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Monitor: Adopting foster kids a balancing act

Every child in British Columbia should have a permanent, stable home. That’s something government, child-welfare advocates and parents all agree on.

Every child in British Columbia should have a permanent, stable home. That’s something government, child-welfare advocates and parents all agree on.

But when a child is adopted out of the foster-case system, support for the parents can quickly evaporate after the papers are signed.

B.C. has as many as 1,600 children in government care who have been identified as candidates for adoptive homes.

But fewer than 20 per cent are expected to be adopted. Many will reach 19, the age of majority, having known little but government care. No longer foster children, and without the support a loving family can provide, some of these young adults will fall prey to the dangers of the streets.

Today in Monitor, we look at whether we’re doing enough for families who adopt children in care.

When Sidney home-support worker Anna Lushaw decided to adopt the three children she had been fostering — two sisters and a brother — there was a full-blown family discussion.

It was just over three years ago and Lushaw said her three biological children — then ages 11, 14 and 19 — were in on the talk. They agreed with adopting the siblings, who had been with them for 5 1Ú2 years.

The then-foster kids — then ages six, nine and 15 — also wanted to see it go ahead. Once the court had ruled they would not be returned to their birth parents, the children were fearful about where they would end up.

“There were lots of little pieces that played out and at the end of the day, our whole family decided the best thing would be to adopt them,” Lushaw said. “They were part of our family by that point.”

The family knew the decision would mean less money coming in, since the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development would no longer pay the Lushaws to operate a Level 2 group home (for children requiring complex or challenging care).

Foster parents earn between $800 and $3,000 per month, depending on the level of care required and the number of children taken in. That foster-parent funding stops when foster children are adopted.

But for the Lushaw family, there was the promise of the Post-Adoption Assistance Program. Initiated in 1996, it provides up to $805 a month for children over 12 and $701 a month for those under 12, depending on family finances. And there was the ongoing promise of post-adoption programs for things like special counselling or tutoring.

“We knew that we would lose the fostering part of it, but we were kind of naïve about the services that we would lose,” Lushaw said. “Once you have adopted, you are kind of on your own.”

In fact, they ended up losing 75 per cent of the money they’d been receiving from the government.

Her youngest adoptive daughter, who has fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, needed counselling. But the ministry denied aid. The Lushaws were referred to local mental-health services and endured an 18-month wait.

Lushaw said dentists had always known the youngest daughter would also need specialized orthodontic work. Since it was identified prior to adoption, Lushaw said she had been assured the assistance would be there.

“We were told it wouldn’t be an issue,” she said. “Now we are having to jump through every single hoop to get it.”

Lushaw’s family had inadvertently fallen into an administrative crack in the child-welfare system.

Once a child is adopted from government care, the new parents take on full financial responsibility for the child’s needs, even identifiable special needs. And according to adoptive parents and social workers, kids who have been in government care typically have some level of special needs.

According to the Ministry of Children and Family Development, about 8,200 children are in government care, with about 5,200 living in foster homes. Of those, more than 1,000 have been identified as adoptable. And a good number have special needs.

Over the past 10 years, the province has placed an annual average of 290 kids into adoptive homes, a significant increase from the turn of the century, when only 165 were adopted annually.

Also, government spending reveals an acknowledgment that adoptive families need assistance. It budgeted $19 million in post-adoption assistance in 2012-13, considerably more than the $2 million spent in 2000-01.

Advantages of adoption over foster care are obvious. Those who work with children say stability is the first and most important element for their emotional health. Despite residual anxieties, adopted children eventually learn they no longer need to worry about being moved to another home, which is always an emotional disruption for a child learning to develop trust.

Furthermore, the stability and support of an adopted family is life-long. Family provides support when a child reaches young adulthood, a transition that sources say is taking longer and occurring later in life. That makes support for young people, even after they have reached legal adult status, a necessity.

Statistics Canada has even documented the increasing length of time young people spend in the parental home. In 1971, 78 per cent of all men and 89 per cent of women had left their parents’ home by age 25. But by 2001, those numbers had dropped to 60 per cent of men and 73 per cent of women.

“It takes today’s young adults longer to achieve their independence. They are leaving school later, staying longer in their parents’ home,” said the 2009 StatsCan study, Delayed Transition of Young Adults.

