Kojo and Tom Sherwood chat with D.C. Council Member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large)
The number of Americans adopting internationally has dropped significantly, in part because of tighter rules set by foreign governments. And child advocates point out that there are thousands of kids in need of permanent homes here in the U.S. In D.C., the Child and Family Services Agency is revamping its support networks for families, foster parents and foster children. We look at how the foster care system fits into the adoption picture.
- Brenda Donald Director, DC's Child and Family Services Agency
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, we'll be talking to adult adoptees about issues often overlooked when we talk about adoption. But first, international adoptions, once a popular route for many American families, have declined dramatically in recent years as foreign governments have changed adoption regulations, or as in the case of Russia in late December, banned adoption by U.S. families.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThose in charge of children in foster care systems want to remind prospective parents that there are thousands of kids right here in D.C., Maryland and Virginia in need of adoptive parents. It's an option, of course, with its own challenges as D.C.'s Child and Family Services Agency can confirm. Joining us to talk about that is Brenda Donald. She is the director of the District's Child and Family Services Agency. Brenda Donald, good to see you again.
MS. BRENDA DONALDGood to see you. Thanks for having me here.
NNAMDIAnd thank you for joining us in studio. If you'd like to join the conversation, we have a number that you can call. It's 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. International and private adoptions get a lot of attention in the media, but what are some of the misconceptions about domestic adoption and in particular the foster care system?
DONALDDelighted that you're asking us that question. Some of the misconceptions are that it takes a really long time, that it's expensive, that we have a limited number of children available to be adopted, and we're working really hard to blow through those misconceptions. We have -- there are 100,000 children waiting for adoption in foster care across the U.S. -- 100,000 children. So, obviously, those children represent all ages, races, the gender.
DONALDAnd so there are a large number of child who are available. Here in D.C., we have about 300 children in our foster care system. And our foster care system -- I'm proud to say -- we greatly reduced the number of kids in foster care. We've done a better job at supporting families and keeping kids from coming into foster care and then returning them home or moving them to adoption or guardianships.
DONALDBut we have about 300 of our 1,400 children in foster care who are waiting to be adopted, and of those, about 100 do not have a family that has spoken up for them. So the other 200 are in foster homes, and they're going through the process of being adopted by their foster parents.
NNAMDIYou were this agency's head a decade ago, and you returned last year. In recent years, the Child and Family Services Agency has struggled with leadership changes, federal court supervision, budget cuts. How are you addressing those issues?
DONALDWell, I'm so excited to be back, and that the mayor wanted me to come back, back to my hometown.
NNAMDIWell, Maryland stole you for a while.
DONALDI went to Maryland. I learned a lot and was able to do a lot there.
NNAMDIAs I said, Maryland stole you for a while.
DONALDBut I'm back home now, Kojo. And, you know, I'm a local girl, and this is where my heart is and where my passions lie. The good news is that our agency, the Child and Family Services Agency, is a much stronger agency than it has been. And child welfare will always have a lot of struggles and challenges just by the nature of the work that we do, but we're in a -- we're in good shape.
DONALDI have a strong team. We have a mayor who really gets what we're doing, and this is where his heart is too -- human services -- the work that he's done, all of his career and our deputy mayor. And it's such a big difference when you have the leadership support. So I've got the resources to do the work. I've got the team. I come with more experience than I had before, an ability to draw on national best practices. And we've been moving. In the last year, we've made tremendous strides.
NNAMDII want to talk in more specific terms about that. You did mention that Mayor Gray has experience in this area. He did serve as the director of the Department of Human Services some years ago. I think that was in the Kelly administration, was it?
NNAMDIIn the Kelly administration. If you'd like to join the conversation with Brenda Donald, director of the District's Child and Family Services Agency -- have you had any involvement with the foster care system? What's been your experience? Call us at 800-433-8850. On the good news side, you mentioned that the agency has fewer kids in need of care. How come? Can you talk about that, and how it changed your approach?
DONALDSure. So when I was here before in 2001, we had 3,200 kids in foster care. Today, we have 1,420, so fewer than half. And this mimics a national trend. I mean, child welfare has gotten better and smarter at realizing that, first of all, every child deserves a family, and that the government really shouldn't be raising kids.
