NEW YORK—The nights were solemn and lonely inside Mount Pisgah Baptist Church. When the long swaths of light that shone between the pews faded and darkness engulfed, Jaquan Melton, 19 at the time, went to the basement to sleep.
As a homeless youth, Melton spent a year working as a janitor at the antiquated Brooklyn church. Melton would sleep in the church’s fallout shelter, amid lockers and Clorox cleaning supplies, while the adoptive mother who abandoned him continued to receive $700 a month from the government to care for him. She would continue to cash adoption subsidy checks until he turned 21.
It’s been four years since Melton was kicked out of his adoptive mother’s home at the age of 17. Since then, he has scrambled between church basements and friends’ couches, unable to find a secure place to settle and finish high school. Meanwhile, his lawyer said his adoptive mother continued to receive around $34,000 in subsidy checks after she kicked him out. Melton hasn’t seen any of that money.
When Melton tried to apply for public assistance, the welfare agency told him he wasn’t eligible since his adoptive mother was getting stipends to care for him.
“It hurt when I found out she was still getting checks,” Melton said.
Over the last 22 years, New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services estimates that 1 out of every 20 children adopted from foster care in the city were eventually returned to the system.
Experts said the actual number of broken adoptions is much higher since agencies do not keep track of children like Melton who end up homeless or living with someone else.
This issue was first brought to light by the New York Daily News in 2014.
Adoptive parents in New York City can receive a subsidy that varies from $400 to $1,800 a month, depending on factors such as age, disabilities, or medical complications. Although adoptive parents are no longer supporting their children if they kick them out or return them to foster care, it is legal for adoptive parents to continue to cash subsidy checks in most states.
“It appears that mostly all continue to accept the subsidy payments,” said Betsy Kramer, director of the public policy and special litigation project at Lawyers for Children.
Due to the vague wording of adoption contracts and federal regulations, many social service agencies nationwide are not authorized to terminate an adoption subsidy for parents who have stopped taking care of their adopted children—even if they returned their children to the foster system.
“There are some people who have definitely realized this gap in the system and have been exploiting it,” said Dawn Post, co-borough director of the Children’s Law Center in New York.
An Expensive Loophole
Before 1980, people did not receive subsidy payments for adopting foster children. States received federal money to care for children in the foster system, but once a child was adopted the funding ended.
The policy discouraged many people from adopting if they were not wealthy. A situation arose where children who could not reunite with their biological parents had no hope of finding a permanent family elsewhere.
Intending to help foster children join new families, Congress passed the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act in 1980, which allowed people to receive monthly stipends for adopting foster children.
But certain adoption regulations were worded ambiguously, and it has had a perverse effect.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, a Queens woman named Judith Leekin used false identification to adopt 11 children. She starved and bound them in her basement. They were denied education and medical treatment. One child vanished and is presumed dead. Over a decade, she received $1.6 million for those adoptions.
Although it’s been seven years since Leekin was convicted for severely neglecting the children, in some ways, not much has changed in the adoption system that would prevent another avaricious parent from doing the same.
States are not only limited in their authority to end an adoption subsidy. States are also extremely restricted in their ability to check on children after adoptions.
Under the Social Security Act, states can only end the adoption subsidy under three circumstances: the child comes of age; the child becomes formally emancipated, marries, or enlists in the army; or the state has determined the adoptive parent is no longer providing “any support” for the child.
The federal government defined “any support” as family therapy, tuition, clothing, or services for a child’s special needs. It did not specify the quantity or quality of support.
As a result, local agencies have interpreted the phrase “any support” rather broadly. One pair of socks from the adoptive parent can qualify as “any support.” A pair of socks can mean the adoptive parent is eligible to continue receiving subsidy checks even if the child is sleeping on the streets.
“Our data shows that 70 percent of children with broken adoptions don’t have any contact with adoptive parents,” Post said. “Yet a pair of socks, a sweater could mean support.”
It’s not that local agencies, such as the NYC Administration for Children’s Services or the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, are being careless.
Adoptive parents are constitutionally protected. They have the same rights to privacy as a biological parent normally would. And federal laws do not provide a framework for local agencies to check if parents are providing sufficient support for their adopted child.
Therefore, social service agencies cannot intrude into their lives unless someone has filed a child neglect report.
Some states have gotten around the red tape by writing clearer-cut adoption contracts. In this case, when parents sign a contract with social service agencies before they adopt, they agree to let social workers check on their children once a year, twice a year, or sometimes every three years.
