Washington Spends 10 Times More on Foster Care and Adoption than on Family Reunification

mom and son

September 13, 2019 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors

The federal government spends 10 times the money on foster care and adoption as it does on family reunification.  Plus, it allows states to divert money from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to pay for foster care and promote adoption.  The latter tends to make poor families poorer and therefore enhances the possibility of child neglect, which in turn leads to a greater need for foster care.  It also tends to break up poor families.

Those are the main takeaways from this fine article (Talk Poverty, 8/23/19).  The writer, Elizabeth Brico, quotes extensively from Richard Wexler who is perhaps this country’s best-informed commentator on our foster care and adoption system. 

The United States government incentivizes foster care placements and forced adoption over social support and reunification with birth families. 

When we offer people money if they take action A, we can’t be surprised when they tend to take action A.  During the Clinton Administration, Congress passed and the president signed the Adoption and Safe Families Act.  It offered states hefty financial incentives to take kids into foster care and to have them adopted out of foster care.  Unsurprisingly, states reported doing exactly that.  Rates of taking children from parents shot up.

Adoption bounties range from $4,000 to $12,000 per child. As Wexler explained, “the harder the system deems the child to place, the higher the bounty.”

Those higher “bounties” are paid for children states deem to have “special needs.”  As one example of how “special needs” is “defined,” the State of North Dakota denominated every native American child within its borders as one.  That of course increased the flow of money to the state and the flow of native children into foster care and adoption, all too often by non-native parents, contradicting another federal policy aimed at placing native children with native parents.

There is no upper limit to the amount of funding that can be provided for eligible foster children each year. States receive reimbursements ranging from 50 cents to approximately 76 cents for each dollar spent on daily child care and supervision, administrative costs, training, recruitment, and data collection.

But when it comes to programs that support family reunification, the budget slims. Title IV-B of the Social Security Act, which governs federal reunification funding, includes a capped entitlement component and a discretionary component. So, unlike foster care funding, these dollars come with a set limit.

And that limited money isn’t all for reunification services. Title IV-B also includes provisions that allow for some of this funding to go toward foster care programs. A portion is also required to go toward adoption promotion.

The result of this imbalanced funding structure? The federal government spends almost 10 times more on foster care and adoption than on programs geared toward reunification.

The extreme imbalance between funds earmarked for family dissolution and those for family maintenance is reminiscent of Uncle Sam’s approach to child support and visitation.  There it spends $5 billion per year to enforce payment of child support that even the former Commissioner of the Office of Child Support Enforcement has said tends to drive fathers out of families, but only $10 million per year to enforce the visitation rights of non-custodial parents.  That would be a 500:1 ratio if all that $10 million were spent on visitation, but it isn’t.  Much of it bleeds over into “responsible fatherhood” programs whose main aim is – you guessed it – paying child support.

But regarding adoption, it gets worse.

But in order to begin collecting that money, a state must exceed the last year’s number of adopted children, thus incentivizing states to permanently re-home an ever-increasing number of children each year. As can be expected, the number of adoptions increased in the five years after the implementation of ASFA, while reunifications declined.

Then there’s TANF.

One of the less-known sources of federal funding for child welfare programs is the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. TANF is supposed to be a cash-assistance program servicing low-income families with children. In reality, TANF funds can be used to support many services designed to help “needy” children, including child protection agencies. The result is that many states use TANF funds to finance foster care, child welfare investigations, and adoption or guardianship payments…

Considering that three-quarters of substantiated child maltreatment cases are related to neglect, which is often the result of poverty, it seems exceedingly unjust that funds supposedly intended to offset the worst effects of poverty are instead being used to finance the separation of mostly poor families.


Sometime far in the future, people may look back on these times and shake their heads in wonderment at the many ways in which our governments go about damaging families.  They’ll look at all the information showing that families are the bedrock institution of every healthy society.  And they’ll see the many voices arguing for sanity in public policy regarding families and children.  And they’ll wonder how we could have allowed things to go so wrong.

Thanks to Elizabeth Brico for being one of those voices.

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