A bill aiming to boost Minnesota's adoption rate from foster care, currently the second-lowest in the nation, will get a Senate committee hearing Wednesday.
Adoption advocates say the state's ranking is so low partly because of a subsidy disparity: If you're raising a foster child and want to adopt that child, the state will cut assistance payments to you by half.
Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said she and Chief Justice Lori Gildea toured the state as part of a Children's Justice Initiative, and one of their questions was how to increase Minnesota's low rate of adoption for older children in foster care.
"One thing we heard from every part of Minnesota was we need to change the way we pay for adoption assistance," Jesson said. "We have disincentives built into our system ... because, frankly, we pay more for children to be in foster care than we do for adoption assistance."
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A lot more. A typical subsidy for a child in foster care might be nearly $700 a month. Assistance for parents who adopt foster children is half that. According to DHS officials, Minnesota has one of the highest rates of foster care payments, and one of the lowest for adoption.
Joe Knoll, executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children, keeps track of these numbers. Knoll said adoption assistance payments are the same today as they were in 1995.
"I've watched over the years why that happens," Knoll said. "It is a structural problem because the foster care costs are borne by the counties and the subsidized adoption costs are borne by the states. The Legislature gives a cost of living to the counties, passes it on, and they don't give it themselves at the state."
The Dayton administration's proposal, called Northstar Care for Children, would equalize payments for foster care, relative care and adoption for children ages six and older.
Commissioner Jesson said older children, particularly sibling groups and children of color, have the most difficult time finding permanent families. When the state did a pilot project to see if equalizing foster care and adoption payments made a difference, adoption rates increased by 20 percent.
Brenda Reedy, an adoptive mother who was part of the pilot project, said the extra money helped her afford the care her 12-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter needed.
"We all know that raising children is expensive, Reedy said. "What many people don't know is raising kids that come out of the foster care system can be much more expensive. You don't realize all the therapy you're going to need. The years — we've had our kids for seven years — our son's been in therapy all those seven years. You know, doctor's appointments, physical therapy, occupational therapy; you name it, we've been there."
Northstar Care for Children would cost an additional $2.57 million — that's included in the governor's proposed two-year budget. There have been previous attempts to erase the disparity, but those have been opposed by foster families.
Commissioner Jesson said most foster families wouldn't see a decrease — except the six percent of families receiving the most expensive reimbursements. Current payments wouldn't be cut. Children would be grandfathered into the new program which would begin January 1, 2015.
Randy Ruth, president of the Minnesota Foster Care Association, hasn't seen the new legislation, but he thinks his organization will likely oppose it.
"It's a mixed response because we do believe there needs to be some equalization between foster care and adoption, but it doesn't have to be adoption at the expense of foster care," Ruth said.
Ruth said he thinks Minnesota's 9-percent rate of adoption of children out of foster care isn't due to financial disincentives, but because most children are returned to parents or relatives. Jesson said 355 Minnesota children are waiting in foster care for permanent families.