Sunday, June 10, 2007

When the foster care debate goes to the dogs

Last week’s post to this Blog dealt with the issue of reimbursement for foster parents. At the end of that post, I wrote that it seemed as though every story I’ve ever read about this issue included the same false analogy, almost always presented in the same terms of shock and outrage. And sure enough, when the issue of raising foster-parent reimbursement arose in California last month, there was this from Capital Public Radio:

“The average Californian pays more to kennel their dog than our state pays to support the care of foster children.”

And this from the San Jose Mercury News:

"The average kennel charges you $620 a month for taking care of a dog," said the measure's author, Assemblyman Jim Beall, D-San Jose, "so our kids don't even get as much money as a dog."

And this from the Orange County Register:

“[Payments to foster parents] average “$126 less than the average kennel charges to house a dog…”

And this from a San Francisco Chronicle editorial:

That rate isn't even fit for dogs, and the state knows it: it spends $7,440 per year to house a dog in a kennel.

The appeal of this, uh, dogma, is not limited to California. In Florida in just 2 years, the same advocate managed to get his dog kennel soundbite into at least five stories in at least four different newspapers.

Some reporters found this so shocking that they actually did their own survey of kennels just to be sure.

And the whole thing is rubbish.

I certainly don’t claim to know a lot about the economics of boarding dogs, but I know this much: A kennel is a profit-making enterprise, a foster home is not – or at least it’s not supposed to be. More important, kennel fees go to pay all sorts of costs that are already covered in foster homes:

● Kennels have staff who must be paid salaries. Foster homes are run by volunteers. Foster care payments are only supposed to cover expenses specific to adding a foster child to the home, not the entire cost of maintaining the home and making a living.

● Kennels have to pay for their entire physical plant through fees. A foster home’s mortgage, furniture etc. are covered by the foster parents’ regular jobs. A foster child’s food is covered by reimbursement, but the refrigerator already should be paid for. More important, a foster home is supposed to be big enough to accommodate the children when it is licensed, so what is likely to be the biggest cost in the household, the mortgage, already is covered.

● Kennel fees have to cover veterinary services if dogs get sick while there. Foster children’s health care is covered by Medicaid.

And so on and so on. So the notion that paying less to foster parents somehow reflects treating children worse than dogs is hogwash.

The right analogy would be the cost of a kennel versus the cost of a business (for-profit or otherwise) that is built, is run, and has salaried staff, all specifically for the care of children: a group home or an institution. In California, the low end of the cost continuum for those kinds of places is $82 per day. The high end can be $300 a day or more.

On the other hand if someone wants to suggest that, despite this enormous cost, children in some group homes and institutions get worse care than dogs in a kennel, they’ll get no argument from me.