Governor Doug Ducey made headlines this spring with bold pro-adoption maneuverings. But with approximately 18,000 children – and counting – in the state’s care, is Arizona as adoption-friendly as we claim?
It’s been a tough few years – decades, even, some critics say – for the child welfare system in Arizona. The implosion of Child Protective Services and establishment of the Arizona Department of Child Safety under Governor Jan Brewer’s administration drew weekly headlines with its tales of overloaded caseworkers toiling around the clock with little resources, even caring for children overnight in their office buildings when group homes and foster families couldn’t be found.
So when Governor Doug Ducey made sweeping pro-adoption proclamations and political machinations early in his term, there was a glimmer of hope. Republican Ducey surprised people on both sides of the partisan aisle with his firm support of gay couples to adopt, which he expressed in April by vetoing legislation supported by Maricopa County attorney Bill Montgomery that would have denied same-sex couples access to the free adoption assistance provided for heterosexual couples by the state’s 15 county attorneys’ offices. In a statement accompanying the veto, Ducey said:
“I have made it abundantly clear since day one that my administration is unambiguously and unapologetically pro-adoption. With 17,000 children [at that time] under the state’s care, we need more adoption in Arizona, not less. That’s why I feel strongly – as I have said many times before – that all loving families should be able to serve as foster parents and adopt. I also have said my administration will follow the law. Practices have been brought to my attention that do not match those priorities, therefore, I’m instructing the Arizona Department of Child Safety to immediately ensure that all legally married couples in Arizona are able to jointly serve as foster parents and adopt. All children deserve a loving home, and under my watch, I’m committed to making sure government encourages that.”
Eight months after this grand statement, what’s the state of the state on adoption? We asked those in the metaphorical boots on the ground, from DCS employees to adoptive parents. In brief: It’s a mixed bag, with lots of kids still waiting on “forever homes” and lots of adults going through hell in their journey to become adoptive parents. But even the most seasoned vets of the system maintain hope, and that’s a start.
“LONG-STANDING BUREAUCRATIC INERTIA”
Since Tamera Shanker arrived in Phoenix in 1993, things have gone “from bad to worse,” regarding the child welfare system, says the adoption lawyer and board chair of the Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation. She says 22 years ago, 7,300 children were in foster care statewide; today, that number is closer to 19,000, with an average of 32-35 children coming into care every day.
“We may have gone from CPS to DCS, we may have gone from a state agency to a department in the governor’s office, but the issues surrounding our entire child welfare system continue to be exacerbated on a daily basis with no light at the end of the tunnel,” Shanker says. “I do acknowledge that a long-standing bureaucratic inertia that has enveloped – it plagued CPS before it became DCS – DCS, is going to take a long time to rectify.”
These issues include the 2009 budget cuts that wounded or outright killed safety net programs like government-subsidized daycare, food assistance, Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System and more, utilized by what Shanker calls “marginal families” – e.g. single-parent households barely surviving at or below the poverty line. She says cases of neglect have risen as a result: The harried single mother working two jobs may leave an older child to care for younger siblings, only to get reported by a well-intentioned neighbor as negligent. Those kids are entering the state’s care in droves, Shanker says.
“When it comes to adoption, there’s a very interesting thing that’s been occurring. We’re seeing an increase in adoption cases being assigned to DCS adoption specialist workers,” Shanker says. While on the outset that may seem like a good sign, that kids are being transferred quickly from foster care to the adoption process, Shanker says the statistic is misleading. “A good third of the increase, these cases aren’t ready for adoption… Severance, termination of parental rights haven’t been completed yet. The certification of the identified prospective adoptive home hasn’t been started yet. The appeals are continuing… They shouldn’t be transferred to an adoption unit in DCS unless they’re ready.”
Adoption specialists have effectively been made to act as ongoing case managers, a job they were neither trained nor hired for. Adoption specialists and case managers have seen their workloads balloon to an average of 50 cases each, which can translate into 100 or more individual children, since each case can include sibling groups. “It’s a burden” for everyone, Shanker says. “It sets up prospective adoptive families – and if the children are old enough to understand what’s going on it sets the children up – for some false expectations with regard to when it’s all going to end with DCS and when the case is going to be resolved.”