But young people in foster care are on their own when they reach 19, the age of majority. And many end up living on the streets, with no job or support.

“It’s a gap in services that everyone recognizes,” said Pat Griffin, executive director of the Youth Empowerment Society of Victoria, an agency dealing with under-19-year-olds in need.

The B.C. government in recent years has recognized the gap, and stepped up with programs to ease the transition from foster care to independent adulthood. For example, it helped start the Youth Education Assistance Fund in 2002 and since then has contributed $8.9 million in bursaries for 1,100 young people leaving foster care.

The Ministry of Children and Family Development has also completed planning and consultation for a three-year action plan to improve the transition into adulthood for foster kids.

Karen Madeiros, executive director of the Adoptive Families Association of B.C., said a stable family home can be crucial for a young person’s transition to independence. For an adopted child, especially ones in their teens, it can involve a later, trickier transition, so adoptive families deserve extra help preparing their children for the move.

“It’s in society’s best interest to spend some money on these kids as long as we can,” Madeiros said in a telephone interview from Burnaby. “At the end of the day, they are less likely to end up in our jails or on our streets.”

For a foster child who has been adopted, continued support after leaving home can be as simple as having someone to ask for advice. Or it can mean they have somewhere to go for help when they need it.

“Every kid in foster care needs to be in a family that is going to do the best that family can do to raise that kid to be the best and healthiest adult they can be,” Madeiros said.

“If we do that [assistance] upstream and we get these kids placed and we support these families, then we don’t have to Band-Aid them later.

“We don’t have to support them in jail or whatever.”

Madeiros believes adoption policies have not kept up with changes in society. Adoption as a clearly established aim has only within about the past dozen years become a government priority, she said.

Also, policies governing support for adoptive families have not fully adapted to modern realities.

For example, post-adoption assistance is made available only when at least one of three criteria is established:

n A child and an adoptive parent must have already established an emotional bond, as with a fostering situation.

n The adopted children must be siblings.

n The adoption must serve to further an existing cultural connection, in most cases, an aboriginal link.

So if a single child without siblings is adopted by a family who was not previously part of a foster arrangement and has no cultural connection, then the parents are not eligible for support.

Madeiros said the post-adoption support program was originally meant to make it easier for families who might not otherwise have the means to adopt children.

So foster families who previously counted on government money to keep kids in their home could continue to rely on some financial support after adoption.

Siblings might be more readily kept together if a family that was financially able to adopt only one child, for example, was encouraged with support to take in more. Aboriginal families, too, might be better able to adopt aboriginal kids, who represent a large percentage of children in care and are identified as a group that benefits from continuing cultural exposure.

Madeiros said over the years, spending grew on those post-adoption support payments, the monthly per-child financial assistance. She believes it has now squeezed out money for other services, such as special counselling or education for adoptive children.

“Families are now starting to find they don’t have the resources and they may be getting turned down for some requests,” Madeiros said.

Stephanie Cadieux, Minister of Children and Family Services, said post-adoptive support is often a balancing act, weighing responsibilities of government and parents.

“It can be a difficult balance to achieve,” Cadieux said. “Once a child is adopted, they become the legal child of a family, so those families then take on the responsibilities of caring for that child.”

But she said the government has agreed that long-term, stable, and if possible, permanent placement for children in care is now a recognized priority in government planning for kids in care.

“That’s what’s most important — permanency and stability,” Cadieux said. “So what we have done is redouble the efforts to make sure permanency planning is front and centre for all the kids that come into care.

“We want to encourage people to adopt and we want to encourage the chance for those children to have permanent families.”

Adoptive support versus foster care

The three levels of foster care refer to the needs of the children. Level 1 foster children have the fewest challenging needs. Level 2 children have more complicated developmental needs and possibly challenging behavioural issues. Level 3 refers to children who require the most intensive daily care, including health-related issues, such as tube feeding or behaviours that may pose a risk to themselves or others.

Post-adoptive assistance:
11 years and younger - $701.55/month
12 to 19 years - $805.88.month

Foster care - Level 1
11 and younger - $1,261.44/month
12 to 19 years - $1367.97/month

Foster care - Level 2
11 and younger - $1,944.22/month
12 to 19 years - $2,050.35/month

Foster Care - Level 3
11 and younger - $2,620.48/month
12 to 19 years - $2,726.61/month

Source: Government of B.C.