‘Kids will lose their chance for a family,’ St. Louis adoption advocates race to secure federal funds

Eleven-year-old Salena, second from the left in the front row, stands with at her new family at her adoption in 2016. Salena participated in programs at the Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition, which could lose funding with current federal budget.

Foster children Kati and Keyona, 4 and 6, were having nightly tantrums that lasted for hours – a result of the trauma they experienced much too young.

“Foster mom and dad couldn’t take it anymore,” said Melanie Scheetz, executive director of the Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition. “They were ready to say, ‘The kids have to move.’ Then, the girls would end up like so many other children, bouncing from foster home to foster home.”

In St. Louis city, 85 children in the foster care system have moved more than 10 times during their lives – the highest being 46 times, she said.

Rather than letting this happen, specialists from the coalition – a local group that strives to create permanency in foster children’s lives – developed a trauma-informed, de-escalation plan for the parents, Scheetz said. The parents went through trauma training, and the girls were connected with a trauma-informed therapist.

“When the case closed three months later, the foster parents were secure in their ability to meet the girls’ needs,” Scheetz said.  

The coalition relies on federal funding to support the crisis intervention program that Kati and Keyona received, among several others. But that funding is in jeopardy of going away this week, and adoption advocates have launched a campaign to pressure U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who sits on the Senate’s Committee on Appropriations, to take action.

The coalition receives “adoption incentive funds,” which are part of the federal government’s incentive program that awards state governments for getting children out of foster care and into permanent homes. But in the last two years, the federal government has fallen behind on funding this program. In 2016, states earned more than $55 million for their increased adoption and guardianship rates, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau. Because of lack of funding, the states received only $5.3 million.

Missouri should have received $3.3 million but only received about $320,000.

When the incentive program’s funding shortfalls have happened in the past, states received the balance of their earnings in the subsequent fiscal year, according to the North American Council on Adoptable Children.

“However, this will not work this time unless the program receives an infusion of funding,” the Council stated in a recent report. “If the appropriation remains at its current level of $38 million, it will be too low to cover the existing shortfall of almost $50 million – and would leave nothing to be paid for any incentives earned next year.”

The current federal budget that legislators passed a couple weeks ago is now in conference between the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Appropriations and the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means, Scheetz said.

“What happens when it goes to conference? There is some horse trading,” Scheetz said.

The Coalition only learned about the issue on Friday, February 23, she said, and now they are racing against the clock. On Monday, they launched an emergency campaign asking people to contact Blunt and U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and tell them that they need to get the federal government to authorize a one-time payment of $50 million to keep these programs going.

“If they don’t get caught up, kids will lose their chance for a family,” Scheetz said.

“No one wants this to happen I’m sure. We have until midweek to get this fixed.”

About 600 people have sent emails or have called the senators’ offices, she said. Being on the appropriations committee, Blunt’s position is key to making the $50 million happen, she said.

“He’s an adoptive dad and voted for kids in the past,” Scheetz said.

On Monday afternoon, the St. Louis American contacted Blunt’s press office about the advocates’ request, and a spokeswoman said she had not yet been able to reach the senator for a statement. 

McCaskill does support the funding allocation, according to her spokeswoman.

“The advocates working to help link our foster kids with permanent adoptive homes and guardianships should see that tireless work backed by the resources that’ll help children and their families succeed,” McCaskill told The American in a statement. “We’ve got to address this funding shortfall to ensure we’re giving the proper tools to the folks working to bring stability to some of our state’s most vulnerable populations.”

In St. Louis, African-American children are disproportionately brought into foster care. While the 2016 U.S. Census estimates the city’s black population is 47 percent, 84 percent of the city children in foster care are African-American. And 74 percent of the children that the Coalition’s crisis intervention program serves are African American.

If the funds aren’t secured this week, Scheetz said the 10,000 hours of crisis intervention that they currently offer to parents and professionals would be cut down to 2,500. About 20 children would most likely end up in a psychiatric hospital because they don’t have access to the crisis intervention program, she said.

It would increase the number of children who age out of foster care, she said, and these children often end up homeless or get tangled up in drugs or crime.

“It’s $50 million that has so much impact,” Scheetz said. “In Missouri, it’s $3 million, but we save $20 million and that’s because we don’t have kids aging out of foster care. Our families are amazing and our kids are amazing. They need a ton of support because our kids have been so highly traumatized.”

For more information about the campaign, visit www.foster-adopt.org.

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