When Jennifer Robertson was first invited to share her experience adopting four children from the state, the ask before lawmakers seemed reasonable: moderate expansion of an existing social services program benefiting families who have permanently welcomed the hardest-to-place children.
Then COVID-19 struck. With it came a bulldozing of state budgets and the beginning of an economic recession that has hit Nevada faster and harder than most states. Over the spring and summer, lawmakers dealt with $800 million and $1.2 billion budget shortfalls for fiscal years 2020 and 2021, respectively.
Now, any legislative request is tinged with the reality that lawmakers may not be in the position to expand much of anything next year when they set the next biennium budget.
“I know it’s not an ideal time to be asking for even a few months of additional subsidy from the state,” Robertson told a legislative interim committee on health care last week. “But services are being cut for families like mine and we need support now more than ever.”
Robertson is the mother of five children, ranging in age from 7 to 16. The four oldest were adopted through the state’s foster care program. As part of those adoptions, she and her husband receive monthly adoption assistance — a state subsidy that helps families like theirs provide healthcare and other necessities.
Adoption assistance rates are negotiated between the adoptive parents and state agencies but cannot exceed the existing amounts received by foster families — a safeguard in place to ensure neither adoption nor fostering is incentivized over the other. Those rates are capped at $682.94 monthly for fostering a child up to 12 years of age, and $773.17 for fostering a child aged 13 to 18.
The majority of children who qualified for the subsidy did so because they are part of a sibling group placed together in the same home. Other children qualified because they have physical or mental disabilities or are part of a racial or ethnic minority group. Children above the age of 5 also qualify. Children in these demographic groups are among the hardest to place in foster or adoptive homes.
State assistance ends when a child turns 18.
But it doesn’t have to. The federal government allows states to extend assistance up to age 21, depending on circumstance and needs, which the states can set.
Robertson wants Nevada to extend adoption assistance past age 18 if the child is still enrolled in high school. She calls it a common sense way to allow these children — “and they are children,” she insists — to focus on graduation rather than potentially needing to work to help themselves or their family stay afloat financially.
“A lot of the families who adopt (through the state) are ones who would perhaps not be able to afford to adopt privately or internationally or endure several rounds of IVF,” says Robertson. “These are families who might already be struggling.”
Without the adoption assistance, many families might decline to adopt multiple children or children with special needs because the financial strain would be too great.
Robertson says she never planned on having five children. She and her husband thought their family was complete once they adopted their eldest two, who are biological siblings. They continued to foster. One of those foster children became their third adopted child, and when that child’s biological sibling needed a permanent home, they grew again. Then, they were happily surprised with a biological child.
Robertson says she never thought she would become a stay-at-home parent, but she voluntarily exited the workforce in order to meet the unique needs of her five children. Over the years that has included regular trips to schools to handle individualized education plans or behavior issues, frequent medical or therapy appointments, and even homeschooling one child for several years due to severe anxiety issues.
“The needs just kept compiling,” she adds.
Robertson says she has no regrets about her family. She just wants legislators to recognize the unique needs of adoptive families and provide the resources needed to ensure that adoptable children find forever families and break what is typically a cycle of generational poverty. She told lawmakers she’s grateful Medicaid has kept her adopted children insured. Medicaid was one of the budgets hit hard by cuts this summer.
“This really affects families,” she says of the adoption assistance. “It’s not a sob story.”
The division has yet to compile estimates for what expanding monthly adoption assistance beyond age 18 could cost the state. A working group is compiling recommendations and information to submit in a report to the Legislative Committee on Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice by Oct. 1 with the possibility of a bill being introduced during the 2021 Legislative Session.
Covid brings back familiar budget issues
Democratic Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen acknowledged during the committee meeting that she’d connected with Robertson before the pandemic and that much had changed between then and last week when the interim committee actually held a meeting.
“I didn’t want to waste her time being here today, knowing where we are financially,” said Cohen. “I don’t want to waste the committee’s time. But I did think it was important for this information to get out, for us to understand where families in Nevada are.”
She elaborated to the Current later, “Even before COVID there were Nevada families struggling. We’re doing the best we can, but we want to continue to keep them at the forefront of our thoughts.”
Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, who chairs the powerful Ways and Means Committee, says social safety net programs in Nevada were devastated by the Great Recession a decade ago and further damaged by the GOP-controlled 2015 Legislature. She said her priority in 2017 and 2019 was to restore previous cuts that would reach Nevadans “at the kitchen table” and to better leverage federal matching dollars, something legislators during the prosperous 1990s through the Great Recession were shy on.
“We had a budget coming out of 2019 that was a good budget,” says Carlton. “We were exceeding expectations, and we were going to look at what we can actually do in the future. Then March 15 happened and the world turned upside down.”
Carlton says the solutions turned to by the governor and Legislature this summer to shore up the 2020 and 2021 fiscal year budgets were one-hit wonders: “They cannot be done again. There is not extra money. There isn’t another credit line we can do. We pulled the rabbit out of the hat, and there’s only one rabbit in that hat.”
Depending on revenue projections, which should be forecast by the Economic Forum at the end of the calendar year, and absent significant financial help from Congress, Nevada seems likely to once again be in a position of trying to mitigate damage rather than increase investments in the programs helping the most vulnerable populations.
That said, Carlton echoed Cohen’s position of needing to raise issues regardless of policy feasibility.
“We should have the conversation and the public should be involved,” said Carlton. “We should go there. Everything should be on the table. Just because we know we have no money doesn’t mean we won’t talk about the things that are important.”