CINCINNATI — A federal magistrate recommended that a lawsuit filed by the adoptive parents of special needs children be given class-action status, opening it up to 160 Warren County families and exposing the county to millions in back support payments.
U.S. District Magistrate Judge Karen Litkovitz issued her report and recommendation on Thursday, siding with the families who claim that Warren County wrongfully underpaid them for adopting special needs children.
“Today the families who have adopted special needs children through Warren County have taken a huge step toward justice,” said well-known civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein. “Class status will allow a ruling in the case to bring reform to the whole system of adoption subsidies in Warren County.”
Attorneys from Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.
The statewide average paid to adoptive families of special needs children is $527 per month. But Warren County paid $176 – the least of any county in Ohio, Gerhardstein said.
U.S. District Court Chief Judge Susan Dlott must now decide whether to adopt the magistrate’s recommendations, which would allow 160 adoptive families to join the lawsuit.
It could also expose Warren County to paying millions in back financial assistance – money that Gerhardstein said families should have received to help them raise their special needs children, but they were either denied or told they didn’t qualify.
“These families aren’t in this to squeeze a few bucks out for themselves and then leave the situation exactly as it was when they came in,” Gerhardstein said. “They want to make sure that all the families secure the relief that they’ve come to know they’re entitled to. And the way to do that is through a class action.”
Under the federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, the adopting families of difficult-to-place children are entitled to compensation for needs such as counseling, medical care, day care and other services.
But Stephen Teetor, an attorney for Warren County, said at a Jan. 21 court hearing that some adoptive families asked for tax dollars to pay for new cars, go-kart racing, Disney trips, karate lessons and weddings.
“Things the rest of us would have to pay for out of our own funds and not tax dollars,” Teetor said in court. “If you start to allocate every expense a child has … it’s going to hit the state maximum (for adoption assistance) every time.”
He argued that the lawsuit, which was filed in March 2018 by two families and later joined by a third family, did not deserve class-action status because each family circumstance is unique.
But Litkovitz disagreed: “Contrary to Warren County’s argument, the relief plaintiffs seek would not require a different injunction based on the unique needs of a particular adoptive family.”
The families are seeking an injunction that would force Warren County to follow uniform rules when they negotiate adoption subsidies going forward.
Most adoption assistance funding comes from the state and federal government and is administered at the county level.
In addition to paying the lowest adoption subsidies in the state, Warren County also has one of the highest number of cases in which adoptive families were granted zero financial help, Gerhardstein said.
The case is set for trial on June 10.