Saturday, September 13, 2008

Erie County Adoption Assistance Policy Manual Out of Compliance with State and Federal Laws

On its web site, the Public Children Services Association of Ohio (PCSAO) lists an Erie County policy manual on adoption assistance under the heading “Tools Develped by PCSAO” The designation of the Erie County manual as a “tool” amounts to an endorsement by PCSAO, an organization that represents county child welfare agencies in the state.

Recent adoption assistance cases in nearby Ohio counties, suggests that Erie County has generously shared its approach to negotiating adoption assistance agreements with its sister agencies. Unfortunately, the manual, Dear Prospective Adoptive Parent suffers from major defects. While touting its approach to negotiating adoption assistance as cutting edge, in reality its provisions violate federal and state law in two significant ways. As a consequence, the agency has proposed adoption assistance payments as low as $150 per month. This rate is based on a formula applied in a hypothetical scenario in the Erie County policy manual. Currently, the state will provide the non-federal matching funds for adoption assistance payments of up to $300 per month, a rate which costs the county agency nothing.

Error Number One

Erie County’s policy maintains that federal adoption assistance may not be used to cover expenses that would be incurred by any “normal family.” This division of adoption assistance into acceptable and unacceptable expense categories is clearly contrary to federal policy as set forth in Section 8.2D.4 and Section 8.2D.1 the Child Welfare Policy Manual.

Question 1 in Section 8.2D.4 of the Child Welfare Policy Manual, notes:

“The payment that is agreed upon should combine with the parents’ resources to cover the ordinary and special needs of the child projected over an extended period of time and should cover anticipated needs, e.g., child care. Anticipation and discussion of these needs are part of the negotiation of the amount of the adoption assistance payment.”

The Child Welfare Policy Manual also states that adoptive parents have complete discretion to decide how adoption assistance payments may be used on behalf of their children, indicating that it may be used for to meet ordinary daily needs or those related to a disabling medical or mental health condition Section 8.2D.1 of the Child Welfare Policy Manual provides:

“Once the adoption assistance agreement is signed and the child is adopted, the adoptive parents are free to make decisions about expenditures on behalf of the child without further agency approval or oversight. Hence, once an adoption assistance agreement is in effect, the parents can spend the subsidy in any way they see fit to incorporate the child into their lives. Since there is no itemized list of approved expenditures for adoption assistance, the State cannot require an accounting for the expenditures.” (Emphasis added).

Error Number Two

Once Erie County applies a formula of acceptable and unacceptable expenses to determine the adoption assistance payment. The parents are then told what the child is entitled to receive. There is no further negotiation. Negotiation of the amount of adoption assistance in the form of a written agreement based upon the child’s needs and the family’s overall circumstances is a cardinal principal of the program. In failing to engage in negotiation, the Erie County policy violates federal law at 42 U.S.C. 673 (a) (3), Section 8.2D.4 of the federal Child Welfare Policy Manual and rule 5101:2-49-05 of the Ohio Administrative Code (OAC).

The Need for Training

The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) should contact Erie County, PCSAO and the other child welfare agencies across the state and inform them that Erie County’s policy of negotiating adoption assistance agreements is in conflict with state and federal law. The proliferation of dubious practices by county agencies reinforces the need for comprehensive training which includes a model for the negotiation of adoption assistance agreements.