Why the rush if the cases aren’t ready? Shanker is loath to speculate, but she has some theories based on her chats with the caseworkers she has working relationships with. “It would seem to me that it may be a way of being able to report numbers differently. When you are looking at the way DCS reports numbers of children in care, they do break out the number of kids as far as how many go to permanency, how many are in guardianship, how many are in kinship homes, how many have been in care for X amount of time,” Shanker says. “When you break out children who are currently in care and children who have a permanency plan in place, you can reduce that number of kids in care in some of the reporting rubrics if they’re moved to adoption. It could be a matter of being able to try to make it look like the number of kids in foster care, those cases are moving faster than they actually are.”
As for DCS, Sue Schmelz, an adoption policy specialist in foster care and adoption, says the agency hasn’t seen concrete evidence that Ducey’s stance has led to increased adoptions. “We feel there hasn’t been sufficient time to evaluate if there has been an increase in adoptions since the comments were made,” Schmelz says. “The ease or difficulty of an adoption depends on specific circumstances of the child. We make every effort to ensure the adoption process is as easy as possible while doing what is necessary to protect the safety of the child or children. There have been changes to make the process easier for people who are licensed foster parents or relatives adopting a child for whom they have been caring.”
In July, DCS launched its first child-specific statewide recruitment contract to help the growing number of children in foster homes who are free for adoption find families.
CHANGING DEFINITIONS OF FAMILY
One thing Ducey’s affirmation has affected is the culture of adoption by same-sex parents in Arizona. Of course, the legalization of same-sex marriage in Arizona in October 2014 and nationwide in June 2015 didn’t hurt, either.
“Everyone is so pleased with the expansion and recognition of family as taking on a lot of different definitions,” Shanker says of the social workers, lawyers and adoptive and foster families she works with. “Being in Arizona, a more conservative-bent state, it’s refreshing to have everyone embracing this more. That has been the biggest accomplishment for Arizona in adoption, I believe.”
Before the recent sea change in LGBT family recognition and legal status, Shanker and other adoption attorneys had to execute some creative legal footwork to secure same-sex adoptive parents rights comparable to their heterosexual counterparts. Though he’s not a client of Shanker’s, Robbie Ring had to embrace his attorney’s crafty legal wrangling when he and his husband Simon adopted their son Ellis, now 3 years old. Ring, a stay-at-home dad, blogger and contributor to PHOENIX magazine’s online content, was initially listed as a household member when Simon adopted Ellis as a “single” gay parent. Though the Phoenix couple had married in Canada a year before they began the adoption process, their marriage wasn’t recognized in Arizona at the time.
“We had to do estate planning – see an attorney to do all kinds of wills and all these documents that said if Simon were to die, he [Ellis] should go to me. But I’d still have to adopt him, there would still be court proceedings. If that had happened and Simon’s family were against me, they could have easily stepped in and said no. It could’ve been a nightmare. Granted, his family is awesome, my family is awesome, and now we’re legally married.”
Ring officially adopted Ellis this August – three years into raising his son. “It was really nice to know he was officially, legally my son at that point.”
Despite the judicial hullabaloo, Ring says he never felt discriminated against because his family has two dads – or rather, Daddy (Simon) and Papá (Ring). “I was surprised. I thought, ‘Oh, gay couple, Arizona, it’s going to be hard.’ It wasn’t hard at all.”
SURPRISING ROAD BLOCKS AND SOLUTIONS
Some aspiring adoptive parents have encountered discrimination in less-expected spheres. Jen Smith (a pseudonym for a soon-to-be adoptive mother who requested anonymity) says she and her husband experienced snide comments, cold treatment and flat-out rejection from a handful of caseworkers, adoption agencies, other would-be adoptive parents and even birth mothers in potential private adoptions.
Smith believes they were singled out “because we weren’t willing to foster first, because we rolled in after work so we were dressed up, and we gave the impression that we were two yuppies,” she says. “We didn’t show our emotions in [adoption certification and parenting] class, we just tried to listen and learn. It’s not that we never gave input, but they [caseworkers] did specifically say, ‘You didn’t give a lot of input in class, so we don’t know how serious you are.’” It stung, especially since Smith herself is adopted, as is her brother-in-law. “Adoption is a big part of my life.”
Shanker says this isn’t the norm, but she has witnessed personal clashes between adoptive parents and social workers. “Whether it’s private or dealing with DCS and foster children adoption, there’s a lot of discretionary justice that goes on,” Shanker says. “What I mean by that is, when you have a social worker who is coming to your home and is going to assess you in all the intrusive ways, a lot of that can turn on… whether or not you get along. It shouldn’t be, but we’re all human and people bring their bias, even though a social worker is trained not to.”
At 45 and 50, the Smiths are also older than the average first-time adoptive parents, which Jen Smith feels has also played a role in the rejections they’ve fielded from birth mothers.
