They gave up on their “hard-to-place” adopted kids — but not on the government check intended for the discarded kids’ care.
Hundreds of adoptive parents across the five boroughs who’ve sent their children to live elsewhere are continuing to pull in monthly checks of up to $1,700 per child while the city, state and feds look the other way, the Daily News has learned.
Because of a confusing tangle of bureaucratic rules and a lack of city oversight, the parents can continue receiving the government subsidies for months, and even years, until the child turns 21.
“It’s crazy,” Jahad Ritchens, 21, said of the payments that had been going to his adoptive mom, Cequasia Ritchens, for almost six years after she kicked him out. “I’m living out here on the street and she’s getting all this money. It’s like I don’t matter to no one.”
For the state and the city to do nothing … is an abuse of the taxpayer, of the system, of the problem that subsidy was meant to address.
It also means that taxpayers are often double-paying for the kids’ care — first to the absentee parent, then anywhere from $29,000 to $123,000 a year per child for foster care.
“For the state and the city to do nothing … is an abuse of the taxpayer, of the system, of the problem that subsidy was meant to address,” said retired Brooklyn Family Court Judge Paul Grosvenor.
He now serves as a judicial hearing officer overseeing a special court to assist children in foster care who will never return to their parents. And he said he deals with “hundreds” of cases a year where adoptive parents keep the subsidy after letting their children go.
“In some instances, it’s a windfall,” Grosvenor said. “The parents place this child (in foster care). They have no intent of ever being involved with the child again — they’re essentially walking away — but they’re still receiving this monthly subsidy.”
Using a combination of city, state and federal funds, the city Administration for Children’s Services sent $294 million in checks last fiscal year to help cover parenting costs for 22,686 children, according to records obtained via a Freedom of Information Law request.
The agency told The News it does not know how many parents are receiving subsidies for children no longer in their care.
The subsidy was the result of an act of Congress in 1980 designed to encourage parents to adopt “hard-to-place” children from foster care.
Desinee Smith, 18, was one of those kids.
Children’s Services removed her from her birth mother’s custody when she was just two weeks old.
“My mom kept having kids and ACS kept taking them away,” she said.
Her first foster mother died of cancer when she was 5. After spending two years with another relative, she was adopted by a woman named Tanika Quashie — the daughter of her late foster mother.
They moved from Staten Island to East New York, Brooklyn, in 2004, where Smith said she was miserable.
“I was bullied and tortured at school,” she said, and went to live with her biological sister in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, when she was 9.
Quashie showed up several months later to bring her back.
“Tanika didn’t want to give up the money,” Smith said.
She lived with Quashie and her kids until she was 13, when Quashie sent her up to Syracuse to stay with another relative. Smith said Quashie sent the relative half of her subsidy check, and kept the other half for herself.
Smith said she had to fend for herself upstate. Her guardian wouldn’t buy her clothes or food, or even take her to the doctor or dentist, and “I was doing things I shouldn’t have been doing,” she said.
“I … beat up half the kids up there. I done everything in my power to get sent back to Brooklyn. My mind wasn’t right,” she said. “I was wild.”
She ran away from Syracuse early last year, stayed for a while with her brother in Brooklyn, then enrolled in a federal Job Corps program in Delaware to earn her GED and build career skills.
Smith filed for welfare in June, because she said Quashie hasn’t been sending her any money — even though the two have lived apart for five years.
“Forget the wants. The needs — (Quashie’s) not doing any of that,” said her brother, Rodney Brown. “She hasn’t been doing my sister right.”
Unless Smith’s child support lawsuit is successful, Quashie, who did not return requests for comment, could continue getting checks for another three years.
“I’m tired of it. She’s not sending me any money. She’s just keeping the whole check,” she said.
Smith has to take legal action on her own, because the city won’t do anything to fix the problem.
While other cities in the state, including Albany, will sue reneging parents to force them to turn over the child support, New York City tells children that they must navigate the complicated process on their own.
“(ACS) should be going after every adoptive parent for child support,” court referee Tamara Schwartz told city lawyers at a hearing last December for an adopted child whose mother had returned her to foster care. “They go after parents (who receive) public assistance. They should be doing that for foster care.”
It’s unclear how many other children and young adults are in Smith’s position.
Records show 5% of the 35,877 children adopted through the subsidized program between 1993 and 2003 were voluntarily sent to foster care. The rate of return for children adopted after 2003 is less than 2% — but that number will likely climb as these children reach their teenage years and become more difficult to care for. And the percentage does not take into account the untold number of children who are simply kicked out, or sent to live with friends or relatives, instead of back to the official foster care system.
