A foster child sits on a swing. The need for foster care in Indiana is high compared to most states. The new Indiana abortion law could create additional pressures on the system. 
Photo provided by The Villages of Indiana
A foster child sits on a swing. The need for foster care in Indiana is high compared to most states. The new Indiana abortion law could create additional pressures on the system. Photo provided by The Villages of Indiana
JEFFERSONVILLE — Tabitha Keeney quietly watched the national debate following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade.

But rather than get wrapped up in the politics, the 40-year-old Jeffersonville resident decided to do something to help.

She decided to become a foster parent.

“Everybody can get lost in the legislation — the right or the wrong or what they feel,” Keeney said. “But what I feel is, at one time in everyone's life, they hit a difficult place. And we just need to step in and show a little bit of compassion.”

Keeney is training to foster kids up to 2 years old. Her daughter recently left for college, and she has extra space in her home. The timing is perfect. Now, she’s looking forward to offering support to women and children who find themselves in need.

“This is my own personal way of stepping into the situation instead of away from the situation,” Keeney explained.

Thousands more Hoosiers will be needed to follow her lead by signing up to foster.

That’s because foster care and adoption agency administrators anticipate an increase in kids entering the system following the state’s near-total abortion ban, which takes effect Sept. 15.

The projected uptick comes as the state’s child welfare programs face ongoing strain from a severe worker shortage that has forced some agencies to delay critical services. The strain is tightened by the lack of foster families available to take in about 13,000 children who need homes.

More children coming into the foster system would add to an already large pool of kids who need help in Indiana, which consistently ranks among the top five states for the number of kids being placed in foster care.

A study released this year by Indiana Youth Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for young Hoosiers, found that 10 of every 1,000 children in Indiana enter foster care. The national average is six.

The study also found that from 2012 through 2018, the number of Indiana children in foster care increased by 68%, the third-highest rate in the nation. That number has fallen since 2020 in part because of the COVID pandemic, the study explained.

Now, with what some agencies say is an already stressed foster-care system, can Indiana handle even more children needing a home following the abortion ban? Or will more kids end up as longtime wards of the Indiana Department of Child Services?

HOW MANY MORE?

Last year, 8,414 women had abortions in Indiana. That number will likely decrease substantially when the new law takes effect, allowing abortions only in cases involving rape, incest, fetal anomalies or health threats to the life of the mother.

Nathan Samuel, CEO of Childplace Family Services in Jeffersonville, said conventional wisdom has led many agencies to anticipate that more babies in Indiana will likely lead to an uptick in the need for services. The question, though, is which services?

Childplace offers fostering, adoption and maternal support, and also has onsite residential facilities for kids and mothers. Initially, Samuel anticipates the biggest need will be for support of mothers who want to keep their children, or keep them until they can be adopted.

To that end, Samuel is considering using some of the nonprofit's empty rooms as transitional housing for new moms who might lose their job or feel financial stress following a pregnancy.

“There's a lot of factors to all this, and I don't by any means claim to read the tea leaves and know exactly where it's going to go,” Samuel said. “We just feel like there's going to be a need to be able to support these young ladies through a unique and maybe even difficult time in their life.”

Shannon Schumacher, president and CEO The Villages of Indiana, said there’s little doubt that more babies being born in Indiana will lead to more children entering the system. The Villages of Indiana has 17 offices across the state offering foster care services.

Many women who might have terminated their pregnancies are often in “dire straits,” Schumacher noted, because of domestic violence, substance abuse disorders, mental health issues and poverty.

Now, under the new law, those women will be required to carry their pregnancy to term, and the babies could quickly end up in foster care.

That’s especially true regarding babies with serious medical and developmental issues, Schumacher explained. Those children are the hardest to match with foster parents, who must be willing to have special training to take medically fragile kids.

“We know that those babies end up in the foster care system when parents aren't able to handle their severe disability,” Schumacher said.

‘WE’LL FIND HOMES’


Chris Daley, executive director of the Indiana Association of Resources and Child Advocacy (IARCA), pushes back against the assumption that more births will lead to more kids put up for adoption or placed in foster care.

“If we're talking about foster care, those are children who have been abused and neglected,” he said. “And there's no reason to believe that a woman, who would have accessed reproductive healthcare if they still had the ability to do so, are more likely to commit abuse or neglect.”

Daley, whose association represents more than 100 agencies, also pointed to the fact that the list of people wanting to adopt remains long, indicating many Hoosiers will step forward to adopt babies.

In his opinion supporting the Roe v. Wade reversal in June, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2002 reported about 1 million Americans waiting to adopt.

While no national statistics indicate exactly how many people are waiting to adopt, experts estimate it is somewhere between 1 million and 2 million couples, according to the Adoption Network, which helps facilitate adoptions around the country.

In Indiana, just over 5,000 private adoptions occurred in 2019, according to the National Council for Adoption, a nonprofit that works to educate the public about adoption. That number dropped 14% in 2020, in part because of the pandemic; however, the number of Hoosier adoptions from foster care climbed from 850 in 2014 to 2,150 in 2020.

