For Heidi and Neil Howard, giving birth to a terminally ill baby seemed punishment enough. But that was before the Massachusetts Department of Social Services stepped into their lives.

The department came knocking at the door to their home in the form of a "home visitor" sent by the hospital when the Howards' first baby girl was born with terminal health problems.

According to the Massachusetts News, the "home visitor" was a social worker who found the home in disorder. The kitchen was in the process of being remodeled. Over Heidi's objections and without identifying the true purpose of the call, the "home visitor" opened closets and quizzed her about her marriage. Then, she filed a report about the messy home and "stress" in the family – stress undoubtedly caused by having a dying child.

Their situation was complicated by a restraining order that Heidi says she was blackmailed into filing: the DSS allegedly threatened to remove their two boys, 10-year-old Christopher and five-year-old Ethan, if Heidi did not register a complaint against her husband even though she insisted no abuse had occurred. With a restraining order on file, the DSS seized the boys in November 1999.

In February 2001, another daughter, Jessica, was seized from her nursing mother on the grounds that the other children were already in DSS custody. No court hearing has been held on the two boys. Chester Darling, an attorney for the Howards, has called the DSS "an agency ... that can kidnap children almost with impunity."

The Howards' case is not unique. Cases like theirs are occurring more frequently because state agencies now have a financial incentive to separate children from their parents and put them up for adoption.

The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 is explicit about the rewards. Under a section called "Adoption Incentive Payment," the act says a state can receive as much as $4,000 for adopting-out a child. There is even a provision offering technical assistance "through grants or contracts ... to assist States and local communities to reach their targets for increased numbers of adoptions and, to the extent that adoption is not possible, alternative permanent placements, for children in foster care."

The money from incentives, grants, and contracts goes directly into the coffers of child protection agencies when they adopt-out children.

Who benefits? "Social workers, diagnosticians, attorneys, foster homes and group homes, to name a few," says Susan Jackson of CPS Watch, a watchdog organization that monitors Child Protective Services. "These folks are fed by a child abuse industry to the tune of well over $12 billion."

Collectively, they form the Child Abuse Industry.

CPS Watch has been carefully monitoring child abuse investigations since 1998, the year after passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act. Alaska, it found, reported 15,703 child maltreatment referrals from a child population of 192,261 – or one report for every twelve children – that year.

In 1998, according to a federal Department of Health and Human Services report, Kansas removed 1,872 children from their homes. But only 1,104 of the investigations substantiated the charges of abuse. The report states that 272 children were removed from families for reasons "unknown" in Ohio the same year.

In a recent issue of Social Work: Journal of the National Association of Social Workers, Leslie Doty Hollingsworth cautioned her colleagues about the ethical line they may be crossing.

"Because there are strong financial incentives to increase adoptions, practitioners may be compromised ethically if required to work for reunification and adoptive placement simultaneously," writes Hollingsworth, who teaches at the University of Michigan School of Social Work.

Some organizations believe that the threat to families is severe enough to warrant active non-cooperation with government agencies. For example, the Home School Legal Defense Association – which believes home schoolers are being particularly targeted – tells members of their community to contact them immediately for legal assistance if approached by a social worker.

But the warning came too late for the Howards.

The DSS wanted to put baby Jessica up for adoption, but on July 16th, Judge Robert Belmonte of the Framingham Juvenile Court ordered the baby returned to her parents. At last report, the DSS maintains that the two boys should be adopted out but seems willing to let an aunt and uncle become the adoptive parents.

That way, at least, the DSS would still receive its "adoption incentive payment."

McElroy is the editor of www.ifeminists.com. She also edited Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Independent Institute, 1999) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender Feminist Attack on Women (McFarland, 1996). She lives with her husband in Canada.