how to love all because it was never given to me. Can you imagine being constantly reminded you don’t belong? I feel love has a limit. If you never got it young you will be confused when you get older. You will be questioning everyone’s motives and feel they want to bring you nothing but pain. I am here to tell you that adoption is not always the best option. Too often, children like myself are cared for just for the money – and they aren’t even cared for well. Better decisions have to be made. If I had the power, I would say that adoption should be treated like renewing a lease on a car. You should have to come back every few years just to make sure the child is ok and the family has everything that they need. The outcomes for children who age out of foster care are poor. They say that two out of 3 children end up either homeless or in jail. But I am here to say that the outcomes for even those who have been adopted may not be much better. No one wants to be a percentage in a negative outcome.”

While LaToya grew up in a loving adoptive home with her grandmother, she nonetheless suffered a different type of loss. LaToya explained how she brought a petition to have visits with her twelveyear-old sister who had been adopted out of foster care at age three by a non-kinship foster parent. The adoptive mother did not want Latoya’s sister to know she was adopted and thus did not allow the birth family, LaToya included, to have any contact with her post-adoption. For eight years, LaToya called her sister’s adoptive mother’s house, asking just for the chance to speak to her on the phone, but was repeatedly denied contact. When LaToya finally turned eighteen, old enough to file her own visitation petition, the judge yelled at her, demanding to know “where she had been all these years.” “The Judge acted like I was some deadbeat dad,” LaToya said. “I thought, what do you mean ‘where have I been?’ I’ve been trying to get in touch with my sister ever since she was taken from me.”

LaToya’s case highlighted a judge’s skepticism with sibling contact, an adoptive mother’s fear of breaking the adoption, and a sister’s lack of access to meaningful dialogue in how she can play a role in the adopted child’s life. Ultimately, over a year after LaToya filed for visitation, the adoptive mother changed her mind and LaToya is now an active part of her sister’s life. However, this was a rare case, and LaToya explained:

“After learning that there are many other kids in my situation, I’ve thought a lot about how the law could be changed to help kids like me. It’s traumatic enough to be in the system without losing your only ties to everything you once knew. I think that an adopted child should have a voice about whether or not he or she wants a connection with his or her biological family. When parents lose their rights, siblings shouldn’t lose their rights along with them. Why should we be victimized for actions that aren’t ours?

If I could ask the judges and attorneys who decided my sister’s case a question, I would ask them “Were you thinking of me? Were you thinking of how your decisions might impact my life for the next decade?” I would also ask them “What do you think my sister wants?” I would ask them to think ahead, and to imagine what would be best for my sister not just when she was 3 years old but for the rest of her life. If they thought about it, I think they’d realize that siblings should keep seeing each other, even when one of them is adopted. I’m glad that my sister now knows that there is more support out there, more people who care about her, and more people who will extend their hands to her to help and who never stopped trying to see her for 10 long years.“

LaToya’s call to action: Everyone, whether they are judges, lawyers, caseworkers, social workers, mental health professionals, or foster and adoptive parents, can be agents of this change, first on a micro level in how they practice and approach such issues, and then on a macro level in seeking reform within their agency and state to preserve sibling relationships post-adoption.

Demetrius also suffered a broken adoption. “My childhood and adolescence stood as just another example of the adversity a foster youth often endures before they are able to – if they are able to - reach a secure plateau….When I turned 10 years old, my birth mother died of cancer. While she was on her death bed, my foster mother promised her that she would adopt my older brother and I. However, after three years of enduring countless episodes of abuse in my adoptive home, I ran away. When I was found, I was put back into the system. It was at this point that my self-confidence plummeted and any feelings of self-worth I ad left were ripped out from under me. The resentment I carried towards the Johnsons for the failed adoption left me unable to trust others. After being put back into the system, I started acting out and getting into a lot of trouble, which was my way of coping with the pain and anger. As a consequence of my bad behavior, I was sentenced to 4 months in a non-secure juvenile detention center.”

However, Demetrius met someone who refused to give up on him even when her co-workers told her that he was a lost child. Demetrius told his caseworker to leave him like his biological and adoptive mother did; leave him like his siblings did; leave him like his father did me but she wouldn't go. Instead, she said: “Demetrius, you’ll leave me before I ever leave you.”

Demetrius described, “It was at that moment internally something changed, and my walls began to fall and I for once in my life felt as if I made someone proud.” Through the 25 different placements and the five different high schools Demetrius endured, his caseworker was the only person that stayed committed to seeing him become successful as a proud college student and national speaker.

Demetrius represented thousands of other foster youth when he proclaimed “one of the crucial reasons why the majority of youth in foster care do not succeed is not because we are inadequate, or incapable, but because there is a dearth of genuine adult support in our lives. This is why we have all gathered to this place and this conference to be together. To advocate, to inform, and to inspire one another to change this. Because when a caring adult becomes involved in the lives of our state’s foster youth, no matter the commitment level – the results can be life changing. My life story demonstrates that when a caring adult morally commits themselves to the welfare of our children, all of society benefits.”

Weeks after the symposium I am still moved by the meaningful and authentic message that these young people conveyed. But what about the over 400,000 children in foster care whose voices are not heard? Or the thousands who have aged out or been kicked out of their so called permanent home and in the best circumstances are simply struggling to survive but in the worst may be in jail, homeless, or dead? How are their voices heard?

As an attorney for children I am an independent actor and firmly believe in the concept of giving a child a strong and effective voice in a legal proceeding that has a critical impact on his or her life. Who but the child can offer the best perspective about what it means to be in their shoes. Time and again, experience shows that children, even very young children, given the time and opportunity, demonstrate not only that they have views, experiences and perspectives to express, but that their expression can contribute positively to decisions that directly affect them and their wellbeing. In court, I am able to focus on advocating the child’s expressed position, utilizing the court rule to ensure that the child can meaningfully participate in the case. I am able to partner with a child to develop their voice in the litigation through the lawyer-client counseling process which includes building rapport, respect, and trust. Excluding children from participation in matters that affect them is a knee jerk reaction with the premise that this will protect them. Just by the status of being a child it is thought that involving them and hearing their thoughts is putting a burden on them. Well-meaning adults believe they are supposed to know what is best for their children and are concerned about empowering children and elevating them to an adult like status which will usurp the parent’s authority. However, children are more observant, aware and insightful than adults give them credit for.

But beyond individual advocacy, we must listen and learn from our clients in order to effectuate systemic change. Every state has committees, subcommittees and working groups focusing on policy changes in foster care. But are foster or former foster youth at the table? More than likely, they are not. But they need to be. The greatest lesson I learned from working with Jaquan, LaToya and Demetrius in discussing challenges and solutions in preparation for the Symposium was that their views, experiences and perspectives should be heard to contribute positively to decisions that directly impact the quality of foster care.

A judge commented about the youth panel: “The words and sentiment of these amazing youth will continue to resonate with me. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be transformed.”

Let’s not only be transformed individually, but transform our practice. And the first step is bringing youth to the table in decision-making.

* The views expressed are solely those of the author and not the organization