Saturday, April 22, 2000

Renewed inquiry into adoptions system possible


Racial bias in placements questioned

BY Lucy May
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Federal officials have threatened to restart their investigation of Hamilton County's Department of Human Services on Tuesday if the county won't agree to substantial changes in the way it handles transracial adoptions.

        Federal laws passed in the mid-1990s make it illegal to use race, culture and heritage as factors in adoptive placements, with rare exceptions.

        A federal lawsuit filed last April accused the Hamilton County Department of Human Services of keeping African-American children in foster care rather than letting white people adopt them.

        If the renewed investigation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office for Civil Rights finds the county has violated federal law, the Ohio Department of Human Services could be fined as much as $14.8 million, according to a letter dated Wednesday sent to all parties in the suit from Jerome Meites, chief civil-rights counsel for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's regional office.

        If the federal government levies a fine, Ohio law allows the state Department of Hu man Services to pass that penalty down to the county, said Jane Haller, a spokeswoman for the department. She would not say, however, whether the state planned to do that.

        The county has argued that human-services employees' actions were guided by state laws and regulations and that the county's policy is not to deny or delay adoptive placements because of race.

        But in his letter, Mr. Meites wrote:

        “Based on the evidence OCR garnered last summer, it does not appear that (the county) acted out of misplaced guidance on state regulations or statutes, but rather out of a philosophical opposition” to federal law.

        Hamilton County Commission President Bob Bedinghaus said Friday that lawyers for the county continue to work toward a settlement in the lawsuit, but federal officials keep inserting themselves into the talks.

        Mr. Bedinghaus said he agrees with some of the county's human-services employees that race should be one of the factors — not the only factor — in adoptions.

        “I think federal mandates fall short in this area,” he said.

        Still, Mr. Bedinghaus said he isn't worried the county will be fined because county officials were simply following state law.

        Scott Greenwood, one of the lawyers suing the county, said his clients don't want a fine that ulti mately would reduce money available for adoption programs.

        “The county's going to have to make peace with the federal government,” he said. “But we don't seek fines. We seek to solve the problem, and we hope we solve the problem in an appropriate way so the county's children can be served without discrimination.”

        Based on county figures provided to the federal office, it takes the county an average of 200 days longer to find adoptive homes for African-American children than for white children, according to Mr. Meites' letter.

        The letter also states that Hamilton County Human Services Director Don Thomas has called the county's entire Adoption Unit “dysfunctional” and has said he wants to privatize adoptions. But the county wants its employees still to have some say in where children are placed.

        This “despite the widely held perception in the Hamilton Coun ty child-welfare community that people on (the county's) Adoption Unit often try to punish and intimidate those who advocate for transracial adoptions,” Mr. Meites wrote. “This is not a satisfactory corrective plan.”

        A spokeswoman for the county's Department of Human Services said the department could not comment on the letter because of the pending lawsuit.

        This is not the first time Hamilton County has faced controversy over the issue of transracial adoption.

        In 1989, county officials took 2-year-old Maurice “Reecie” West, who was an African-American, from white foster parents who wanted to adopt him. County officials placed the boy with an African-American couple in Rochester, N.Y.

        Within eight weeks, the boy died from repeated beatings by his new parents.

       



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