In South Dakota, the contract between a social service agency and an adoptive parent allows the agency to suspend payments if it sees that the child is no longer living with their adoptive parents during one of these check-ins.
In Nebraska, the adoption contract allows the state to end an adoption subsidy when a child re-enters foster care.
But many states do not specify in their adoption contracts that social service agencies should be able to check on children after an adoption, which leaves them very limited in their legal authority to end subsidy payments even if the agency is aware the child has returned to foster care.
In a letter to the federal government in 2015, Gladys Carrión, commissioner of NYC Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), described how in the month of February 2014, ACS made adoption subsidy payments for 143 adopted children who had already returned to foster care. This meant that taxpayers’ dollars were spent twice for the care of these 143 children: one payment went to the adoptive parent, another payment went to the foster system.
Yet in those 143 cases, ACS could not legally suspend payments even though it was aware these children had returned to foster care. ACS also lacked the legal authority to ask adoptive parents how they were spending adoption stipends if their adopted children had returned to foster care.
“Recent adoption subsidy fraud cases, however, demonstrate there are individuals who can and will abuse the adoption subsidy process,” Carrión wrote. “Unfortunately, the current system in place to recertify families is woefully short of authority to do even the most cursory check of whether ‘any support’ is provided.”
New York State Office of Family and Children Services (OFCS) wrote a similar troubling letter to the federal government in 2015.
“As long as the adoptive parents provide some level of support to the adoptee no matter how small, the adoptive parent can retain the remainder of the adoption assistance payment for whatever personal use the adoptive parent chooses,” wrote Sheila Poole, OFCS’s acting commissioner.
Dozens of agencies in at least 18 states—including California, Texas, and Alaska—have sent letters citing similar concerns about their lack of authority to end or review an adoption subsidy.
The Children’s Law Center is working with New York Law School to draft a potential legislation that would clarify how agencies should terminate an unnecessary adoption subsidy. Although, it will likely take years before the law can change.
Meanwhile, children like Saqoya Diaz can end up homeless while her adoptive mother cashes subsidy checks.
Diaz, who was adopted by her aunt in the sixth grade, went on to get sexually abused by her uncle. It ended her aunt’s marriage. From then on, there was a tension in Diaz’s relationship with her aunt that never quite went away.
At age 15, Diaz’s aunt kicked her out of the apartment after an altercation. Diaz apologized and begged her aunt to take her back, twice, but to no avail. She became homeless for the next three years.
Diaz stayed with various friends in the Bronx, the Far Rockaways, and New Jersey. She couldn’t commute to class on time so she dropped out of high school. Her friends didn’t always have space for her to stay; she spent many nights sleeping in buses and parks.
Four years later, Diaz is working as a manager at a drinks distributor company. She can finally afford her own apartment. But tears still well up in her eyes when she thinks of the times she slept outdoors during snowstorms while her aunt received $1,200 a month to take care of her.
Diaz’s aunt did not respond to a request to be interviewed.
Low Vetting Standards
At age 21, certain details from Melton’s childhood remain lodged in his mind—that terrifying, throbbing pain he’d feel when his adoptive mother beat him with extension cords, bottles, and a two-by-four. Once, she hurled an empty coffee pot at him. The glass pot shattered against his skin, slicing his arms.
A neglect petition was filed against Melton’s adoptive mother when he was 11. Melton and the five other children she had adopted were removed from her care.
Melton bounced between a group home and other foster parents. Six months later, Melton and two other children were returned to their adoptive mother’s care for reasons unclear.
Ever since Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1997, a major child welfare reform legislation that aimed to help children have permanency, children have been getting adopted faster.
Before that legislation passed, agencies used to emphasize reuniting foster children with biological families, which caused many children to languish in the foster system for the entirety of their childhood.
But rushed adoptions can lead to imprudent vetting of adoptive parents.
According to ACS, the requirements to become an adoptive parent are 30-hours of training, a criminal clearance, and a home assessment.
“The general requirements are incredibly low,” Post said.
After children like Melton are adopted, there’s no going back to check on the quality of their care.
Melton had to make the best of things on his own. He read poetry and Walter Dean Myers to take his mind off his bleak world.
He excelled on the debate team in middle school. Melton fantasized about becoming a lawyer, or perhaps a firefighter; he loved watching impatient firetrucks on the road, rushing to save people from infernos.
When Melton turned 15, they moved from the Bronx to Randallstown, Maryland, a quiet, suburban neighborhood in the middle-class part of Baltimore.
