On March 26th, 2018, Jen Hart drove her SUV, with her family inside, off a cliff in Mendocino County, California. Jen and her wife Sarah were the adoptive mothers of two groups of siblings – Markis, Abigail and Hannah and Jermiah, Ciera and Devonte (Jermiah and Ciera were renamed “Jeremiah” and “Sierra” by the Harts). Although originally from Minnesota and living in Washington at the time of the incident, Jen and Sarah adopted all six children from Texas – even as Jermiah, Ciera and Devonte’s aunt was trying to work with that state to have them placed with her. The Minnesotan adoption agency responsible for them had a history of violations. As the Hart’s moved from Minnesota to Oregon to Washington, the tenuous nature of interstate adoptions between child welfare systems would become even clearer.
Their tragic story is easily one of the most horrific stories to come from our nation’s foster care system, but it has brought national attention to one major player in national child welfare system: the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC). Initially conceived of almost 60 years ago, the ICPC finds itself under scrutiny today as more accounts emerge of how this agreement sometimes works against the best interests of the children interstate adoption is supposed to serve.
How does the ICPC handle Interstate Adoptions and Placements?
The ICPC is an agreement between all 50 states that helps facilitate the placement of children across state lines when necessary. According to the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA), “The Compact ensures prospective placements are safe and suitable before approval, and it ensures that the individual or entity placing the child remains legally and financially responsible for the child following placement.”
The process of placing a child through the ICPC is fairly straightforward to explain, but can be lengthy to complete: When it’s deemed necessary to employ the ICPC, the sending state will file a placement request with their in-state ICPC office. Upon receipt of a completed request packet, the ICPC office will forward the packet to a local social services agency in the receiving state to perform a home study. If the home study produces a positive result, the sending state can approve the placement, and the child will be placed in the new home across state lines. APHSA said that “The process ensures that when children are placed out of state, they are placed in a safe and nurturing environment that can meet their particular needs.”
Unfortunately, the Hart Family stands as a glaring example of how the ICPC can fail to live up to this promise – and they are not the only example.
States Find Relief in Interstate Adoption and Placement
When, in June of 2017, OPB.org reported that “some children spent 80 days or more living in hotel rooms as part of an Oregon foster care program,” the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) came under a lot of pressure to end the practice and revamp their infrastructure. The issue for Oregon is one of volume – there are simply too many children who require placement in treatment facilities that the state doesn’t have. Sara Fox, the Oregon DHS employee who oversees interstate placement, said, “The main problem is a lack of psychiatric treatment beds available in Oregon. Many of the children have complex needs and require a high level of care.” Oregon began work on improving their systems, but it was discovered in February of this year that the state may have been replacing one bad practice with another – shipping children across state lines through the use of the ICPC.
In 2014, only one Oregon child was placed out of state. Only four years later that number was 82.
For Oregon, the ICPC became a pressure release valve that enabled them to reduce some of the burden that the state DHS was carrying. When combined with overbearing caseloads, federal incentives and foster or adoptive placement shortages, it seems the ICPC can create an environment that is chaotic, unstable and potentially unsafe for children. The Hart family tragedy is in part the result of a Texas child welfare system that was struggling to deal with its foster care population. As reported by the Child Welfare Monitor, Texas has 7 percent of foster children in America, but has received 15 percent of the federal adoption incentives since the national program launched in 1998 – meaning that Texas finalizes adoptions at a much higher rate than other states.
In other words, Texas works hard to place children into adoptive homes. Normally, this would be a good thing – child welfare systems across the country endeavor to find forever families for each one of their children in care – but the Hart’s case shows again how bureaucracy can complicate matters and potentially endanger children. As a matter of policy and for the safety of children in care, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services requires that out-of-state placement only use homes that are approved for adoption by “agencies licensed or certified to approve adoptive home studies in the state where the home is located.” Texas follows the steps laid out by the ICPC.
In the case of the six Hart children, this meant that Texas would leave the home study process in Minnesota’s hands, a state whose child welfare system had been languishing, and they would use a state-approved agency whose track record was more about finding any family than finding a forever family. This company, the now-defunct Permanent Family Resource Center (PFRC), was responsible for the interstate placement of both sets of Hart family siblings. The PFRC billed itself as an organization open to a wide range of potential adoptive families:
“Westra told the reporter that in forming the agency, ‘they wanted to expand the range of adoptive families to include those that had the will but needed a little help along the way.’ On its Frequently Asked Questions page, PFRC said that it ‘wants successful families and are not interested in ‘weeding people out.’ A home study is your opportunity to speak about your strengths so the best possible match is made.’ ‘We can always use families. You don’t have to be a perfect family, there is no perfect family,’ Westra told the Fergus Falls Journal.”
