Almost 10 years ago, Congress passed a law that gives states bonuses if they can get children languishing in foster care adopted quickly.
It sounds like a great idea, but now some child welfare experts say those bonuses have turned into nothing more than bounties that are putting some children at risk.
When Kentucky Child Welfare Supervisor Pat Moore learned two children were about to be adopted into a home with a convicted felon, she went to her bosses.
“They wanted me to shut up and get the adoptions completed. Period. No questions asked,” Moore says.
The adoptions would have flown through, she says, if she hadn't blown the whistle.
Tom Beiting was the court-appointed guardian.
“It's outrageous,” he says. “I believe they were going for the numbers — to get their numbers up.”
But why would a state pressure welfare workers to force adoptions?
One reason may be money. States can earn federal bonuses for keeping adoption numbers high, and in Kentucky workers can even get extra vacation.
“It was illegal what was happening,” Moore says. “And nobody was doing anything. What they did every year is they set a quota based on the previous year's number of adoptions.”
An NBC News computer analysis shows adoptions have risen dramatically nationwide — in Kentucky they've tripled in six years — while those federal bonuses have grown to more than $1 million.
But the number of kids returned to their parents has dropped sharply. States don't get bonuses for that.
“If you receive money for doing one thing, and you receive nothing from doing the other, it's not much of a choice after a while,” Beiting says.
Critics say the promise of federal money is pushing kids into dangerous adoptions — a charge Tom Emberton, Kentucky's child welfare chief, denies.
“I am comfortable with the oversight that we have in place to ensure that our decisions are appropriate," Emberton says.
Wade Horn runs the federal government's child welfare system and says any quotas are inappropriate. “No state should ever make a decision about a permanency option for a child based on finances," he said.
“These are human beings,” Moore says. “They're not statistics. They're not numbers. They're lives.”
Moore says she was forced out for speaking out — a claim the state denies. She is suing the state, which, at last count, had more than 2,000 kids up for adoption.