Unless the adoptive parent voluntarily terminates their parental rights or sends a letter to Children’s Services relinquishing the check, the parent will continue getting the monthly checks until the child turns 21.
The city could also move to terminate parental rights if the child has spent the last 15 of 22 months in foster care. But Judge Bryanne Hamill — who recently retired after serving as the inaugural hearing officer for a court dedicated to foster children — said the city never did this for teenagers, who are unlikely to get readopted.
Hamill said she saw frequent abuse and waste in the system. One woman built a home in Florida with her subsidy check. Another adopted a 5-year-old boy with severe mental health issues and kept him in a residential treatment program — completely covered by Medicaid — for 10 years. When the treatment center recommended he be discharged into the mother’s home, she refused and voluntarily placed him in foster care.
Hamill said the woman admitted in court that she had never paid for the boy’s care. Still, the city did not terminate the subsidy, which she continued to receive until the child turned 21.
Hamill said she never saw a parent willingly terminate the subsidy.
“In most cases I saw,” Hamill said, “the adoptive parent was giving nothing to the child. Nothing. Or sometimes they would maybe buy them a pair of shoes.”
In the spring of 2012, Hamill met with the state Office of Children and Family Services to alert officials there to the problem.
Hamill said state officials asked her and other judges to start writing orders informing the city and state that an adopted child had been voluntarily placed in foster care so they could launch an investigation into each case. But when The News requested copies of the orders, both the state and city said they had no record of ever receiving them — even though Schwartz, the referee, told The News she continues to send the orders to this day.
Federal rules give states the power to end the subsidy if they determine adoptive parents are no longer providing financial support to their children. But a rep for the state said terminating the subsidy is the responsibility of the city, not the state.
And the city says the state and federal governments have advised the city against investigating these cases to determine if the parents are providing support — apparently to avoid frightening prospective parents away.
The amount of money the parents spend on the kids is up to them. A spokesman for ACS said federal rules prevent the city from setting a minimum of support that parents are obligated to provide.
That means a parent could spend just $1 a month on an adopted child and still collect the subsidy, according to Dawn Post, an attorney with the Children’s Law Center, who has written extensively about what she terms “broken adoptions.”
“I respect the right of adoptive families to have privacy from unwarranted government intrusion, but I care even more about the well-being of their children,” Post said.
Jahad Ritchens said he hasn’t lived steadily with his adoptive mother, Cequasia Ritchens, since he was 15, when he started bouncing around between the homes of friends and relatives, jail, and the streets.
But Cequasia continued to collect a monthly subsidy of $1,200 that she started getting when she legally adopted Jahad at age 9.
Jahad, who was removed from his birth mother’s home just days after his fifth birthday, was bounced around between three different foster homes, and says he was abused in each one.
One “would beat us with wet rags and extension cords. She burned us with cigarettes,” he said.
He said life with Cequasia, his aunt, was far from happy.
“She never paid attention to me. I got jumped by other kids and she wouldn’t do nothing. Her boyfriend hit me, too,” he said, before getting too choked up to continue. “It wasn’t a place for a human to live.”
He admits he wasn’t easy to raise. He was arrested over two dozen times in his teens.
“I was getting everything from the street,” he said. “It made me feel powerful. You thought you were better than me, but I could bring you down to my level. All the pain I could muster, I brought down on other people.”
He did time on Rikers Island, where, he said, “I became a beast.”
He said Cequasia never visited him in lockup, and that in the years since he’s been out of her care, she’d sometimes send him money, and sometimes not.
Cequasia told The News, “That’s a lie. I’ve been giving him that money for years. It’s his word against mine.”
He tried to get the subsidy to Cequasia cut off, but a city social worker, in the presence of The News, told him in January that his adoptive mother would have to voluntarily give up the money.
“Legally, the city cannot stop that check,” the social worker said.
Jahad sued Ritchens for support, and shortly before his 21st birthday in May, a city magistrate awarded him $1,617.50 for the last month remaining on the subsidy and two months of a 17% income deduction from Cequasia’s salary, according to his lawyer.
Jahad said he hopes the money will turn his life around.
It was like she didn’t really care about me … I think maybe she took me in for the money.
In other cases, the government is paying the adoptive parent a subsidy, while also paying foster homes or agencies to care for the same child at the same time.
Janiya Reid and her older brother Thomas had nowhere to go when their birth mother died in 1999. Janiya was 2; Thomas was 9. Placed in foster care, they were soon assigned to Elizabeth Hampton, a home health care aide.
One year later, Hampton adopted Janiya, but not Thomas. Hampton said the boy skipped school, got into fights, and wouldn’t respect her rules. She decided to send him back to foster care, and the city stopped sending the monthly checks she had received for him as a foster parent.