DONALDBut foster care and child welfare exists for a reason, and we look at it as a temporary safe haven, that when kids need to be in the child protective system, they should be there for as short a period as time as necessary to either help their families to get in a position to have them return to them, or in cases where they can't, then to move them towards guardianship or adoption.
DONALDSo we have created a framework -- we call our four pillars framework, and it starts with the first one which one is narrowing the front door. And for many years, foster care systems, including the District, just brought children into care and then decided what to do with them.
NNAMDII was wondering what narrowing the front door meant because a lot your changes come, so to speak, under that heading or in that context.
DONALDAnd that's where we've seen the results over the last year. When Mayor Gray appointed me in January of 2012, which has been just a year ago, we had 1,750 kids in foster care, and we were just bringing in too many children. We found that about 30 percent of the kids who came under foster care, we were returning home within 30 to 60 days. So then that begged the question, well, do we really need to bring them into foster care, or could we bring resources and supports to their families while they were getting stabilized?
DONALDAnd so that was one thing, that we made different decisions, certainly always -- safety is always paramount, but that we can make good decisions about whether or not a child needs to come into foster care. And the second part of that is creating a focus on kinship care. And, you know, long before there were formal foster care systems...
NNAMDIThere were grandparents.
DONALD...families took care of their kids. And so we have really stepped that up and increased our supports to relatives to take care of children for the temporary period. So that's where we've seen the greatest reduction, fewer kids coming into foster care.
NNAMDIThe goal generally is to reunite families, but ultimately, if that fails, a child may be up for adoption. Can you discuss that difficult scenario and how that decision is made?
DONALDYes. And it is a very difficult scenario. It's the last resort. No one wants to permanently remove a child from a family. And so when a child comes into foster care, the presumption at the beginning is always that the child will be reunified. And there's a court process, and the court sets the legal goal.
DONALDAnd our responsibility as the agency is to work very closely with the families to identify what their challenges are and to bring services and supports to them to try to address those challenges and then to monitor them and to make sure that we believe in our best clinical judgment that the child can be safe and can be safely returned. And about 40 percent of children quickly go back home to their families.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Would you don the headphones, please, Brenda, so we can take calls? We'll start with Matt in Washington, D.C. Matt, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MATTThanks so much. I really just wanted to underscore some of the things that the director has been saying. I'm a longtime observer of D.C.'s child welfare scene and just (unintelligible), but it is absolutely true that the agency's recent focus on narrowing the front door and keeping kids out of care if they don't need to be has meant that fewer kids have had their lives disrupted unnecessarily. It's meant that the social workers too aren't overburdened with kids that don't need to be there and do better investigations.
MATTAnd on the back end -- the topic you're talking about today -- the social workers can do better work looking for appropriate foster homes and adoptive homes and can support those foster parents and adoptive parents more effectively. So it really -- what the director has done really has sort of unlocked the opportunity to have a healthy child welfare system that's supporting the community in every respect. So I really applaud her for that.
NNAMDIMatt, thank you very much for your call. Brenda Donald, one longstanding issue that your agency is dealing with, like many other cities, is the amount of time children spend in the foster care system cycling through multiple homes or group homes. How is the agency addressing those issues?
DONALDYes, it's a great point. And so to put things in perspective, in D.C., unlike most other child welfare systems, we keep kids in foster care until they're 21 years old. And so that's a good thing because most other systems will cut the plug at age 18. And who's ready to be on their own at age 18? So we do have a large number of older youth in our foster care system.
DONALDUnfortunately, many of those are result of they have lived in foster care almost all of their lives and a result of poor practices and history. New kids coming into foster care, we're much more focused and much smarter about moving them either back home or to a long-term permanent family. So we're getting better at that. Our lengths of stay are still too long, and that's a top priority for this administration.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Are you an adoptive parent or family member involved with domestic adoption? Did you consider the foster care system? You can also send email to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Let's move on now to Brian in Washington, D.C. Brian, your turn.
BRIANHey. Thanks for taking my call. I'm a foster-to-adopt parent. I currently have -- my partner and I have a son, and we're incredibly happy. We learned about Child and Family Services and decided that when we wanted to adopt, we wanted to be taking somebody from our community and making that person's life as good as it can be.
