Adoption Assistance Program

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Adoption Assistance Program

The ADOPTION ASSISTANCE AND CHILD WELFARE ACT OF 1980 was the enabling legislation that authorized federal subsidies to adoptive parents. Prior to that only some states offered subsidies to encourage adoption. Today all states offer subsidy programs as a result of federal legislation under the Adoption Assistance Program.

These subsidies are part of the federal Adoption Assistance Program. Payment amounts may be changed, depending on circumstances. Federal subsidies end when the child is 18 unless he or she is physically or mentally handicapped, in which case, at state option, payments may continue until the child is 21. They also end if the adoptive parents are no longer supporting or are no longer legally responsible to support the child or if the parents (or the child) die.

A determination is made of the child's eligibility prior to the time of adoption, and an adoption assistance agreement is drawn up between the adopting parents and the state or other public agency.

The federal definition of a child with special needs is a child (1) who cannot or should not be returned to the home of his or her parents, (2) for whom there is a special factor or condition (such as ethnic background, age, membership in a minority or sibling group or a physical, mental or emotional handicap, because of which the state has concluded that the child cannot be adopted without a subsidy) and (3) an effort has been made to place the child with appropriate adoptive parents without providing adoption assistance.

Because factors related to children who are considered to have special needs vary from state to state, a child who is over age eight in one state may be considered to have special needs by virtue of age, while in another state the cutoff age may be older or younger.

Some families who are interested in adopting a particular child or children may feel inhibited about requesting a subsidy from the state, assuming that the social worker may pass them by for a family who does not need a subsidy and the paperwork it entails. An open discussion of the needs of the child and the circumstances of the parents is an important part of the negotiation of the adoption assistance agreement.

Subsidies may also be paid to foster parents who adopt their foster children if the children are determined to have special needs and it is determined that the foster parents and children have strong emotional ties that would make it detrimental for the state agency to seek a family that would adopt without a subsidy.

The Adoption Assistance Program may provide monthly payments to adoptive parents, based on the adoption agreement signed between the adopting parents and the public agency. The states and the federal government share the cost of these subsidies.

Payment amounts are determined through the agreement, which takes into consideration the needs of the child and the circumstances of the adoptive family. The subsidy may not exceed the amount the child would have received under Temporary Aid to Needy Families (tanf) foster care.

Children with special needs who are adopted under the federal program are also eligible for MEDICAID. The Medicaid card is automatically issued by the state in which the child resides with the adoptive parents. (In the past, when children were adopted from other states or moved with their adoptive families to other states, the "sending" state issued the Medicaid card; however, many providers refused to accept an out-of-state card. As a result, the rules were changed.)

The Adoption Assistance Program may also include social services to adoptive families, and some states provide additional payments and services, using both federal and state funds; for example, according to the book Adoption Law and Practice, the program in Virginia can offer special payments for dental needs, speech therapy, psychiatric treatment, agency and legal fees for adoption and other expenses.

Often the existence of a subsidy means the difference between children being adopted or remaining in foster care. (This is why Congress, responding to child advocacy groups, created legislation enabling subsidies.)

Researcher Richard Barth found the receipt of adoption subsidies was a positive element in the success of the adoption of a child with SPECIAL NEEDS, although actual subsidies received by adoptive parents occurred far less frequently than expected by researchers.

Families with high-risk placements disrupted less often when the family received a subsidy. Perhaps the subsidy eased the financial burden for the family that succeeded, and the lack of one added to the problems of the families who were denied subsidies or who received inadequate subsidies.

Deborah Hage, a parent of nine children, wrote about her personal experience with subsidies in a March/April 1987 issue of OURS magazine:

One thing is certain: without the prospects of a subsidy, we would not have considered adopting .?.?. The expense would have been too much of a burden. We would have had to change the standards of living of the children we already had in order to meet the expenses of three more children with problems. And we simply would not have done it. We would have lived comfortably with six children instead of extending our resources to cover nine. In all likelihood, Jamie, Jesse, and Amber would have been split up.

She concluded, "That is the bottom line on adoption subsidies: they enable children to be adopted who otherwise might not be."

Authors L. Anne Babb and Rita Laws of Adopting and Advocating for the Special Needs Child: A Guide for Parents and Professionals say that sometimes there are "roadblocks" to receiving an adoption assistance payment (AAP). For example, social workers may fail to inform families about AAPs or they may not know how to manage the application process. They may also view such payments as "charity" and thus discourage adoptive parents from applying for them.

Babb and Laws say that there are three major forms of AAPs: the basic rate, the specialized rate and the state-funded subsidy. The basic rate is the lowest rate and the most common rate and is usually lower than the monthly rate paid to a foster parent. The specialized rate is for children with severe special needs; specialized rates may vary from state to state; and states may also have subcategories of specialized rates. The state-funded rate is for children who are in state custody but for some reason do not qualify for the other two forms of subsidy.


L. Anne Babb and Rita Laws, Adopting and Advocating for the Special Needs Child: A Guide for Parents and Professionals (Westport, Conn.: Bergin & Garvey, 1997).

Richard P. Barth and Marianne Berry, Adoption & Disruption: Rates, Risks, and Responses (New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1988).

Joan H. Hollinger, editor-in-chief, Adoption Law and Practice (New York: Bender, 1989).

Elizabeth Oppenheim, "Adoption Assistance," Public Welfare, 54, no. 1 (Winter 1996): 8.

Find more information on Adoption Assistance Program

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