Why We Should Care About Adoption Rehoming

“A sick thing”. “Human trafficking in children”. “A gaping loophole with life threatening outcomes”. These are just few of the ways experts, legislators and judges have named unregulated private transfers of child custody, a practice referred to as re-homing.

Private re-homing occurs when adoptive parents transfer the custody of a child bypassing official channels. In such cases, parental authority is transferred with a simple Power of Attorney to non-family members.

Very often these people are perfect strangers whose parenting abilities have not been screened by child welfare authorities or, worse, have been judged so poor that their biological children have been taken away by child protection services.

According to an investigation published by Reuters in 2013, hundreds of children are victims of re-homing in the USA every year. 70 percent of them are children adopted from abroad.

“Rehoming can be an appropriate change of placement for a child if it is done with court approval and with home study that look at the needs of the child and the child’s best interests,” said Stephen Pennypacker, a senior child welfare expert and current President of the Partnership for Strong Families, in an interview.

However, the problem with private rehoming is that it is not done with that oversight and the necessary background screening on the prospective placement. “This can lead to some pretty horrific consequences for children that are moved under those circumstances,” Pennypacker said.

One such case happened in Arkansas in 2014, when a six-year-old girl was sexually abused by a man who had obtained her custody via a private re-homing procedure. The case received intense scrutiny only last February as the media reported that the adoptive father who gave the little girl away was a state legislator, Justin Harris.

Arkansas has since then passed two laws to prevent this practice, becoming the fifth state to have regulated it. A few other states are slowly discussing bills to this effect, while no federal law regulates it.

In a court decision in the State of New York last December, Judge Edward W. McCarty III defined the practice “unmistakably trafficking in children” and called on the Legislature to amend domestic law to prohibit this “unsavory and unsupervised practice”.

This judgment came to no surprise to Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond, British Columbia Representative for Children and Youth. “Rehoming sounds like a positive experience that is looking at the best interests of the child, but actually it simply transfers a child to another person without any required review by child welfare, family judges, or other officials. So it could be easily a cover for trafficking in children.”

Other child experts echo the concerns about the risks that unregulated re-homing poses to a child’s wellbeing, although they do not consider re-homing as trafficking because parents do not move children to exploit them, but to get rid of them. “All under the table dealing on children’s matters entails risks of exploitation,” said Michael Moran, INTERPOL Assistant Director, Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation, in a phone interview. “Unregulated re-homing creates opportunities for sex offenders. If loopholes exist, sex offenders will use them.”

Reasons that push parents to resort to private re-homing vary from case to case. The most common explanation given by parents engaging in such a practice is that they feel overwhelmed by the behavioral problems of their adopted children. They also claim that the support they receive from child welfare authorities to deal with difficult adoption cases is inadequate. In another case, parents may fear to be charged with child abandonment if they seek to transfer custody to the state. Financial considerations may also play a role because certain states accept taking a child under their custody only on the condition that parents pay for the child’s care until a new adoption takes place.

Some state and federal authorities have acknowledged these problems and are trying to address them. State legislation has been adopted in Arkansas to strengthen post-adoption services and allow parents to give children back to the state’s care if they have exhausted the available resources – although no definition of what these resources are is provided. At the federal level, the US President’s 2016 budget contains a proposal that would guarantee federal funding for prevention and post-placement services.

Whether such initiatives will suffice to prevent rehoming is an open question, though, in particular as the practice remains largely lawless in the USA. So far, only five states – Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, and Wisconsin – have adopted legislation to prevent re-homing. Five other states – Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, New York, and North Carolina – are discussing bills to this effect.

“This kind of regulatory void is enormously concerning,” said Jacqueline Bhabha, professor of the practice of health and human rights at Harvard School of Public Health. “Clearly, we need much tighter regulation and more supervising and support to families.”

As Arkansas Outlaws Re-homing, Other States Might Follow Suit

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Re-homing, a practice which consists in transferring a child’s custody to non-family members without the oversight of child welfare or judicial authorities, became a nationwide issue after Reuters published an investigation in September 2013. The 18-month investigation revealed that parents used Internet discussion groups to give away their adopted children and sparked heightened debate across the country. In May 2014 the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) sent a Memorandum to state child welfare authorities encouraging an overhaul of legislations to “adequately address the implication of re-homing” and putting an emphasis on post-adoption services.