As Janiya grew older, she started getting into trouble, too. “I tried to show those children love,” Hampton said, “but they wouldn’t let nobody in.”
Hampton said Janiya stayed out all week, refusing to come back to their apartment in a Coney Island public housing development.
“I couldn’t deal with it,” said Hampton, who is now 59. “I lost my job running back and forth to get her out of trouble.”
Janiya said Hampton was “rude, disrespectful, and verbally abusive.”
“It was like she didn’t really care about me,” Janiya said. “I think maybe she took me in for the money.”
Hampton disputed that, saying that the money, while it helped, didn’t cover the cost of raising Janiya.
In June 2012, Hampton sent Janiya to live with other relatives. But that didn’t work out, either. The next year, Hampton voluntarily placed Janiya in foster care, which is legal in New York when parents feel they can no longer care for a child.
“She stayed with every family member and no one wanted to be bothered with her,” said Hampton.
Meanwhile, Hampton continued to receive a monthly check of $821, half of which she sent to Janiya in foster care. The rest, she testified in court, she needed for rent.
“The adoptive mother shouldn’t be receiving any subsidy at this time since the child is not in her care,” said referee Schwartz, who presided over Janiya’s case, at a hearing at the Manhattan Family Court last November.
City lawyers told Schwartz they had no power to cut off the monthly check to Hampton, a transcript shows.
That meant the city was now paying twice for her care, a frustrated Schwartz pointed out: one payment going to Hampton and another to a short-term stay facility in the East Village where the city had temporarily placed Janiya.
Under pressure from Schwartz, Hampton eventually agreed to send a notarized letter to the city stating that she would give up the subsidy.
The subsidy was terminated, a year and a half after Janiya had left her home. During that time, Hampton had collected around $14,000 from the city.
When she went to turn in the letter to ACS, Hampton told The News, officials there said she didn’t have to give up the subsidy if she didn’t want to.
Janiya now lives an upstate foster care facility.
It’s unclear exactly how many double-payment cases there are. The city keeps tabs on the number of adopted kids who are returned for placement — there were 2,050 between 1993 and 2011, the last year of available data — but said it doesn’t know how many are unofficially shipped off to other homes or even living on the streets.
Some lawyers and adoptive parents contacted by The News said that the adoptive parents sometimes move into larger apartments with their kids because of the subsidy, and that terminating the payments outright might cause the parents financial duress.
But because the payments don’t follow the children, it can also cause hardship for the people actually caring for the kids.
Christian Robles, 26, works nights as a security supervisor. During the day, Robles takes care of his three teenage siblings — ages 15, 16 and 17 — who share a three-bedroom apartment with him and two other relatives in the South Bronx. Money and space are tight.
The children have only been living with him since late December. That’s when they ran away from their adoptive mother, Sharlott Sutton, who is also their cousin.
“It was Christmastime and I have a girlfriend, so I was already a little behind financially when they got here,” Robles said. “But they needed food, MetroCards, beds, clothes, school supplies, a phone.”
Sutton, who lives in Staten Island, didn’t offer to help out, even though she receives a total monthly subsidy check of $2,300 for the three children, Robles said.
Robles, his three siblings, and Sutton met with a social worker in early January to discuss where the children should live. During the meeting, Sutton agreed to let the children live with Robles, who filed for legal guardianship — but ACS wouldn’t transfer the subsidy over to him. “The adoption subsidy cannot be transferred to a guardian/custodian as long as the adoptive parents are living,” an ACS employee wrote to his attorney.
In April, a judge allowed Robles to become the children’s guardian. “This is another sad case of an adoption not working out,” Michael Katz, the judge, told Robles at a court hearing. “But it seems to me you’re trying to provide a good home.”
Sutton didn’t come to that hearing, or any of the three before it, said Robles’ lawyer. Although Sutton did not terminate her parental rights, Robles said that under pressure, she started voluntarily sending him the subsidy checks in May. But she is not required to do so and could stop at any time.
Robles believes ACS failed his family by letting Sutton keep the subsidy. “This should be automatic,” Robles said. “I shouldn’t be jumping through these hoops.”
Robles wants to move his siblings to a bigger apartment where the family will have more room. And he doesn’t want them to worry about finances. “I don’t want them asking me, ‘Hey, are you getting the subsidy yet?'” Robles said. “Asking me if they can have an extra plate of food or if they should go shovel snow for money.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” he added. “To take care of them.”
This article was written by Dareh Gregorian, with additional reporting by Pearl Gabel and Patrick McCarron.Reporting for this article was supported by the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.
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