Tessa Buttram and Nick Cervone

On Thursday, February 28, 2019, Congressman Langevin (D-R) and the Congressional Caucus for Foster Youth held a briefing on “Unregulated Custody Transfers of Adopted Youth: Understanding and Preventing “Rehoming.” Panelists included Maureen Flatley, Former Ambassador Susan S. Jacobs, Department of State, Nhi Nguyen, Government Accountability Office (GAO), Trish Maskew, Department of State, Julie Rosicky, International Social Services, and Joy Alessi, Adoptee.

Flatley, who moderated the briefing, stated that adoption is seen as a state issue when it should be an intrastate issue. She said that there must be a federal response to the issue. Jacobs said the “rehoming” of children needs to stop. She discussed the importance of protecting children, strengthening home studies, and studying the families who are adopting. She also said that there are more protocols when adopting a dog from a shelter then there are on adopting a child.

The topic received some national recognition after a 2013 Reuters report that analyzed posts over the internet over a five-year period. The posts involved making children available online from one family to another. The vast majority of children subjected to such postings were adopted from overseas. The State Department oversees accreditation requirements for agencies and other parties that facilitate international adoptions. Child welfare agencies focus on the adoption of children from foster care. The adoption requirements are more rigorous regarding these child welfare adoptions including minimum training and home studies of perspective parents.

According to the GAO report,

“Many stakeholders we interviewed—including officials from selected states, child welfare and adoption organizations, and adoption agencies— expressed concern with the adequacy of the information provided to prospective parents on the behavioral and mental health conditions of a child adopted internationally. Access to accurate information is critical to ensuring that a family is aware of the type of ongoing support they may need for the child. However, officials from 11 of 19 child welfare and adoption organizations and 5 of 15 adoption agencies said families who adopt internationally often do not receive complete information on a child’s medical and behavioral needs before adopting. State Department officials explained that some low-income countries lack sufficient mental health care providers, making it difficult for international adoption agencies to ensure that children are accurately evaluated prior to adoption.”

Nguyen was the chief investigator for the study by GAO. She emphasized that rehoming is not an adoption option. Many families use Power of Attorney to transfer custody rights and should only be used in temporary situations, such as if a parent is joining the military and will be gone for an extended period but this should not be used permanently. She said that the more appropriate term that should be used in these situations is “unregulated child custody transfers” and not “rehoming.” The GAO study took place over 15 months in the years 2014-15. They interviewed representatives from 19 child welfare and adoption organizations, 15 adoption agencies, and seven states. Data was also gathered through internet websites and social media.

Findings indicated that many families looking to transfer their adopted child to another family were families in crisis, and many of the families looking to take in these children were families who could not afford to adopt themselves. Maskew stated that the GAO recommendations to combat unregulated transfers included creation of a Federal Interagency Working Group to focus on prevention and intervention. She said half of the states provide adoptive services to families that adopt internationally. She also stated that many times child welfare does not consider unregulated transfers abuse or neglect, so those cases will not be investigated. She recommended that outreach to Judges and child welfare workers is the next step.

Rosicky stated that there is a need for government involvement in this issue, a need for more data on this issue and that the child’s voice should be consulted. As a victim of an unregulated transfer, Alessi experienced being transferred at the age of fourteen. She suffered significant abuse by her adoptive parents before entering the child welfare system. Alessi now works for the Adoptive Rights Campaign. She said that there are 35,000 adoptees without citizenship, and she is working towards making sure all international adoptees receive citizenship.

Maureen Flatley promoted the Safe Home Act of 2019 (H.R. 1389) sponsored by Congressman Langevin (D-RI) and Bacon (R-NE). The legislation proposes to amend the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) to include a federal definition for unregulated custody transfer (UCT) and directs states to use CAPTA funds to address the rehoming issue.

CWLA does not support the legislation as written since it would create new changes in state law that child protective services may not be able to influence and as a result could threaten CAPTA funding. Current CAPTA minimum definition of child abuse which states are allowed to strengthen is: “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm; with a definition that is specific definition on this issue. CAPTA also has a separate definition of child sexual abuse.

The legislation would direct the use of CAPTA funds on workforce training specific to the issue of unregulated transfers and the use of funding to provide post placement services. CAPTA state grants are at $85 million.

There are several challenges with the approach in the legislation in that it would mandate on state child protection agencies the need to change state family and custody law beyond child welfare practices which could threaten a loss of CAPTA funding for CPS’ failure to act. It also would fail to address what is truly needed which is better development and provision of post adoption services which CWLA and many adoption organizations have supported through both the use and funding of the Adoption Opportunities Act and the potential new source of the Family First Act.

Approximately thirteen states have implemented laws against unregulated transfers beyond the current child abuse definitions in their respective states, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway. To read a 2015 statement on Unregulated Custody Transfer by several adoption organizations, click here.