Monday, April 16, 2012

What's Wrong with Adoption Assistance in Ohio?; Part 2 of a Series

Adoption Assistance is Mismanaged Because ODJFS Does Not Recognize Its Unique Features

The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) does not recognize that Title IV-E adoption assistance differs from other federal entitlement programs in several important respects.

  1. Eligibility for adoption assistance and determination of the amount of assistance are two related but distinct steps.

  1. Once a child is determined eligible for the program; federal law provides that the amount of adoption assistance must be determined through negotiation, based upon a broad consideration of the child’s needs and circumstances of the adopting family. Federal financial participation (FFP) in adoption assistance is available up to the level a child would receive in a foster home suitable to their level of care. Negotiation of adoption assistance payments may involve disagreements between parents and agency representatives involving several hundreds of dollars per month.

Failure to create the procedure and practices for the above differences is a key to understanding the deficiencies in ODJFS's administration of adoption assistance.

In most federal assistance programs, benefits are determined at eligibility by applying an income means test based on family size and income. Negotiating with families, accordingly, is beyond the experience of most agency officials. ODJFS' attempt the administer the Title IV-E adoption assistance program with the same structures and procedures as means tested programs has far reaching consequences.

No Development or Dissemination of a Coherent Model for Negotiation of Adoption Assistance Agreements

ODJFS has not developed a coherent model for negotiating adoption assistance agreements. As a consequence, many county agencies do not negotiate adoption assistance agreements in accordance with state and federal law. ODJFS officials are aware of this problem, but have not provided training to county agencies and taken any positive steps to establish, a coherent and consistent model of negotiation.

Consequences include: Bitter conflicts between adoptive parents and county agencies over the issue of negotiating adoption assistance agreement, resulting in numerous, complex state administrative hearings. Frequent threats to remove the child or children from the adoptive parents if they persist in attempting to exercise their due process rights.

Inadequate Preparation of Hearing Officers

ODJFS' hearing officers do not receive training regarding the differences and greater complexities of the adoption assistance program. Hearing officers are trained to examine the literal language of the Ohio Administrative Code. This training works well when determining eligibility for a means tested program based on income, resources and family size. It does not prepare hearing officers for the complexities of adoption assistance, which relies on guidelines. procedures and criteria for negotiating adoption assistance. Hearing officers are also not trained to look to the federal Child Welfare Policy Manual, for the authoritative interpretations of OAC adoption assistance regulations, even though ODJFS pledges to do so in its IV-E State Plan as a condition for receiving federal funds.

Consequences include: Uninformed and inconsistent hearing decisions. ODJFS has been approached about training a group of hearing officers to specialize in adoption assistance cases, but nothing has been done.

No State Oversight of County Agencies' Compliance with Hearing Decisions

Unlike other states, Ohio does have any statewide adoption assistance payment rate schedules. Each adoption assistance negotiation is to a great extent an individual transaction between the adoptive parents and county agency. Adoptive parents have been quite successful in winning hearings involving the county agency's failure to negotiate adoption assistance agreements according to federal and state policy standards. Because Ohio has no statewide adoption assistance payment standards, however, the hearing order in nearly every case, order the county agency to resume negotiations with the adoptive parents. ODJFS has no procedures in place for assuring county compliance and that a good faith negotiation takes place. ODJFS has no procedures for ensuring that settlements are reached.

Consequences include: County agencies resort to a variety of delaying tactics because they know that there are no negative consequences. Cases drag on for months without resolution. At times, they drag on for so long that a second hearing is held. One case is now over six years old. As months go by, county agencies will sometimes threaten to remove the children, blaming the parents for the delay and accusing them of not being committed to the adoption. Suggestions for third party arbitration or some other form of intervention have been made to ODJFS, but this option has not been explored.

No Policy Expertise in Adoptive Assistance at ODJFS

As adoptive parents have become more informed advocates, various policy and practice issues have surfaced. Adoptive parents cannot contact anyone at ODJFS that can provide answers to policy questions and the standards for verifying or documenting whether a requirement has been met. Policy analysis involves more that reading the literal language in a paragraph of the OAC. Administering adoption assistance policy involves an institutional memory of how rules have been interpreted, changes in federal interpretations and consistent applications of how compliance with existing policies is determined. At this time, ODJFS is sadly lacking in such expertise, which does nothing to remedy to inconsistent and poorly informed administration of the adoption assistance program across Ohio counties.