Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Foster care in DC: The perils of paying foster parents too much

As the new year begins, let us pause to consider the plight of a former foster parent in Washington, who wrote a searing account of what it was like to scrape by on nothing more than a six-figure income, her husband’s salary and about $45,000 per year – tax free – in payments for taking in four foster children.  

            The first thing I want you to know is, I did not write the comment I reprint below from the website of The Washington Post.  I did not make up some fictitious foster parent in an effort to make foster parents look bad.  As far as I know the post is genuine and the person who wrote it is real.  

            I reprint her comment below because it’s hard to imagine anything that better illustrates the perils of paying foster parents too much, as Washington D.C. does, or giving foster parents in much of the rest of the country giant pay raises, as is proposed by the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights (CR).  I certainly don't believe that this foster parent is typical.  But this is the kind of foster parent you are more likely to attract when you pay them the way CR proposes to do.

            First, a little background:  The effort to close a budget gap in D.C. wound up pitting programs to help children stay out of foster care against programs to help children already in foster care.

            In particular, Roque Gerald, who runs the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, tried to slash a program to help grandparents keep their children out of foster care.  He argued that since the children were not, in fact, in the system and the grandparents had not been accused of child abuse, this wasn’t really a child abuse prevention program. 

Yes, that really was his reasoning. As I pointed out in an op ed column for the Post:

If torturing logic were a war crime, that statement would get Gerald hauled before an international tribunal.
Every prevention program serves children who have not been maltreated. Maltreatment is what the prevention programs are created to prevent. That’s why they’re called prevention programs. Gerald’s logic is like saying a rent subsidy program doesn’t prevent homelessness because all of the people getting the subsidies are living in apartments.
The DC Council restored some of the cut – but at the expense of deeper cuts in help for children already in foster care.

Neither cut was necessary.  According to an independent monitor of a longstanding consent decree, CFSA warehouses far too many children in group homes and institutions, both the worst form of care and the most expensive.

And DC throws amazing amounts of money at foster parents, paying them at, by far, the highest rate in the country.  In fact, the rate is so high even CR couldn’t claim that DC foster parents weren’t getting enough. 

Keep in mind, CR wants foster parents paid not only for the basics but also for every toy, game, movie ticket and amusement park ride they buy for a foster child.  CR admits that the $940 per month – tax free - it estimates DC pays for a teenage foster child is enough to cover all of this and more.

But it wasn’t enough for “Bodymagicbykim.”  That’s the name a former DC foster parent used in a comment on the Post website under my op ed column.  Below you’ll find her comment, followed by my own response.

As you read Ms. Bodymagic’s comment I would ask you to ponder just one question: If something happened to you and your child had to be placed in foster care, would you want that child placed with this foster parent?


For those who commented on DC foster/kinship care parents receiving too much for the monthly costs of these children. I wholeheartedly disagree. I myself was a foster parent of four teenage female siblings. That was not enough money.

Please consider all of the projects these children are required to complete daily that require costly materials (i.e. assigned novels for book reports, magazines for collages, science projects, models of cells, one was even required to model a futuristic community). Please consider the number of leave requests the parents have to put in to get these children to doctor appointments, court hearings, CFSA family meetings, therapy, dentist appointments and include gas, car-maintenance and parking costs- the list goes on along with the hourly cost of leave at an over 6-figure salary.

These children also needed clothing, shoes, coats (replacements for the aforementioned), hair appointments (minimum $40 per head, per bi-weekly appointment - can range up to $180 per appointment for braids), bedding, linens, necessities (sanitary napkins cost us loads of money), etc.

Now, the food? If you have children, you are clear they're always feeding friends. Try feeding four teenagers and one friend each daily - that's about $1,200 per month right there. In raising productive citizens, you want to teach them how to budget and save - factor in allowance. Also, because these children had drivers' licenses, factor in the increased cost of auto insurance on TEENAGERS.

This doesn't take into account high increases to utilities, property damage, birthdays, Christmas, graduations, back-to-school shopping, gifts for their friends' birthdays, prom, summer camps at $150 minimum per week for the two too young to work, transportation and work-clothing costs for the two that could work, tutors, computer and related equipment, SAT prep class & test costs, drivers' education class, college applications, college visits, extracurricular activity costs and supplies, vacations (or should I have left them at home while I traveled the world?? That would certainly be fair).

I could go on for days. The point of the matter is that I (thankfully) wasn't in it for the money, but I can assure you that I invested quite a bit out of my own pocket. The monthly cost was not enough, honestly, if I didn't have a good salary of my own and factor in that of my husband's.

If I were a poor/middle-class fixed-income grandmother, we wouldn't have survived. So, PLEASE before you make some farfetched statements like you have that effect our livelihoods, do your research by talking to the masses who have lived it. Leave the textbook, projections, forecasts based upon bad data alone. A PhD means little if you haven't lived it! Speak to those with their MRS or MOM first - those are the letters that count most when talking about our children. I'm offended, but willing to share more.


OK, so let me get this straight Ms. bodymagic. You make a six-figure income, you “travel the world” on vacation, and you’re whining because the taxpayers of Washington D.C. supposedly did not pay you enough to cover the cost of your own foster children’s Christmas gifts and school assignments? You demand this money even if it means cutting help to impoverished grandparents raising their own grandchildren?
At least I hope you never also ran around claiming that you treated your foster children “like my own.” And I hope the young people never found out that the thought of doing for them what any loving parent with a six-figure income does for her own children caused so much resentment on your part.
The good news for you, Ms. bodymagic, is that the group that calls itself Children’s Rights completely agrees with you. They think you shouldn’t be expected to do any of this out of caring or, God forbid, love, but rather you should be reimbursed for every penny. The bad news is that they’ve calculated that DC already pays you more than enough for this – even for teenagers, for whom foster parents are paid even more than for younger children.
It’s just that you wanted even more.
And lest anyone think that all foster parents are like Ms. bodymagic, take a look at this op ed, from the kind of foster parent I think we’d all rather see in the system, someone who has indeed “lived it” and who got her MOM degree by majoring in compassion.
There’s much more at the Post website, including my exchange with Richard Barth, the Dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland who was an advisor for CR’s foster parent pay report.