Adoptive parents file class-action suit against Indiana DCS
LAPORTE — The Indianapolis attorneys who won a class-action lawsuit against Indiana's Bureau of Motor Vehicles last year have turned their attention to the 1,400 families on a "waiting list" for money meant to help raise children adopted from the state's foster care system.
A class-action lawsuit was filed Monday in LaPorte County, against the Department of Child Services and its director, Mary Beth Bonaventura, and on behalf of Debbie Moss, a LaPorte grandmother profiled in a February column in The Tribune. She is struggling to care for her three grandchildren without the adoption subsidies she was promised.
In a press conference Monday afternoon, Indianapolis attorney Richard Shevitz described a state policy enacted by former DCS Director James Payne in 2009 in which DCS negotiated adoption rates with many families who qualified for them, signed contracts but then told them they would be placed on a waiting list until the money was available — at the same time returning millions of dollars back to state coffers.
"This is obviously something that has real consequences for real people," Shevitz said.
Court documents list nearly $240 million returned to the state over five years in fiscal years 2009-2013. Bonaventura took over as DCS chief in March 2013.
This, the attorneys allege, was a breach of the contracts DCS signed with the adoptive parents.
Meanwhile, Shevitz pointed out a Tribune editorial about adoptions dropping 35 percent statewide between 2011 and 2013, meaning the state has been paying more money to keep children in foster care than it would have paid in adoption subsidies. Under state law, adoption payments are to be 75 percent of foster care payments.
Since Moss adopted her three grandsons in July 2012, she would have been due about $40,000 in payments from the state based on the daily payments she had negotiated with DCS, Shevitz said.
A DCS spokesman had not yet commented on the lawsuit Monday afternoon.
'Going home with you'
Moss easily recites the unexpected conversation with a judge that led to her adopting her three grandsons from Mishawaka.
One of the LaPorte woman’s daughters, the mother of the boys, had lost parental rights because of abuse she had not deflected from them. Moss had acted as a foster parent to the boys, but on this day, another of Moss’ daughters was prepared to officially adopt them.
But in his courtroom in South Bend, former Judge Peter Nemeth scuttled caseworkers’ arrangements after learning the would-be adoptive mother would be placing the children in child care during the day. Was there any other relative in court who could take them instead? he asked.
He zeroed in on Moss, she recalled for a Tribune writer earlier this year, in his famously direct manner.
Who was she? And since she had been fostering them, could she raise them?
Moss told the judge about her ongoing health issues and that she subsists on disability payments because of her cancer in remission.
Nemeth, she said, pointed out that the state would help support the children, as former wards of the state.
"Get me a letter from your oncologist that your cancer is in remission," Nemeth told her, "and the children are going home with you."
So Moss left the Juvenile Justice Center and showed up at her oncologist's office across town. After telling his staff why she was there, the doctor came over and asked her, "What are you doing? It'll be too much stress on you."
"I said, 'It'll be too much stress on me if I don't take them,' " Moss recalled telling her doctor, who wrote a letter for the judge, saying he was doing so "under protest."
Moss officially adopted her three grandchildren — now 4, 5 and 7 — on July 13, 2012.
Out of the budget
The Department of Child Services paid for an adoption attorney to negotiate a subsidy rate, Moss recalls, starting with a measly 50 cents a day.
As a foster parent, she had been reimbursed $25 a day per child. They negotiated $18.88 a day. The attorneys drew up paperwork that included the agreed-upon amount, and everyone signed it.
Then Moss learned she was placed on a waiting list of other adoptive parents who are told they qualify for state adoption subsidies but won't actually receive them.
Federal money exists for some adoptive parents meeting certain restrictive criteria, which are gradually being phased out. President Obama's administration has so far kept enough money in the federal budget to allow all newly adopted children to receive federal subsidies through 2018.
Those who are ineligible for federal money are meant to receive state subsidies. All but Indiana reportedly offer them.
But former DCS Director James Payne, whose oft-cited mantra was "People should adopt for love, not money," removed adoption subsidy money from the budget as of January 2009 while at the same time returning to state coffers millions of unspent dollars from the DCS budget.
"I feel for those other families," said Moss, who grew up poor and is used to stretching a dollar. "I would like to see one of them (state officials) explain to me how you go to your bill collector and say, 'I am here to pay this with love.'"
"It sounds really greedy, doesn't it, when I ask for money to help raising my own grandchildren?" Moss asked. But she notes that she has to rely on charity from others to meet the basic needs of the children, which includes treating asthma in two of them and ADHD in all of them, and she has trouble paying bills.
The 58-year-old refers to her list of food pantries, which she visits regularly. She tries to take in odd jobs of sewing or doing laundry.
In January 2012, her disability payments increased $6 a month, which then rendered her family ineligible for food stamps. Her appeals to be reinstated have been repeatedly denied.
"I want to see them grow into the fine young men I know they can be," Moss said. "But I don't get it. How can you leave that out of a budget?"
As of the end of the last fiscal year, July 2013, 1,400 families were on Indiana's "waiting list," according to DCS spokesman James Wide.
Adoptive parents on the list are eligible for some services for the children, such as Medicaid, and are given one-time payments of $1,500 per child. Those one-time payments can cover court costs or attorney fees. (Asked about the one-time payments, Moss said she had not received such a thing, but she noted the attorney bill DCS paid on her behalf was exactly $4,500.)
State Sen. John Broden, D-South Bend, introduced a bill for each of the last five years that would restore the adoption subsidy to the state budget, including last year, when Gov. Mike Pence proclaimed that promoting adoption is a priority for him. Each year, the bill failed to pass.
Last week, Broden indicated he plans to introduce his bill again, and he awaits word of whether he'll find a seat on a General Assembly summer study committee on adoption. Whether or not he's on the committee, he hopes it addresses the issue of the subsidy, which he calls "a moral issue."
The senator points out the state's current fiscal cushion of $1.5 to $2 billion.
"I still think there's an information gap on the nature of this problem," Broden says. "I know Judge (Mary Beth) Bonaventura understands the problem."
Wide said earlier this year there's a lot of discussion of the issue in DCS hallways. Told of Moss' story, he said in February, "I can't disagree with that parent at all."
Broden's sentiments are stronger.
"It just really galls me that you sign these contracts and it looks so official and then you're told you're on this list," he said. "I find it very appalling."