Cut in adoption subsidy prompts planned lawsuit

As many as 2,000 children would be affected by the subsidy loss.
Wednesday, June 22, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:07 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A group of attorneys is planning to file a lawsuit within the next 30 days on behalf of 20 Missouri parents who will lose state subsidies that help them care for their adopted children. At least one of the plaintiff families is from Boone County, the attorneys said.

“It appears that legal action is inevitable,” said John Ammann, director of the Legal Clinic at St. Louis University and a lawyer involved in the case. “We continue to hear from more and more parents who want to be involved in the case.”

The group of about 10 lawyers, from private practice and representing advocacy groups in Missouri and other states, met Tuesday to discuss legal strategies, including whether to file a class-action suit and whether to sue in state or federal court.

“We are collecting stories,” said Tom Kennedy, an attorney who practices in Missouri and Illinois. “The best story gets to be the best plaintiff. We’re looking for difficult situations to make the case to the court.”

The cuts in the adoption subsidy will take effect in August and will affect about 2,000 children across the state, unless Gov. Matt Blunt takes veto action. The Missouri Department of Social Services has notified thousands of adoptive families, including 61 in Boone County, that they might lose the subsidy, which ranges from $225 to $651 per month.

The state has offered adoptive parents a packaged deal of the monthly subsidy, Medicaid coverage and a stipend for child day care as an incentive to adopt children who are often abused, neglected or have medical or behavioral problems. The aid package was the state’s way of complying with the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, a 1997 federal law that awards money to states that help facilitate adoptions.

Starting Aug. 28, adoption subsidies will be limited to families earning less than a certain percentage of the poverty level. The state will use a “means” test to determine whether the family meets the income level. The test has yet to be determined.

“The case in simple terms is going to be based on broken promises,” Ammann said. “Parents adopted children based on promises from the state that it would be helping them along the way.”

Determining who receives an adoption subsidy depends on the income of the birth parents, Ammann said. If the child comes from a family on welfare, the adopting family keeps the subsidy, Ammann said — even if the adopting parents are well-off.

“Donald Trump can adopt a child … and get a subsidy, but a family with a modest income, if the child happens to be from a family like theirs, doesn’t get any money,” Ammann said. “The state is banking on the fact that parents will love their child so much that they’ll find a way to raise the child without a subsidy. It’s playing on the love and good graces of adoptive parents.”

Kennedy said that denying the subsidy to adoptive parents violates federal law. Kennedy said he filed suit in 2002 on behalf six adoptive families who lost state aid; all of his clients retrieved their benefits, he said. The state cannot deny the subsidy without consent of the parents, he said.

“Missouri has terrible problems at the moment,” Kennedy said. “I’ve never seen cuts like this anywhere in the U.S., and I know all the cases.”

Bob Bax of the Missouri Division Social Services said the state would not comment on impending or potential litigation.

Melanie Scheetz, executive director of Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition, a St. Louis organization, said parents who lose the subsidy will have to decide whether to keep their adopted children at their own expense or return them to the state’s foster care system. Lawyers and adoption advocates also said that, without the subsidy, many children who would otherwise be adopted would remain in foster care.

“I am absolutely certain it will discourage low-income families from adopting,” said Mary Beck, a local adoption attorney. “It will result in foster care for a longer time.”

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