BRIANAnd we've had a really great experience with some parts of the "system" and challenges with others. I mean, the way we got introduced into the trainings and the -- there's the matching lady, Stephanie (sic) -- Victoria Lawson. I mean, all superb, wonderful parts to the system. It took a long time, three years, but we're really happy now. There are some challenges, I think, both from the...
NNAMDIWhat specific challenges would you like to cite?
BRIANYes. So I think that some of the operations within CFSA to finish licensing, to finish home studies, to -- and then some of the legal components of the way children are represented by guardian (word?) and others are appointed to fathers that don't exist and whatnot. I'm confused as to how money is being spent to get quality representation and making the children get through the system quickly. I...
NNAMDIWhen you say quality representation for children, you mean?
BRIANWell, when you go through the final stages of terminating a parent's right, you know, we have our lawyer, the child has a lawyer called the guardian ad litem...
BRIAN...they might -- they -- the -- and then the parents have court-appointed lawyers, and it's like -- it just seems like a whole lot of money. And the quality...
NNAMDIAllow me to have Brenda Donald address that.
NNAMDIBecause whether or not there's a whole lot of money involved, it certainly sounds complicated.
DONALDIt can be complicated. First of all, Brian, thank you so much for fostering and moving forward with adopting one of our kids. It's wonderful. And our goal is to try to make the process as easy as possible. You're right. There are a lot of lawyers involved, and that's to protect everybody's rights. And as Kojo asked earlier, it's a really difficult thing to finalize a termination of a parental right.
DONALDAnd we want to make sure that everybody has had a chance to be heard, and that later down the road, we don't have someone coming back to contest a father who said, I've never been contacted. And so there's probably a bending over backwards to ensure that all of the legal protections are satisfied on the front end, and as far as licensing and home studies, that can be a bewildering and exhausting process.
DONALDBut, of course, we have to make sure that the families are, you know, meet all of the legal standards and that they're, you know, fit to take care of the children. So there may be some error in our due diligence. But we do think it's important. But I'd appreciate your comments about the front end of the system. We'll work hard to make the back end system a little less painful.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We got a tweet from Sarah, who says that, "Your guest says that it's a myth, that this is an expensive and long process. How much does it cost and how long does it take?" And we got an email from Derrick, who writes, "My husband and I want to begin the adoption process and would strongly consider adopting from the foster system. However, we are also concerned about costs. I wasn't able to find any information about the financial factors on the CFSA website. Also, please outline the process to adopt from foster."
DONALDOK. Great. I can do that pretty quickly. So first of all, in terms of the legal cost, we provide some funding to offset the initial legal costs with up to $2,000 with certain attorneys that would the processing. So this is not like a private adoption where people will spend $20,000 in their -- with those legal fees. They really are relatively minor, and we do provide some money to offset that. The -- in addition, and I think it's really important to know that almost every child who's in foster care is considered at risk by the federal government in terms of long-term permanence.
DONALDAnd so we provide ongoing subsidies for children in -- who are adopted out of the foster care system, and those are negotiated. But those are to offset certain supports that are needed throughout the life of a child. The children are also eligible for health insurance, Medicaid health insurance, sometimes tuition assistance. So there are all sorts of supports throughout the life of raising a child. Once a child is adopted, we also provide post-permanency support in terms of counseling, therapeutic services.
DONALDSo there's a whole host of support in adopting a child in the foster care system. In terms of the process, first of all, I hope your caller would call 202-671-LOVE. That is our line for people who are interested in fostering or adopting. And there's a process of going through doing again the due diligence and getting a license and home study. That can take up to about four months.
DONALDAnd then once we identify a child that is a match for you in -- adoptive families will specify their interest. We encourage people to be flexible. Most of our kids are older who are waiting to be adopted. We've got about 13 kids who are 0 to 6. But most of the other ones are older, between 6 and 12 years old. And then we have about 50 of them who are teenagers. And we do have teenagers who are adopted out of our foster care system. I just...
NNAMDII was about to say that a lot of the kids, or quite a few of the kids are older, and that can be challenge for some prospective parents. What do you say to those parents?
DONALDIt can be, and it's our responsibility to be what the parents to be, you know, absolutely clear and transparent about the needs of those children and then to provide those ongoing supports after a child is adopted. And we really have stepped that up. I say, it's better for the kid with a permanent family, and it's certainly cheaper to provide some post-adoption supports than to keep a child in foster care, which costs on average, Kojo, of about $50,000 a year. So we are really stepping up our services to adoptive families, so that we can help them with the supports needed for their children.
