Taking a troubled child from state custody into their homes is a spiritual calling for a handful of Hoosiers, such as Betty Bledsoe, who is raising a brood of 10 -- two of her own kids and eight adopted children.
SUCCESS STORY: Jeremiah Bledsoe, 8, is one of 10 children cared for by Betty Bledsoe. Bledsoe has received almost $488,000 in aid over the past five years to help with expenses for foster and adopted children. It's helpful, she says, but it doesn't cover all expenses. - STEVE HEALEY / The Star
BIG FAMILIES, BIG MONEY
Here's a look at the families who received the most in adoption incentives and other pay from 2002 through 2006 in Marion County. Because adoptions are confidential, the county would not say how many children each family adopted or itemize what the payments were for.1. Connie Dodd, $703,000.2. Steven and Lisa Smith, $504,000.3. Betty Bledsoe, $488,000.4. Ada Janet Robinson, $447,000.5. Paul Whitley, $391,000.6. Alicia Garrison, $378,000.7. Karen and Matthew Butterworth, $360,000.8. Patricia and Ronald Phelps, $359,000.9. Minnie Carter, $351,000.10. Harry and Doris Ross, $334,000.HOW CHILDREN ARE ADOPTED FROM THE STATEBefore an individual or family can adopt children in the Indiana child welfare system, they must undergo a 26-hour training program, an assessment and criminal background checks, said Susan Tielking, the Department of Child Services spokeswoman.Once a child has been placed with a family, there is an additional monitoring period of six to 12 months before a court will finalize the adoption.The agency is trying to boost the pool of potential foster parents and pre-adoptive parents, Tielking said. Those who join the program through active recruiting efforts, such as parents who are recommended by other foster parents, are most likely to have a child's best interests at heart. And more foster parents means DCS can be more discriminating in matching children with families."The more foster parents that we do get in this pool . . . we can then really take a look at the child and look at the families and have more of an opportunity to make sure we're placing in the best possible family," Tielking said.Indiana's pre-adoption process is in line with most other states', said Ada White, director of adoption services for the Child Welfare League of America.-- Tim Evans
The Indianapolis woman is part of a child welfare system that collectively pays millions of dollars each year to families who adopt wards of the state and that operates below the radar of most Indiana residents.
The vast majority of these adoptive parents open their hearts and homes to children for all the right reasons. But sometimes the parents can be abusive or neglectful. One Marion County couple faces criminal charges related to the scalding of their adopted son.
Although they represent a tiny percentage of those who take in troubled children, some parents may be lured not by love or a higher calling, but by the potential windfall from adoption subsidies and other substitute care payments, state and national officials say.
The state paid out more than $37 million in 2005 to adoptive parents, including Bledsoe, who cobbled together families by taking in children who had been removed from their homes by Child Protective Services or a court.
In Marion County last year, more than 30 families collected at least $50,000 in adoption and foster care payments by caring for children who could not remain in their own homes, and one family received nearly $140,000.
Parents who adopt from the child welfare system can collect one-time payments to cover legal and other expenses associated with the adoptions, and on-going annual stipends of up to $10,000 per child to help with the cost of their care.
Susan Tielking, spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Child Services, acknowledged that a few parents may seek to adopt children for the money but said such cases are exceptions.
"The majority of the people who become involved do this because they see children who need their help. Anytime there are finances involved, you may have people who are in it for reasons other than the safety and well-being of children."
The Marion County couple charged with criminal confinement, neglect and battery collected about $325,000 in adoption and foster payments from 2002 through 2006, including more than $77,000 last year. The felony charges brought by prosecutors last month against Bessie and Mechelle Saffold, Indianapolis, stem from the way they treated their five adopted children.
Bessie Saffold is accused of scalding their 7-year-old adopted son in a bath as punishment for wetting himself, then failing to seek medical treatment for his burns and keeping him out of school to hide his injuries.
That set off a deeper investigation that, officials say, found the couple beat the boy and their four other adopted children with extension cords and a wooden plunger handle, and sometimes locked them in an unfurnished room where they were made to sleep on the floor as punishment.
According to court records, Mechelle Saffold told investigators "he is not worried if they take his kids away," because "he still had his house and life."