“It was one of those areas you dream about living in,” Melton said.
In high school, he joined the track team. He was fast, sleek, and 17. He once won a three-mile race in 15 minutes. Looking back, it was the happiest time of his life.
Due to a track meet that ran late, he returned home later than usual one evening in the summer of 2012.
His adoptive mother was furious when he came home. She cursed him for not respecting the rules of her house.
According to court documents, his adoptive mother said he ran away that night. But Melton said he remembers her telling him, “Get the (expletive) out of my house and never come back.”
Not having anywhere to go, Melton dropped out of high school and returned to the Bronx to stay with one of his former foster brothers. When the apartment was overcrowded by biological family members, which it often was, Melton slept in the basement of Mount Pisgah Baptist Church.
Not All Broken Adoptions Mean Neglectful Parents
Demetrius Johnson, 21, a former foster child, aims to serve as a positive role model for children who are still in the foster system. He attends St. John’s University and aspires to be a lawyer and politician.
But, he admits, even he was a difficult child to raise when he was younger. Johnson was adopted at age 6. As he grew older, he began to deliberately lie, steal, and come home after curfew. By age 13, his relationship with his adoptive mother turned sour and she returned him to foster care.
“I spent my time in the system, I didn’t trust people often,” Johnson said. “I felt like my biological mother wasn’t there for me. … It was a matter of time before each foster parent go to that limit. My thing was to push them to the limit.”
Why, according to NYC Administration for Children’s Service data, do 1 out of 20 adoptions break? The answer is more complicated than selfish adoptive parents.
Certainly not all broken adoptions occur because the parent saw the child as a paycheck. As traumatized children reach their teen years and exhibit dangerous behaviors, many parents are pushed to the limit.
“Obviously, abuse does happen and it’s a terrible issue,” said Sarah Gerstenzang, a therapist who works with foster and adoptive families. “But the vast majority of them are well-intentioned people who don’t understand what they’re getting into or have the post-adoption support that they need.”
Most foster children experienced significant neglect before their adoption. Children who were abandoned by their birth parents have a hard time establishing trust with new parent figures.
“Trust with the most important person, the mother, has been broken,” Gerstenzang said. ” You need specialized services to help a child learn they can trust adults.”
But specialized family therapy for foster or adopted children is often expensive and hard to find.
“There’s a lack of trauma-competent therapists in New York, especially for children who were previously abused and neglected,” said Richard Heyl de Ortiz, executive director of the New York State Citizens Coalition for Children, a foster and adoptive family association.
Even if there is one within traveling distance, not all accept Medicaid. (Children adopted out of foster care have their health expenses paid for by Medicaid.)
“The problem is finding a therapist who is competent and accepts Medicaid,” Heyl de Ortiz said. “I certainly know families who have paid out of pocket when they find a therapist who they feel understands their situation.”
But how many adoptive parents can afford to pay out of pocket for specialized therapists?
In a Distant Future
It’s hard to say if Melton’s relationship with his adoptive mother would have worked out differently had they seen a good therapist. Melton’s adoptive mother did not respond to interview requests despite multiple attempts to reach her.
Throughout Melton’s four years away from home, his adoptive mother only contacted him once, in 2014, to ask him to move back in and help pay rent. Melton declined. They haven’t spoken since.
Although adoptive parents make legitimate claims on why they should continue to receive stipends—such as safekeeping for fiscally irresponsible young adults—it is problematic that agencies in most states lack the authority to check if the money is actually spent or saved for the child.
At age 21, Melton is experiencing premature balding. Two bald spots have appeared on the back of his head as he is trying to finish high school, support his two infant daughters, and finally leave his foster brother’s barren apartment and get his own place.
He works part time selling cellphones for MetroPCS, a prepaid wireless service, and is in the process of getting a license to work as a security guard. At 6-foot-3, he feels it will be a good fit for him.
He wakes up early to go running in the Bronx to clear his mind. As he runs against the raw chill of New York mornings, he thinks about winter clothes, diapers, strollers, and the $1,600 he’ll need to cover a deposit and first month’s rent.
He pushes himself to run faster. The familiar rush of adrenaline gives him a good feeling. Deep in his bones, Melton is optimistic that in a distant future he will be able to make things work for him and his growing family.
Once he has his living and financial situation stabilized, he’ll work toward getting his dream job—as a firefighter.
“The world will be the world. The world doesn’t owe you anything,” Melton said. “If you want your life to become better it’s your job to make it better.”