On February 22, 2010, a court in suburban Washington, D.C., passed judgment in one of the most horrendous cases of child abuse in modern times. Renee Bowman, the adopting parent of three girls, had for years starved, neglected, and beaten them, while keeping them locked night and day in their bedroom. She choked two of the girls to death, put their bodies in plastic bags, and stored them in the freezer. The third girl escaped by jumping from a window.

At first glance, these child murders may seem an inexplicable, isolated tragedy; a closer look reveals that this outrage was constructed, piece by thoughtless piece, by the modern welfare state.

In It for the Money

The first error came with the selection of Bowman as the adoptive parent. She was obviously a negligent and seriously deranged person who never should have been approved for adoption. Well, who approved her? The adoption had been supervised from start to finish by a government agency, the District of Columbia’s Child and Family Services. In theory, it was supposed to establish that Renee Bowman was a suitable parent. In practice it didn’t even notice, or care, that she had a criminal record—she threatened a 72-year-old with bodily harm—a rather glaring instance of “government failure” by this notoriously incompetent agency.

The next link in the tragedy concerns Bowman’s motivation for adopting the children. If she did not love children, if she saw them as a burden, why had she bothered with the expense and effort of adopting them? The answer is money. In 1980 Congress approved a subsidy program to provide payments to parents who adopt children from foster care. I’m sure lawmakers thought it was a useful idea. If the federal government can buy tanks and bombs, after all, why can’t it buy adoptions?

Well, it does buy adoptions, but not high-quality ones. Worthy parents adopt out of love, conviction, enthusiasm, and dedication. They are willing to make real sacrifices for their children. Putting money on the table changes the mix of motivations. Yes, loving parents will still appear, but insensitive people who view children as an economic commodity also come forth. Renee Bowman was one of these insensitive, grasping types. She was being paid $2,400 a month by the federal government to be listed as the mother of these three girls; altogether she collected $152,000. “This woman was in it for the money,” said the prosecutor at the trial. “And by killing the children, keeping them literally on ice, the money continued to flow.”

Keeping Adoptions Low, Abuse High

Officials point out that without adoption subsidies to attract parents, children would languish in the state foster care systems. There’s some truth to this, but it exposes another flaw in the state system of handling orphans. A survey by the National Center for Health Statistics found there were nearly 600,000 women seeking to adopt children, a figure over four times the total of 129,000 children in foster care available for adoption. The oversupply of willing parents holds for all categories of children, including older children, black children, and children with disabilities. But under government management, adoption from foster care has become a tortuous, burdensome process demeaning to prospective parents. The government agencies are so focused on trying to apply a host of bureaucratic regulations that they repel many, especially independent-minded individuals critical of silly red tape and micromanagement. The result is that children remain stuck in foster care. Even so, hundreds of thousands of people would like to adopt them.

The severity of government impediments to adoption was documented by a study undertaken in 2005 by Listening to Parents, a nonprofit research group. It followed 1,000 prospective parents who called a public child-welfare agency seeking to adopt. Out of this initial group, only 36 adoptions occurred.

Having inadvertently contrived a deplorably low adoption rate, government sought to correct the problem by applying government’s inevitable fix-all: throwing more money at the problem, in the form of adoption subsidies. They created a situation of moral hazard where a person like Renee Bowman might adopt children primarily for the money, and, lacking love and a sense of responsibility, might neglect and abuse them.

Bowman’s was not an isolated case. Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy reported in February 2009 that in the previous eight months at least seven adopted children in D. C. had been killed, their adoptive parents charged or suspected in the homicides. And those are just the murder cases—that we know about. Given the number of children in Washington, D.C.’s adoption subsidy program, it’s fair to wonder if neglect and abuse short of murder are far more widespread than anyone would like to imagine.

This brings us to the most shocking failure in this sorry episode. After the deadly consequences of the misguided adoption subsidy became screaming headlines, officials did nothing! They didn’t close down the program. They didn’t fire, fine, or imprison employees responsible for the miscues. They didn’t resign in shame and embarrassment. Jobs and careers depend on this program: It’s in officials’ economic self-interest to downplay its problems. The same is true of the pressure groups that represent parents taking the subsidy. Their attitude was captured by a Washington Post reporter: “Even with limited oversight, most children end up in safe and supportive families, advocates said.”

In the old days, before we got hardened to welfare-state abuses, we would have said that a system that resulted in even one murdered child was unacceptable. Today, the self-interested participants of the welfare state are content with a program where “most” of the children aren’t slain.

The solution to the travesties being committed by government child welfare agencies lies right before us: Move away from the welfare state as fast as we can. Turn the problems of orphans, foster care, and adoption back to private charitable and commercial entities, unsubsidized by tax money and largely unregulated.

Will errors occur in this voluntary system? Undoubtedly they will, but they wouldn’t be met with institutional shrugs of the shoulders. The voluntary system would have this advantage: If a private agency was implicated in a tragic malfunction, donors and customers would be free to turn away from it and the agency would disappear.

Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 2010, Foundation for Economic Education