CINCINNATI — Warren County has agreed to pay $100,000 and allow the adoptive families of 82 children with special needs a chance to get more financial aid as part of a class-action settlement from a 2018 lawsuit that accused the county of lying to families and underpaying them.
Once U.S. District Magistrate Judge Karen Litkovitz approves the settlement on Thursday, it will prompt change in how Warren County Children Services distributes subsidies to families who adopt children with special needs.
“These are some of most challenging kids in our society,” attorney Al Gerhardstein said. “They are the leftovers of many families after overdoses and drug problems … we owe them everything we can do to give them stable families.”
Gerhardstein filed the lawsuit in March 2018 on behalf of two families, accusing the county of drastically underpaying families who adopt children with special needs and hurting foster children’s chances of permanent adoptions.
The statewide average paid to adoptive families of children with special needs is $527 per month. But Warren County paid $176 – the least of any county in Ohio, Gerhardstein said.
Warren County officials denied any wrongdoing in the settlement agreement. They did not respond to a request for comment.
As part of the settlement, Warren County Children Services agreed to a list of reforms – from better training of workers, to providing accurate information about how much financial help families could be entitled to if they adopted children with special needs.
Gerhardstein, a civil rights attorney best known for winning marriage equality for same-sex couples in the U.S. Supreme Court, said this case is one of the most significant in his career.
“Any case that results in ongoing, lasting reform is a special one,” Gerhardstein said.
But one Warren County woman, who filed an anonymous lawsuit affidavit in order to shield the identity of her child, doubts the settlement will make things better for families who adopt children with special needs.
"The county trivializes the very real diagnoses and conditions they have because of their biological backgrounds," she said. "Warren County continues to insinuate that we are greedy because we ask for assistance in giving a child normalcy. The county ridicules any requested amount over $250 despite medical and therapeutical recommendations for therapies, activities and treatments these children desperately need in order to overcome their trauma."
If the lawsuit had gone to trial, Warren County may have faced paying millions in back financial assistance – money that Gerhardstein says families should have received to help them raise their children with special needs but were either denied or told they didn’t qualify for.
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.
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.
As part of the settlement, Gerhardstein’s firm will help 57 families and 82 children who currently receive less than $250 a month per child to renegotiate their subsidies with the county.
Warren County agreed to pay $100,000 in attorneys’ fees as part of the settlement.
“They are the ones most harmed and are most in need of sort of the catch-up,” Gerhardstein said.
While the settlement focuses on the families who currently get the least financial help, he hopes the impact of the changes will have wide-reaching impact.
“All of the paperwork surrounding negotiations over subsidies has been revised and sent out in plain English and the worksheet used by the county and families has been revised,” Gerhardstein said. “Any family can renegotiate at any time.”