So far, only five states – Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana and Wisconsin – have regulated it. Since February, lawmakers in Maryland, Nebraska, New York and North Carolina are discussing bills to address re-homing.

At the beginning of April, Arkansas became the fifth state to have regulated the practice when its Governor, Asa Hutchinson, signed two bills to this effect.

The first law, signed on April 2, ensures post-adoption services to families and the screening of prospective guardians. The second, signed four days later, makes re-homing a felony punishable by up to five years of prison and a maximum fine of $5,000.

The laws were speedily adopted in the wake of a dramatic re-homing case which involved Arkansas State Rep. Justin Harris. In February, Harris admitted to have given away two adopted daughters bypassing child welfare authorities. The eldest child, 6 years old, was eventually sexually abused by the man to whom Harris had transferred the custody.

This was the tenth re-homing case in two years occurred in Arkansas that the local child welfare authorities were aware of.

“The story in Arkansas and other stories that have been in the media recently about re-homing tells us that many adoptive parents are struggling to meet the emotional or behavioral needs that come out after they have adopted a child,” said JooYeun Chang, associate commissioner of the Children’s Bureau at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), in an interview.

One study reported that only 26 percent of adoptive families in the United States felt they received quality mental health services. Parents engaging in re-homing often mention the lack of support as a reason for their actions.

Acknowledging the high vulnerability of children in rehoming cases and the inadequate support available to families overwhelmed by children with behavioral problems, Chang underscored the federal government intention to change the situation. “This is an important policy change that really needs to happen. The President 2016 budget contains a proposal that would guarantee federal funding for prevention and post-placement services.”

The proposal Chang refers to involves $587 million over the next ten years to help state agencies offer adoptive parents crisis counseling and other support. “Maybe States will not have all of the prevention and post-adoption services ready at year one. But over time if there is a dedicated federal funding stream that is going to support these types of activity, States will continue to build their capacity to provide them,” Chang said.

Stephen Pennypacker, a senior child welfare expert and President of the Partnership for Strong Families, welcomed the federal proposal as a rare intervention on the front and back-end of child protection services. “These services are integral to prevent abuse from ever occurring. Some adoptive parents legitimately reach our for assistance and try to get help but then, because they are either unable to get it or the help that they access is inadequate, they turn to self-help remedies like re-homing. When an adoptive family starts to struggle we need to have something available to them rather than having to turn to the Internet or some other ways to make a child placement”.

Some doubt whether the proposed funding alone can prevent re-homing. “Enhanced support for adoptive families is certainly positive,” said Jacqueline Bhabha, professor of the practice of health and human rights at Harvard School of Public Health. “Whether it will have any impact on re-homing is not clear however. This will depend on targeted risk assessment and careful monitoring of at risk families and adoptive children that may well tend to fall under the radar normally.”

A leading expert in the field of children’s rights, Professor Bhabha stressed the importance of more progressive policies in the whole adoption system, in particular as regards international adoptions, and the need to improve the scrutiny of parents’ suitability and children’s adoptability. “Even before you get to the re-homing, if you look at the homing there are a lot of practices that are very troubling. Families which are not well qualified to be adopting are allowed to adopt. Much more supervision is needed.”

Progress in U.S. legislation and policy might have positive repercussions in Canada too, where cases of private rehoming, including across the border, have occurred in the recent past. “The U.S. is providing needed leadership that Canada should emulate to develop a more serious incentive program and also ensure better surveillance and monitoring of children’s rights,” said Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond, British Columbia Representative for Children and Youth. Warning about the risks that re-homing can pose to children, she advocated a stronger focus on children’s rights and pointed at European initiatives “which appear to be more understanding of the possibility of systemic exploitation”.

In Europe, where no re-homing case has been reported, states are required to act in the best interests of the child in all child matters. In Germany, a federal country, “nobody can relinquish his parental rights without the authorisation of youth welfare and judicial authorities. Post-adoption services and supervision are obligatory,” said Tanja Schwarz, a German family lawyer.

Officials at the Government Accountability Office confirmed that they expect to publish a study this fall on state and federal laws governing this practice.

When asked whether there is a need for further federal intervention to ensure uniform laws on re-homing across the country, Chang said that “the current definition of abuse and neglect is broad enough to include re-homing. It is up to the State to enforce both criminal and dependency laws.”

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