Adoptive families want help for special needs children

Stephanie Kerner plays with her children on an Avon playground.
Published: .
Updated: .

Families who have adopted kids with special needs from foster care are concerned the state isn't keeping its promise.

Indiana has 10,000 children in foster care across the state. Thousands of families caring for those children are no longer getting adoption subsidy payments, prompting a class action lawsuit and a renewed call for help.

Eight-year-old Kelsie shrieked as she slid into her mother's arms on a playground in Avon Monday.

"Gotcha," said Stephanie Kerner.

That word, "gotcha," comes with special meaning in Kerner's world. Since 2004, she's opened her heart to special needs foster children placed by the State of Indiana.

Now, four of those children are hers for keeps.

The Kerner family adopted with promises of assistance from the state to help pay for counseling and other special services through an adoption subsidy. They had no problem getting the subsidy for the first three children.

But the Department of Child Services says there is no money for three-year-old Georgie.

"We have a child who is diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome, diagnosed with seizure disorder and several other things. In her case, it's going to come out of our pocket," Kerner revealed.

The Kerners were denied because they couldn't fully document Georgie's expected expenses.

"It's difficult, because you can't predict their behavior," said the Avon mother of five.

At least 1,400 other Indiana families are losing out, too, according to a new class action lawsuit filed in LaPorte County by attorneys for Cohen & Malad, LLP and Friedman & Associates, P.C.

The lawsuit alleges DCS put eligible families on a "wait list" for payments estimated at $18 a day because of a lack of funding.

Yet records show since 2009, DCS has returned over $238 million in unused funds back to the state.

"I wish it hadn't gotten this far. I didn't think it needed to. We're only one of two states in the entire country that have a waiting list for funding," she told 13 Investigates.

Kerner says the service's families are going without can make a big difference in the lives of special needs children. While she continues to advocate for Georgie, her heart goes out to those families facing more severe behavioral issues.

"I know they can't access a lot of the therapies that are proven to work. Medicaid doesn't cover them," explained Kerner. "It's not easy to raise these kids. They don't heal immediately. It takes years."

And it takes special hearts to provide children a life of stability out of foster care.

Advocates for adoption assistance say the state could potentially place more children in permanent homes and save up to $235,000 for each child adopted out of foster care.

A spokesman from DCS says the agency cannot comment on pending litigation.

Earlier this year, Governor Mike Pence signed legislation that will give adoptive parents a $1,000 tax credit per adopted child beginning next year.