“If we do see an uptick, our agencies who work on adoptions are competent, and we’ll be able to find homes, if necessary,” Daley said.

Senate Republicans said it's impossible to know how many more babies will be born or the financial needs that will create following the abortion ban.

That's why they passed Senate Bill 2. The finance legislation appropriated $45 million to various state agencies in part to support foster and adoptive parents. It allocated another $42 million to maternal and infant support programs.

The bill also increased the adoption tax credit to $2,500 for each eligible child and created a $3,000 income-tax exemption for each adopted dependent. This exemption is on top of the normal $1,500 exemption for each dependent.

"We took a tremendous pro-life stance with Senate Bill 2 with both dedicated and flexible funding that will help pregnant women over the course of their pregnancy and beyond," said state Sen. Travis Holdman (R-Markle), who authored the legislation.

STAFFING SHORTAGE

But that funding is a drop in the bucket, according to Daley.

To truly meet the financial needs to develop robust maternal and child health programs, he said, the state should appropriate hundreds of millions of dollars over the next two years.

And that money doesn’t even address the two other critical issues facing Indiana’s foster and adoption services — the debilitating worker shortage and the immediate need for thousands more foster families.

A recent survey by the IARCA found that the workforce was down over 30% at half of the state’s agencies with residential programs. The number of workers was also down 30% at a quarter of the home-based agencies that provide support to foster families.

“We are in the toughest environment that we've been in during anyone's professional memory,” Daley said. “The workforce crisis that hit other sectors has doubled down on child and family welfare services, which has always been a tough sector for folks to stay in for a long time.”

Back before COVID-19 hit, Childplace Family Services in Jeffersonville normally employed 120 people, according to Samuel. But that’s dropped to 80 since the pandemic, forcing the nonprofit to cut back substantially on the number of kids it can handle in its residential services, he explained.

“Our system is very volatile right now,” Samuel said. “It's on the verge of some big, big issues coming up. … Providers around the state are not able to basically take care of these really difficult kids because of staffing.”

With an already stressed workforce, any uptick in children entering foster care following the abortion ban could further limit critical services, noted Schumacher of The Villages.

“To have even more children in the foster care system is just going to tax the whole system more than it is now,” she said.

The state should provide at least $50 million immediately to agencies to stabilize the workforce and also figure out a way to increase reimbursements to help service providers cover their payroll, Daley said.

“There's not a mechanism for the state to adjust rates when we see unprecedented changes in costs, and that’s led to our folks basically draining their reserves and their credit lines simply to stay competitive as employers,” he explained.

WHERE ARE THE FAMILIES?

Then there’s the perpetual need for more foster families, especially those who are qualified to take infants and children with mental and developmental issues.

Jen Fister, foster care and adoption program supervisor for Childplace, said the organization could use as many as 50 more families just for their own programs, but even 10 more would have a significant impact on the number of kids they could help.

That shortage was one reason 27-year-old Mercede Gonzalez decided to start fostering with her husband, Alex Springer, two years ago.

The Allen County couple first signed up to foster just one child. But then The Villages of Indiana called about three teenage sisters — a set of twins and a younger sister wheelchair-bound by cerebral palsy — who needed a home.

Gonzalez and Springer soon learned that the sisters had been in state foster care for more than 10 years, among the longest stretches in Indiana.

But the couple immediately clicked with the girls, and on Valentine’s Day, they adopted all three.

“We met them and we fell in love, and the rest is kind of history,” she said.

Today, the two are fostering one medically fragile child. They know many more foster parents are needed to provide a home for kids who require near-constant attention and specialized medical treatments.

“People just have to step up,” Gonzalez said. “If you have a free bed at your house that's not being used, there's really no reason a child couldn't be staying there.”

Over the past couple of years, the Department of Child Services has expanded its recruiting efforts. That includes partnering with nonprofits like Indiana Kids Belong to produce high-quality videos of kids in foster care who are available for adoption.

DCS officials declined to comment for this story.

According to Larry May, director of Indiana Kids Belong, just a few years ago, DCS had only a handful of consultants dedicated to helping foster kids get adopted. Now, the agency employs an adoption consultant in each of its 18 districts.

“I think they're doing a great job with what they have,” May said. “And I can tell you that things are on the upswing. Things are better today than they were four years ago.”

Schumacher said The Villages has also had more churches and faith-based groups reaching out and expressing interest in fostering and adopting since legislators passed the abortion legislation.

That’s an encouraging sign that people are stepping up, she said, but given the huge deficiency of foster families and the projected increase in more kids needing a home, the strain on the system isn’t likely to diminish soon.

Until it does, foster agencies tasked with helping the state’s most vulnerable kids will have to make due with fewer workers, insufficient funding and a shortage of adoptive families.

“It's going to cause an issue for the state to try to handle all this if there's much of an inflow or uptick in kids,” Samuel said. “And I think conventional wisdom says there will be an uptick and a need for some type of help for these families.”
© 2022 Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.