TOPEKA, Kan. — A foster care program designed to support adoptive families may actually discourage adoption. Tina Miller knows this all too well.

Miller wanted to adopt foster child Aaron Carter, who was non-verbal and autistic. Foster parents are paid a daily rate to take care of foster children. For the Millers, that came out to around $3,800 a month, and despite that, they paid an additional $500 to $1,300 a month to look after Aaron. He could never be left alone.

“Had my husband and I not had a strong marriage and relationship, I could see easily how (Aaron) would cause somebody to get a divorce,” Miller said. “He was just so much.”

The Millers were only offered around $800 a month to adopt Aaron, less than a third of what they got for fostering the boy.

“We knew that there was just no way we could swing it,” Miller said.

They continued to foster Aaron until another family was interested in adopting him. Aaron died during a visit with that other family. The case is still being investigated.

The Millers’ case is unusual because families don’t often decline an adoption for financial reasons, foster care staff say.

But the Millers aren’t entirely unique. Money is important. And for some families, the subsidies they lose means the difference between whether they can afford to adopt a foster kid — especially a child with special, expensive and ongoing needs. Families who go ahead with adoptions of kids with higher needs can find themselves quickly overrun by financial problems. The Kansas Department for Children and Families wants to change the equation.

Paige Darnall adopted a child even though she received significantly less each month from the state. She said taking less money will make it harder to afford child care and could mean less time off for herself.

“We’re both working parents, so the day care expense was the big struggle,” she said. “There were times it has been difficult.”

Kansas caps its adoption subsidy — or monthly financial support to adoptive families — at $500 a month. Monthly support for foster families varies broadly depending on a child’s needs. Families with basic foster rates get around $700 a month while families with the highest need children get thousands of dollars a month.

Almost every foster family in Kansas is paid less to adopt than they are to foster a child. Families with higher needs children can request exceptions to get more financial support, yet multiple foster parents and parent support groups say not everyone knows that option exists.

“I thought that wasn’t particularly fair,” said Josh Kroll, adoption subsidy resource center coordinator at the North American Council on Adoptable Children. “If two sides are negotiating something and one side knows something is a possibility and doesn't share it with the other side, that seems like an inequitable position for negotiation.”

Kroll said Kansas’ system could be set up better and DCF is trying. The agency is reviewing its subsidy structure, said Melinda Kline, deputy director of permanency. Kline didn’t say what these changes might be and couldn’t say when they might happen.

Depending on the scale of adjustments, DCF could need legislative action. The Kansas Legislature adjourned its session last month and isn’t expected to return until January 2023. DCF is considering creating new exceptions for higher needs children to help families in the near future.

“We want families who select adoption to be able to support and care for and meet the needs of the child that they adopt,” Kline said.

Other states might offer similar pay to foster care rates or they might have a tiered system that shows parents how much they could get based on their child’s needs.

The Kansas adoption rate is around average when compared to other states. DCF says 8,769 adopted children receive a subsidy and the average monthly payment for April 2022 was $456.74. Subsidies range from $18.72 to $3,500 a month.

The adoption subsidy in California, Washington, D.C., and Alaska can all exceed $1,000. Wyoming, Missouri and Mississippi offer $400 a month or less. Utah’s rates max out at $211, according to the North American Council on Adoptable Children. 

Minnesota recently changed its adoption subsidy structure. The new system has multiple tiers that determine what level of need a child has and reduces the need for negotiating a rate, something that Kansas does. Under Minnesota’s old system, families would be paid half as much to adopt a child as to foster that child. Kroll said that causes children to move to new families because there isn’t enough support.

He said the new system is “more consistent (and) it can be more equitable.”

Kroll said adoption subsidies are important because foster children have higher needs so parents might need more support.

“Many of the children have suffered abuse or neglect — that’s why they’ve entered into the foster care system,” he said. “They often have more needs even when they get adopted.”

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at [email protected]

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.