In a Howard County case, Teresa "Terry" and Jay Moody, Greentown, face two felony neglect charges. They are accused of locking two adopted special-needs children in a stall of a horse barn that had been converted into a cage, sometimes wearing nothing more than pajama bottoms as they huddled on a mat in a straw-filled corner.
The Moodys' children also were locked in a bathroom, made to do calisthenics for hours and had food withheld, sometimes for days, according to court documents.
Adopted by the couple after being removed from his birth parents because of severe physical and sexual abuse and neglect, the Moodys' son was resigned to his treatment. He told investigators that his confinement in the horse stall was necessary so "mommy will feel better when she becomes upset and needs to calm down."
In an interview with investigators, Terry Moody described her adopted 13-year-old son as "just an entity."
Adoption records are confidential, and Tielking said she could not speak about specifics of individual cases.
But she did say it can be difficult to monitor what goes on within a family after an adoption is final. "We would treat that family just like any other family. The only reason we would investigate or follow up would be if there was a report of abuse or neglect."
She said DCS has strengthened its safeguards over the past two years, adding a criminal history check using fingerprints and ensuring follow-up visits for up to a year before an adoption is final.
Child protection workers have placed the Saffold and Moody children with foster families, and they could be made available for adoption by other families.
Although no organization or agency tracks the size of adoptive families, experts agree the number being placed in large families -- some with a dozen or more children -- is likely increasing because of the pressure to move children out of the system and a shortage of adoptive parents willing to take on troubled kids.
Indiana officials have more than doubled the number of adoptions from the child welfare system over the past 10 years, from 464 in 1996 to 979 in 2005, after peaking at 1,178 in 2001.
On any given day, Tielking said, about 800 boys and girls are in the system awaiting adoption. Potential families have been identified for about 550 of those children, but the state is still searching for homes for about 250 special-needs children.
"Some families really thrive with a lot of kids," said Ada White, director of adoption services for the Child Welfare League of America.
White said the league does not have recommended limits for the number of foster or adoptive children in a family.
"It is really hard for us to say large families are not right," she said.
A national child advocate said states need to do a better job of screening families before placing children with them. But he said he fears the federal bonuses that states get for finalizing adoptions may lead some to put children in less than ideal settings.
Indiana received nearly $900,000 in adoption bonuses in 2005.
"There's a perverse incentive system in place that discourages scrutiny," said Richard Wexler, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.
"There is enormous incentive to rush into quick and dirty and slipshod placements. They are just setting everybody up for failure."
Wexler said evaluations before adoptions are critical, because after adoptions are finalized, the families should not face any more scrutiny than any other family -- even if they are receiving assistance payments.
"The whole point of adoption is to give kids permanence, and you can't have that with a caseworker constantly checking up on them."
Aid, not wealth
Indiana child welfare officials often point to Bledsoe as an example of an adoptive parent who does an outstanding job with her large brood of special-needs children, thanks to a deep personal commitment and some financial help.
Bledsoe received almost $488,000 over the past five years, or an average of more than $97,000 a year in adoption assistance, foster payments and other child welfare assistance. The money, Bledsoe said, is a big help, but it doesn't come close to covering the expenses of her large, blended family.
No one who provides proper care for the children is getting rich, said Jeanette Wiedemeier Bower, program manager for the North American Council on Adoptable Children.
"If they are doing it for money, that is a pretty dumb reason, because the average subsidy is about $444 a month, and it costs $700 to $1,000 a month to raise a child," she said.
But, she said, "There's always going to be that 1 percent or whatever that is going to abuse the system. You are going to find a small percentage of unethical, immoral people in every field."
The financial subsidies are less than it would cost to keep the children in foster care or institutional settings, the only other option for most of the special-needs children in the system. And, advocates say, they are critical to getting special-needs children into permanent homes.
Special-needs children include those older than 2, siblings who need to be placed together and those with physical or mental disabilities.
A 2006 survey by Children's Rights, a national advocacy group for abused and neglected children, found that 81 percent of parents who adopted special-needs children considered the financial assistance important to their decision to adopt.
Nearly six in 10 said they could not have adopted without that assistance.
But even with the help, about 20 percent of special-needs adoptions fail nationwide, and the children are returned to the child welfare system.