NEW YORK – Fewer children would be stuck in foster care if state authorities reduced red tape and standardized procedures nationwide to encourage more adoptions by out-of-state families, according to a coalition of child welfare experts appealing for change.
"Children wait in foster care not because there aren't enough families to adopt them, but because of artificial barriers we erect," said Jeff Katz, executive director of Listening to Parents, a Boston-based group that organized the initiative.
The coalition — representing several of the nation's leading adoption advocacy groups — issued a report Tuesday detailing some of these barriers and proposing steps to overcome them.
One proposal would be to standardize the home study courses that are required of all parents seeking to adopt. At present, home studies vary widely and some states do not accept the preparations made by a family in another state.
Another proposal is to adjust the federal adoption incentive policy so both the sending and receiving states are rewarded for interstate adoptions. According to the report, the current system rewards the sending state for finalizing an adoption, while the state receiving the child may not get fully compensated for costs of recruitment and post-adoption support.
The report cites federal data showing that there were only 4,600 interstate adoptions out of 690,000 children adopted from foster care between 1998 and 2009. In the 2010 fiscal year, according to Katz, there were 527 interstate adoptions out of about 53,000 total adoptions from foster care.
The U.S. child welfare system is complex, with every state — as well as many cities and counties — operating their own agencies and programs under a patchwork of state and federal laws. By the latest federal count, there were about 408,000 children in foster care nationwide, including more than 100,000 who were eligible to be adopted.
One of the advocates endorsing the new report, Kathleen Strottman of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, said Congress might need to be involved in any efforts to rebalance the financial incentives for adoption. However, she said moves to standardize home studies requirements could be undertaken by the states themselves if they were willing to cooperate and overcome possible mistrust.
"The less we can treat this as a state-by-state issue, the better," she said. "The needs of children are similar. The opportunities for children should be similar."
Other experts endorsing the report included Richard Barth, dean of the University of Maryland's School of Social Work; Joe Kroll, executive director of the St. Paul, Minn.-based North American Council on Adoptable Children, and Rita Soronen, CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.
An adoption expert not involved with the new report, Adam Pertman of the Donaldson Adoption Institute, said he and fellow advocates nationwide have been battling for years to eliminate barriers to interstate adoptions.
"For whatever policy reasons, we can't seem to lick them, and the bottom line is the kids are the losers," Pertman said. "It's a states' rights thing — states saying, 'We know what we're doing and no one else should tell us what to do.'"
One parent who encountered multiple roadblocks is Amy Friedman, founder and CEO of a consulting firm in New York City.
While applying to adopt from the city's child welfare agency, Friedman also made inquiries about adopting from Oregon and Washington state, and was told that the agencies there were likely to give priority to in-state families.
Friedman tried several other states, and encountered agency employees who did not want to work with the New York City agency, which would have been involved in various interstate procedures.
Finally, Friedman succeeded in adopting a 13-year-old boy in Connecticut two years ago, but only after extensive efforts to overcome the reluctance of a caseworker who said the New York City system was hard to deal with.
Her message to other parents in similar positions is to persevere. "It's not going to be easy," she said. "You have to find an open-minded individual."
The issue of interstate adoption arose last year in Florida in the case of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona. She was adopted in 2009 by her foster parents, Jorge and Carmen Barahona of Miami, and they have been charged with killing her in February 2011.
The adoption by the Barahonas was approved despite strenuous objections from Nubia's aunt and uncle in Texas, Isidro and Ana Reyes, who tried for years to adopt Nubia and her brother themselves — saying the children would be better off with blood relatives who loved them.
The case fueled criticism that interstate adoptions are often needlessly hampered by bureaucratic hurdles.
Laura Kirksey, an interstate adoption specialist with Florida's Department of Children and Families, said the case prompted her agency to stress to its staff that placement of a foster child with relatives should be given serious consideration even if the relatives lived out-of-state.
In 2011, interstate adoptions accounted for just 172 of the 2,751 children adopted out of Florida's foster care system.
Kirksey agreed that varying state home study requirements can be a source of frustration, and said standardization could have great benefits. Another major improvement, she said, would be a national database that all states could access, sharing information that could dramatically speed the processing of interstate adoptions.
She said many states, unlike Florida, still keep most of their child welfare records on paper and not in electronic form, leading to cases where crucial documents are sometimes lost or delayed in the mail.
"We've got to move forward," she said. "Processing things by paper is ridiculous."
Terry Clark, director of the Division of Operations in Pennsylvania's Office of Children, Youth and Families, said some child welfare officials had been trying to build support for creating a national database.
"The problem is funding," he said. "They haven't found enough states that are willing to pay up."
The Eliminating Barriers to Adoption report: http://bit.ly/LiWFpF
David Crary can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/CraryAP