The First Lady on Child Welfare

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On page 17 of her book, IT TAKES A VILLAGE, Hillary Rodham Clinton invites her readers to have a dialogue with her when she says, "Whether or not you agree with me, I hope it promotes an honest conversation among us." So here are some of the topics in her book about adoption, foster care, teen pregnancy and related issues, in her own words, and with some conversation from the viewpoint of the National Council For Adoption.

PROBLEMS FACING SINGLE-PARENT FAMILIES

She talks, on page 10, about some of the consequences of not investing in children, saying that " children's hearts (are) lost in custody fights, children's futures are lost in an overburdenened foster care system, children's lives lost to abuse and violence"

And early on, she quotes Dr. David Hamburg, the Carnegie Corporation's president, on p. 25 in describing " the ideal landscape in which to plant a child: an "intact, cohesive, nuclear family dependable under stress." "That description calls to mind the family in which I grew up," she adds.

Mrs. Clinton forthrightly lays out the unpopular facts about single-parent families being less helpful for children than two-parent families. "Children living with one parent or in step families are two to three times as likely to have emotional and behavioral problems as children living in two-parent families."

Continuing on pages 39-40, she writes: "Children of single-parent families are more likely to drop out of high school, become pregnant as teenagers, abuse drugs, behave violently, become entangled with the law. A parent's remarriage does not seem to better the odds."

It is fitting that in 1995 she quotes, approvingly, the same kinds of concerns that she is raising about children raised outside two-parent families that Sen. Moynihan brought up in the mid-1960s. One can only hope that this time, unlike the situation with Sen. Moynihan, the message that children need two functional, married parents,-- especially a father--is not lost in controversy.

A KEY SOCIAL RESPONSE: ADOPTION

Because of her interest in children having stable families in which to be raised, it is entirely logical that she devotes a substantial amount of space, beginning on p. 47, to a discussion of the child welfare system, including adoption, foster care and services to teens who are pregnant. After all, for a substantial number of children, the only way to get the stable family Mrs. Clinton recommends is through adoption.

She begins by saying something most of us agree with: " by any fair assessment of our foster care and adoption system, we are not doing a good job taking care of our children."

Mrs. Clinton has a very intriguing sentence on pp. 47-48 which suggests that one of her agenda items is reforming the adoption process: "the American adoption process can be a nightmare of complex regulations, outdated assumptions, and institutional inertia." A close reading of the book does not explain what Mrs. Clinton is referring to or what might be done to remedy those problems. Indeed, NCFA's view is that adoption itself is not in need of "reform," any more than marriage between a man and a woman is in need of reform. Both institutions work.

It is, instead, foster care and other forces that impact on adoption which need to be changed. It is the perversion of adoption that needs to be stopped.

ARE ADOPTIONS TOO COSTLY?

One of the issues that the First Lady identifies is that "private adoptions may be too costly for many to afford." She then tells about an adoption costing $4,000 and suggests that because the child was born to an unmarried teen daughter of a cousin of the adoptive mother it should have been uncomplicated. What Mrs. Clinton does not tell her readers, who may on first reading agree with Mrs. Clinton that this case should have been "simple," adoption laws and court rulings make such an adoption very complicated.

For instance, although Mrs. Clinton mentions the "Baby Richard" case in the next paragraph, and that this case involved a birth father winning custody of his child born out of wedlock, she does not mention the birth father in the case of the distantly-related pregnant teen. The birth mother and the grandmother may have been, as Mrs. Clinton says, "members of the same extended family," but the birth father very likely was not.

THE IMPACT OF REGULATIONS ON ADOPTION COSTS

Unfortunately, most readers of the book will not understand that this is not a routine adoption which an attorney could process for $500 or so. It would have been helpful if Mrs. Clinton had shown her readers why that adoption cost $4,000, by asking the family to break down the costs item-by-item. Such a detailed explanation might have shown where regulations translate into costs if, for instance, that child was born in a different state and the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children needed to be complied with. Even more instructive would have been the cost of meeting the requirements of the Indian Child Welfare Act if, for instance, the birth father had a tiny fraction of Native American heritage in his bloodline. Both the Interstate compact on the Placement of Children and the Indian Child Welfare Act were put in place in state and federal laws because of perceived problems and potential abuses.

TAX BREAKS SO ADOPTIVE PARENTS CAN BETTER AFFORD ADOPTION FEES

What one wishes Mrs. Clinton had discussed directly is one of the legislative solutions for the couple that needed $4,000 to help pay for an adoption. A tax package, which combined a refundable adoption tax credit and a provision to make employer-provided adoption benefits tax-free to employees, with limits so that neither help would be available to the rich, passed the Senate on a roll call vote 93-5. The adoption provisions were added to the Senate-passes welfare reform bill that President Clinton said was acceptable enough for him to sign.

