Monday, May 28, 2007

Unjust Desserts from Pew

Suppose someone set before a group of young children four bowls of food, and asked them to choose one. One bowl contained broccoli, one contained celery, one contained spinach – and one had ice cream. Which would they choose?

The Pew Charitable Trusts just did something similar with another group that has both a low tolerance for delayed gratification and a tendency to like doing what’s easy: Congress.

One of the many “shell groups” Pew has formed to push its agenda issued a report last week on the serious and real problem of children aging out of foster care.

The report then offered four recommendations. Three of them would really help children: Make child welfare funding flexible, fund subsidized guardianships, and allow states to keep savings from reducing foster care. But the latter two would cost more money, and the first one is furiously opposed by the “foster care industrial complex,” that network of big powerful agencies, led by their trade association, the Child Welfare League of America, that lives off a steady supply of foster children. So none of these three is terribly appetizing politically.

But then Pew offered the ice cream: Recommendation four calls for doing no more than repealing the “eligibility lookback,” something described in detail on this Blog on February 6 and February 12. In summary, the lookback is the only remaining restriction on an absolute open-spigot of never-ending entitlement funding for every child placed in foster care for as long as that child is in foster care. Its existence has very, very slowly reduced the proportion of children whose foster care is subsidized by the federal government. It is the one and only pressure point reducing, slightly, the enormous financial incentive in favor of foster care. While simply getting rid of it would increase costs, getting rid of it and reducing the rate of reimbursement per child would be cost neutral. And it would thrill CWLA and its allies. Only the children would be hurt.

So why is Pew jumping on this bandwagon, even though repeal of the lookback was not recommended by Pew’s own Commission on Foster Care? Probably because Pew is run more like a corporation than a philanthropy; the people who run each initiative are expected to produce results. So far, Pew’s big push into child welfare financing reform has produced zero. Its moderate compromise proposal ran into a wall of opposition from the foster care-industrial complex. So now they’ve jumped behind the one change that actually stands a real chance of passage - after which, you can bet they will rush to claim a “victory” – all at the children’s expense.

This is not to say that Pew doesn’t genuinely favor the other three recommendations as well. But the people at Pew know full well what happens if you let a child have his desert before he eats his vegetables.

What makes this even more disturbing is the fact that Pew has enlisted a large number of former foster children, usually college students or a little older, to push its agenda, based on the premise that supporting Pew’s agenda will make it less likely that future generations will have to endure what happened to them. Some of these young people, I am sure, understand the implications of all of these recommendations and genuinely support repeal of the lookback, even if nothing else changes. But I wonder if all of them know that, as long as repeal of the lookback is on the table, this one recommendation, the one that provides more money for foster care, and nothing else, is the only one likely to pass, and everything else is window-dressing?

The recommendations aside, the report on aging out included some important data. It noted that since 1998, the number of children “aging out” of foster care - - that is, thrown out of the system at age 18 with no home of any kind -- has soared by 41 percent.

But, of course, the report made no mention of the principal reason for this tragedy: The so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997.

ASFA pays states a bounty for every finalized adoption over a baseline number. It also encourages states to abandon safe, proven programs to keep families together in favor of responding to every family problem with an approach that boils down to “take the child and run.” So even as the number of children in foster care on any given day dropped slightly, from 520,000 in 1997 to 513,000 in 2000, the number of children taken from their parents each year increased, setting a record of more than 310,000 in 2005.

The lure of adoption bounties prompts states to rush to terminate parental rights. But terminations consistently outrun actual adoptions, creating a generation of legal orphans with no ties to birth parents, but little hope of adoption either. It’s one of many financial incentives promoting either prolonged foster care or adoption at the expense of keeping children out of foster care in the first place or returning them safely to their own homes.

The most effective way to curb the tragedy of children “aging out” of foster care is to keep them from ever “aging in” to the system in the first place. And that’s why we need to make sure Congress eats its vegetables before it gets dessert.