Sunday, June 3, 2007

What is our "social contract" with foster parents?

Two recent stories from California, both about the state budget, raise a question that child welfare systems usually avoid: What is our “social contract” with foster parents?

The first story ran in the Contra Costa Times on May 21. It is a thorough examination of proposals to cut off welfare benefits to children in families where the parents don’t dot every I and cross every t on welfare-to-work rules. (Footnote: Back when Rudy Giuliani was racing to throw families off welfare in New York City, at any given time, according to some news accounts, about 10 percent of all recipients were sanctioned off the welfare rolls due to bureaucratic error. Does California do better?)

In any event, since the biggest cause of foster care is the confusion of poverty with neglect, the cuts are likely to increase the number of impoverished children placed in foster care.

According to the story:

In urban areas, 80 percent of the children involved in the foster care system come from impoverished families, said Chet Hewitt, director of Alameda County Social Services. In most cases, children are removed from their homes for neglect, especially lack of food and medical care.
By cutting CalWorks benefits, "you raise the specter of putting poor families in the case of being more likely to not meet the needs of their children," Hewitt said. "Of not being able to keep food in the refrigerator or pay fare for buses or cabs to get to the medical treatments."

The story was greeted with a collective yawn by media and politicians. If any other newspapers ran anything like it, or followed up with outraged editorials, I missed it.

The very next day came a long story in the Sacramento Bee about another constituency affected by the proposed budget. They weren’t being cut, but they were fighting mad over not getting a raise.

This story got picked up all over the state, politicians vented their fury, and at least two newspapers rushed to offer outraged editorials.

But then, this was a constituency with whom journalists and politicians can identify; this was a constituency made up of people they might know personally as something other than story subjects:

Foster parents.

Why is it, exactly, that when a birth parent wants a little help to raise her own child she’s a “welfare queen” but when her child is taken away, placed in foster care, and the foster parent wants significantly more money than the birth parent ever got, the foster parent is a hero?

Raising this issue does not mean that I think most foster parents are “in it for the money.” But when foster parents defend themselves against that claim (which, oddly, almost always is raised by the foster parents themselves, not by others) their main argument is that they can’t be in it for the money because there’s not enough money. But that also means the more they succeed at raising reimbursements, the more they undercut that claim.

In most cases, reimbursement for foster parents isn’t as bad as most news stories make it sound. For starters, stories typically focus on the base rate - the lowest rate a state ever pays. But most states have a sliding scale of rates, with reimbursement increasing if the child is considered to have more severe problems. (That creates issues of its own, such as a built-in incentive to claim that foster children are as sick and as difficult as possible.)

In Maine, which is very much at the high end, a foster parent who takes a child at the highest “level of care” can get as much as $27,000 per child per year.

Most foster parents don’t get anything like that. But whatever they get, since it is considered reimbursement, not salary, it is generally tax-free. The child’s health insurance is provided through Medicaid, and there may be a clothing and other allowances as well.

At the base rate, none of this makes foster parenting profitable, or easy, -- not for good foster parents. (Paradoxically, if you want to be a rotten foster parent, you may, in fact, be able to make money on the deal.) But few foster parents are rotten; many foster parents really are heroes.

I also believe that some reimbursement for foster parents is reasonable. It’s unrealistic to expect people to go deep into their own pockets to care for a stranger’s children, children the foster parents don’t even know until they walk in the door, and who may walk about again at any time. So it’s fair for the state to help out with the costs.

But do we really want those costs covered completely? Isn’t foster care an act of charity that comes from the goodness of the heart, for which the primary satisfaction should be psychic? If you volunteer to, say, tutor children at an after school program, you may have to dig into your own pocket a little. You’re not going to be reimbursed for mileage, and you may have to purchase some supplies. But, presumably, it’s worth it for the psychic satisfaction of helping someone in need.

So shouldn’t we be worried about middle-class people who volunteer to be foster parents but who are not willing to pitch in financially, at least a little?

And what if a foster parent says that, on the contrary, she can and does love the children who come through the door, from day one, exactly as if she’d given birth to them? Like most such stories, the Sacramento Bee story begins by profiling a saintly, model foster parent who says, at one point:

"I feel like they're mine. I never see them as my foster kids. We always tell them, 'You're our sons.' "

Leaving aside the fact that this may not, in fact, be good for a child who desperately wants to return to her or his birth parents, does that not also raise a question as to why the foster parent needs to be paid more than she would get if, say, she were a birth mother on welfare?

In fact, the intersection of love and money is a minefield, raising all sorts of uncomfortable questions. For instance, what if the foster parent who comes forward is the child’s grandmother? The former head of the human services agency in one state used to say that her agency wouldn’t help grandparents at all because it’s simply a family’s obligation to take care of their own. Did this same state official return her own parents’ Social Security checks on grounds that she should be picking up the costs of their retirement? I doubt it.

In fact, if any foster parent has a case for supplementing love with money it’s a grandparent who, like the parent, is likely to be poor. But though kinship foster parents usually are much poorer than strangers, they almost always get far less than strangers, unless the kinship parents manage to become licensed foster parents. The problem there is that licensing standards often revolve around middle-class creature comforts like having a bedroom for every foster child rather than just issues of health or safety.

And then there is the argument that, in fact, all parents should receive some sort of pay for being parents, otherwise work that is still done predominantly by women is devalued compared to the work of men.

But we don’t have to stroll through this entire minefield now. The question of the moment is: What is the best way to spend scarce dollars to help children? Help their impoverished birth parents or raise reimbursement for more-likely-to-be-middle-class foster parents?

In endorsing the raise for foster parents, the San Francisco Chronicle writes that “raising rates would help to attract and retain quality foster parents…” Would it? Isn’t one measure of the quality of any parent the willingness to sacrifice a little, financially, for the children in their care?

Similarly, it’s argued that “low” rates are contributing to the loss of foster homes. But is that all bad? Are low rates, in fact, weeding out foster parents who otherwise would go into foster care for the wrong reasons?

The Sacramento Bee story quotes Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association, who says: “If they were our children, we'd never treat them this way.”

But the state of California (and every other state) treats children living with impoverished birth parents far worse – witness the proposal to cut welfare benefits which, in every state, already are far lower than payments to foster parents.

And, like so many other such stories, the Bee story ends with this quote from the foster parent profiled:

"It's not like regular work. We never have vacation."

In fact, being a parent of any kind may be the world’s most rewarding combination of work and play, pleasure and frustration. But shouldn’t we worry about the children of any parent who views every moment with them as a chore?

A wonderful foster parent in Maine, Mary Callahan, responded to the 24/7 argument in an op ed column arguing in favor of a cut in reimbursement for foster parents in that state who receive the highest rates of reimbursement. Callahan wrote:

“I am not working when I am sitting around the dinner table with my children talking about the day. Or when we are in front of the television watching our favorite show -- "Lost." Or when we are driving down the road and singing to the oldies.

“Some foster parents might see this as work, but most of the time I am just living my life -- the one I chose -- with my favorite people.

“I never want to give my foster children a reason to doubt that.”

Isn’t that the kind of foster parent any state would want to “attract”?

One postscript: the Bee story and almost every other about the demand for a reimbursement raise included a false analogy. In fact, it sometimes seems that almost every story ever written about foster parent reimbursement includes this analogy, always written with the same tone of shock and outrage. I’ll discuss it next week. One hint, though: It’s a false analogy that has dogged coverage of child welfare for decades.