“I think that scared some of these people away. If they’re having unwanted children, and you look at their family history, they’re probably not waiting until their 30s to have children,” she says. “Their mom is probably maybe 20 years older, at the most, than them. We’re approaching the age of maybe their grandparents. I think that’s maybe the stigma they have in their heads.”
Cost is also an obstacle, with the average adoption ranging from $10,000 for a newborn through a nonprofit agency to $20,000-$30,000 or more for attorney adoptions, according to Independent Adoption Center, a nonprofit adoption advocacy group.
Phoenix couple Rachel and Jake McDonald came up with an innovative way to raise money for their first adoption (the McDonalds are biological parents to a young daughter). “We started Adopted Coffee last March out of our personal need to fundraise. We wanted to be able to serve the community, and my husband has been in the coffee industry for years, so the idea was born,” Rachel McDonald says. “We now open our home on Saturday mornings to the public for coffee, doughnuts and community. We have had so many local businesses come forward and donate coffee, beans and doughnuts for our cause. On any given morning, we have over 100 people [in our house]. We are now catering weddings and other local events.”
The McDonalds have reached half of their funding goal and, once their adoption is finalized, they hope to pay it forward to other couples who have begun the adoption journey. “Our goal is to open a brick and mortar space for Adopted Coffee and give back a large portion of our profits to organizations making a difference in adoption and foster care,” she says. “There are many people that look at foster care and adoption as a broken system and problem, but we are so excited to see the beauty come out of it as we bring our next baby into our family. We understand that not everyone is going to adopt, but if you can’t, foster; and if you can’t do that, volunteer; and if you can’t do that, become an advocate. This is the only way we can start to make progress – everyone coming together to make a difference.”
STORM CLOUDS, YES, BUT SOME SILVER LININGS
“We’ve had a steady decrease in foster homes and adoptive homes in Arizona for the last two years, and that trajectory isn’t turning, either – that one continues to go downward,” Shanker says. Still, there are bright spots to be found in our foster and adoption systems, if you’re looking for them. After a recent conference call with adoption attorneys in other states, Shanker was chuffed to discover that Arizona is one of the leading states in the nation when it comes to adoption-finalization timelines. Our average of six months is speedy, says Schmelz from DCS. “Regarding the general state of adoptions in Arizona, this has been one area of our system where results have been consistently strong, and something that has been regularly recognized by the federal government.”
And while the high volume of children in foster care is a downer, it does mean that there are more children available for adoptive parents. “We have over 2,300 children in foster care who are available to be adopted,” Shanker says. “The silver lining is if you are a family or an individual looking to adopt a child, you don’t need to look further than the confines of our own state to be matched up with a child that would be thrilled to find a permanent home that they can mutually fit with. It’s a sad statistic, but that’s the silver lining: People want to adopt, and we have children that can be adopted.”
About two-thirds of Shanker’s work centers around children in foster care and finding them forever families. She says that, while she respects and appreciates “from the ground up” methods of creating a family and raising a child from the beginning – in vitro fertilization, private adoption of infants, etc. – there are so many Arizona children who need homes that she urges potential adoptive parents to look within the system first. After all, as any adoptive parent will tell you, family is what you make of it.
“In order to connect with another being, and especially with a child, you don’t need to be the first one to hold them from the hospital. You don’t need to be the first one to change their diaper. You don’t need to have changed their diaper,” Shanker says with a laugh. “If it’s the right connection, whether that child is six months old or six years old or 16 years old, there is a connection that can be made. They come with baggage, but don’t we all?”
Curious to learn more or get involved?
DCS adoption specialist Sue Schmelz offers tips for every level of commitment:
SUPPORT local foster families “by providing a meal or offering to run an errand; things that will lighten the load for a foster family.”
EDUCATE yourself about how best to interact with foster families. “Unfortunately, foster parents are asked inappropriate questions all too often such as, ‘Is this your real child?’ These are the children from our communities and they need our care.”
DONATE time or money to local organizations dedicated to helping foster and adoptive families, like Foster Care Initiatives, AZ1.27, Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation and The Children’s Heart Gallery.
SPREAD the word to individuals, couples and families you know who want children.
FOSTER or ADOPT a child. “All children deserve to live with a family who will properly care for them, and there are not enough families to care for the children in foster care who cannot live with their own family. Please ask people to visit our website at azkidsneedu.gov and consider if they can be that family for a child in need.” – childrensheartgallery.org