Adoption Incentives Drive States to Pursue Interstate Adoption
Five months before the second set of siblings were adopted, Hannah Hart would report to her teacher that she had been struck with a belt by her adoptive mother Jennifer. The ensuing investigation was eventually closed after the adoptive mothers told the state Hannah had fallen down the stairs. Meanwhile, in Texas, Priscilla Celestine was fighting to ensure Devonte, Jermiah and Ciera could live with her under a kinship care arrangement. Celestine was the aunt of the three children, who had all been placed with her previously. The children were removed from her home when, worried about losing her job after being unexpectedly called into work, she allowed the children’s mother to babysit.
For Texas, this was a pretty open-and-shut matter: The siblings were not safe under Celestine’s care because they could come into unsupervised contact with one of the people the state deemed responsible for the children’s entrance into foster care.
Even though kinship arrangements are generally considered better for children in care, this single violation of Texas policy would mean that within months, Devonte, Jermiah and Ciera would be sent to live with the Harts. After that, the Hart Family would move to Oregon and then Washington, dodging child welfare investigations with every new home.
The Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children had succeeded in creating an avenue for Texas to boost its adoption numbers. It had succeeded in ensuring that Jen and Sarah Hart received nearly $270,000 in adoption subsidies for all six children.
In this instance, however, it failed in ensuring that the children were placed in a safe environment that could meet even their most basic needs.
Fixing the ICPC and Improving Interstate Adoption
It is important to remember, however, that the ICPC can and does provide better outcomes for children – for example, it enables children with out-of-state relatives to get a kinship placement, a form of care child welfare agencies agree is superior to traditional foster care – but these cases show that there is room for improvement. Vivek Sankaran from the University of Michigan Law School is a proponent of fixing the ICPC. He identifies three primary issues with the ICPC: 1) Out-of-state home studies can take too long to complete, 2) Caseworkers have no clearly defined home study standards that are uniform across the country, and 3) State-based child welfare agencies, and not courts, are responsible for determining if placements can happen.
Sankaran’s primary concerns mostly address speed and appropriateness of placements across state lines, but they would also go a long way to reform the issues that resulted in the deaths of six children at the hands of their adoptive mother. For instance, the PFRC was not the only organization that Texas could have used to facilitate a home study, but given its mission of openness to all potential adoptive families and the cases of neglect and abuse the Harts are accused of, the PFRC was lax in its home study requirements. Of course, this is not an issue for Texas and Minnesota alone – the Child Welfare Monitor notes that “States are graded by the federal government as well as outside groups on the size of their foster care caseloads and the time it takes to achieve permanency. Getting children off the rolls also saves money that would be spent on case management and other services and vacates desperately needed foster homes. And then there are of course the federal incentives from which Texas has benefited so consistently.”
With a choice between a speedy adoption and one that could drag on for months, it would be logical, if misguided, for a bureaucracy like the Texas DHS to favor the former, especially with federal adoption incentives on the line. A Minnesota DHS employee told an Oregon investigator that “the State of Texas works with this Permanent Family Resource Center…Texas seems to do a number of adoptions through this agency….” Furthermore, the PFRC was not an entity that had the highest standards for its adoptive homes and failed to conduct regular monitoring of their families after adoption – the kind that might have taken notice of the allegations Hannah made to her teacher. With national standards, it’s possible the Hart home would never have been considered.
Initially conceived to help preserve the continuum of care for children in the United States, the ICPC is now facing unique challenges sixty years after its inception. Although it regularly helps children preserve vital links to out-of-state family members and communities they may be connected to, today’s atmosphere of federal incentives and large caseloads can cause stress on state agencies and complicate the placement process. With increased interstate communication, states may be able to more effectively employ the ICPC and prevent traumatic out-of-state placements as in Oregon or tragedies like the one that befell the Hart children.
New Jersey, the ICPC and Interstate Adoptions and Placements
For its part, New Jersey seems to have the opposite problem of Texas: its ICPC processes are stricter and as a result can sometimes increase placement wait times for children. When placing a child in a foster home out of state, New Jersey will not contract with any agency to do home studies but instead requires the receiving state government to handle such matters. When another state seeks to place a child in New Jersey, policy mandates that the sending state must first make the ICPC request before New Jersey will begin licensing procedures for a prospective unlicensed in-state parent who will be receiving the out-of-state child. According to its website, the NJ Department of Children and Families (DCF) claims that it’s “continuing reform of the residential care system presents opportunities to maximize utilization of existing services and develop proven community-based alternatives to high-end residential care which will eventually allow New Jersey to reduce reliance on out of state placements.”
For more information on the breakdown of federal adoption incentives, click here.
For more information on how each state handles the ICPC, click here.
To learn more about the Hart Family tragedy, click here.