NNAMDII have a lot more questions for you, but callers apparently have even more questions than I do. So I'll stick with the callers. Carla in Washington, D.C., you're on the air. Carla, go ahead, please.
CARLAHi. I wanted to know whether there's any sort of a mentoring program available for new parents that are considered to be, you know, at risk of ending up in the child, you know, having their kids end up in the system later where, you know, current parents or parents who have already successfully raised their children could be assigned in kind of a more of an informal way to mentor someone and help provide a support network for them...
CARLA...so that they don't enter the system.
DONALDWe do have a little bit of that. We've just started a co-parenting program and a birth parent program that works with parents who have been in the foster care whose kids who have been in the foster care system, and they have successfully been reunified to work with our foster families. The important point is as the number of kids and foster care goes down, we are shifting more resources to the front end for prevention, working with community partners
DONALDWe've got some exciting things going on that I hope Kojo will invite me to come back and talk about at another time. But the goal is to shift more resources to the front end, to work with families who are struggling so that they can keep their children, and we can avoid bringing them into foster care. That is part of narrowing the front door.
NNAMDIShe's pressuring me again, Carla. She's done this before, and it succeeded. So she's trying it again. Here's Danielle in Montgomery County, Md. Danielle, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANIELLEHi. Thanks for taking my call. We've been foster parents in Montgomery County for the past eight months for a little boy. And my question is about the judges who seem to have a lot of power. They do have a lot of power in the foster care system. It seems like in working with our social worker and the biological parents that were thinking that their case is definitely going to go in a certain direction, and then, all of a sudden, the judge makes a completely different decision than what we expected.
DANIELLEAnd so I was just -- and also in talking to other friends who are in the foster care world, who have foster parents, certain judges get reputation for making certain decisions. And I was just wondering, so how does that work? How does a judge become a judge in the foster care system? What are the qualifications? I just want more information about that.
NNAMDIWell, Brenda Donald can briefly tell you a little bit about it although she doesn't actually appoint the judges.
DONALDRight. There -- in the District of Columbia, of course, they are appointed. The Court is a federal Court in D.C. I'm not exactly sure how it is in Montgomery County. In D.C., though, the judges who sit on the family court have raised their hand to do that. These are judges who really care about kids and families and have signed up to do that. And they serve for three to five years, and many of them have served longer than that.
DONALDAnd so again, it goes back to the earlier things that we were talking about, about legal protections that the judges want to make sure that everything has been done so that the birth family's rights are protected, and they have every chance to reclaim their children. And sometimes that does go on longer than everybody would like. But at the end, I think the right decisions are made.
NNAMDIDanielle, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Diane in Laurel, Md. Diane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DIANEHi. Thank you. I'd like to ask a question of the lady about the comment that she made earlier in the program. She said that this wasn't the way it's always been that parents or grandparents and cousins and what have you used to always take care of the kids when there wasn't somebody there. Can you give any research or any data that can specify when all these changes came about and why?
NNAMDIWhen -- what changes came about when it was no longer the province of relatives to take care of kids and when jurisdictions and -- had to start taking care of that to provide foster care, you mean?
DONALDYes. A formal foster care system started in early 1900s. Before that, there where orphanages and other community organizations that sometimes took children who either will -- whose parents had died or really where there weren't any family members. And now there is, in the last 10, 15 years, a big movement back towards kinship care and really helping relatives as support their kids.
NNAMDIIndeed, Mayor Vincent Gray recently signed in to law the Grandparent Caregiver's Program. What's the idea?
DONALDWell, that is -- we know that a lot of grandparents are -- and granduncles and aunts are taking care of their relatives, and the idea is to provide them with some financial support so that they can take care of the children and so that we don't have those children at risk of coming into foster care. And that's our goal to do that, and that's part of our whole kinship care support program.
NNAMDIBrenda Donald is the director of the District's Child and Family Services Agency. As you heard earlier, she has invited herself back on broadcast to the future dates, so that's going to happen. Good to see you. Thank you for joining us.
DONALDThank you so much.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be talking with adult adoptees about issues often overlooked when we talk about adoption. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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