The provisions had bipartisan sponsorship. It was reminiscent of the bipartisan Congressional proposal, endorsed by Mrs. Clinton on pages 85 and 86 of her book, to extend to at least 48 hours the time women delivering children should be allowed to stay in the hospital. And the adoption package certainly merited, both from its sponsorship (Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama and Democratic Representative Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts) and its appeal, the same verdict given to the 48-hour-minimum-hospital stay bill. In Mrs. Clinton's words on p. 86: "This is not a partisan issue."

Indeed, the specific outlines of the $5,000 refundable adoption tax credit were largely the result of the leadership of representative William Lehman, a Florida Democrat. That Lehman legislation, which had support from such well-known Republican pro-adoption stalwarts as Chris Smith of New Jersey, was subsequently picked up by speaker Gingrich and incorporated as one of the items in the Republicans' "Contract With America."

CLINTON PROPOSALS CONTAIN NO ADOPTION TAX PROVISIONS

So, despite her saying that "We could enlist more businesses to follow the leadership of Wendy's president Dave Thomas, who has been vocal about businesses subsidizing adoption costs," The First Lady did not herself follow that leadership. Neither did her husband, who did not include even the minimum-cost Kennedy bill in his budget reconciliation counter-offer to the Congress.

ADMINISTRATION HISTORICALLY AVOIDED ADOPTION TAX BREAKS

To be fair, no Administration in the last 15 years has been willing to come out for adoption tax breaks. Tax fairness for adoption may not be a partisan issue, but certainly it has not been an issue that either Democrats or Republicans in The White House supported. Nor have the Governors supported tax fairness for adopting families, as a related story (see p. 4) on welfare reform reflects.

Mrs. Clinton does have kind words for one tax break that has nothing to do with adoption. On p. 298, she says "We can give middle-class families a tax deduction for the costs of their own or their children's post-high school education."

Education's the perennial "Mom-and-apple-pie" issue with ever Administration, while adoption, which gives real Moms and Dad to kids, gets short shrift.

So, where is the problem? It probably costs a good deal more than $4,000 to handle an average U.S. adoption today and to comply with the relevant local, state and federal laws and guidelines. NCFA estimates that is costs more than $10,000 on average. Is the answer to repeal the laws and regulations (and thus reduce the costs) or to recognize that the costs are legitimate and proper and find ways to bring both government and the private sector to the table to finance those costs?

The private sector, including employers, has contributed in tangible fiscal terms but apart from some modest adoption benefits offered to federal employees, largely as a result of bipartisan efforts in Congress, government has not. And Mrs. Clinton does not offer to get the government involved financially through her personal endorsement of the tax package arguably, the most practical way to impact the largest number of children who need homes.

There is not question but that, as The First Lady says on pages 49-50, " we can see to it that considerations like regulations, money, skin color, and even parental rights and adult prerogatives take a back seat to the love and security children so deeply need" and which they can get through adoption which brings them a solid, Mom-and-Dad family like Mrs. Clinton grew up in.

But if we are to "see to it," then we will need to see Mrs. Clinton and others be as specific and as willing to call for legislation, spending and courage in the adoption area as in other areas that are deemed important, like better day care, child health, nutrition and the media.

Mrs. Clinton might have called for a review of the regulations that hobble adoption. She might have encouraged Democrats to join Republicans in pushing for federal legislation that bans the use of race and ethnicity as considerations in adoption, so that we could reach, at least in adoption, the color-blind goal enunciated by the Rev. Martin Luther King. (Again, the Governors decline to include this issue in their welfare reform proposal.)

The First Lady has already called for quicker termination of parental rights in some instances: that call could be broadened. She could help work to replace questionable adult rights that stand int he way of adoption with a priority for finding decent families for all children who need them.

IT TAKES A VILLAGE goes part of the way by listing some of the problems and issues that need to be addressed or corrected in adoption, foster care and the broader child welfare field. The book is a bit confused, however, on who has offered what solutions and short on the kind of legislative and spending blueprints needed to turn the virtual village into village reality.

In that corner of the village where adoptions take place, even some of the blueprints that are laid out are wrong or misleading. But this book is a start, and the fact that The First Lady is talking about adoption and related issues could move the issues from the lower levels of the agenda to the place where they stand a chance to be acted upon.

Mrs. Clinton's book in hardcover, is $20, from Simon & Schuster. It has neither an index nor the footnotes and bibliography that would have enable readers to delve more deeply into the topics The First Lady discusses.

Credits: William L. Pierce

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