Sunday, September 30, 2007

Turning foster parents into welfare queens

Though I qualify as a "have," I have learned a great deal about the "other side of the tracks" in my current profession: foster mother. Most of the children I've had in my home come from young, low-income, single mothers who did the best they could but were deemed "neglectful" for being unable to provide for their children. In some ways, I have taken these women's places. The state now pays me very well to stay home and raise their kids while they flip burgers somewhere and send a portion of their income to child support. It might be an OK situation if the kids did not cry themselves to sleep every night, missing their mothers.
I am the new welfare queen.

--Mary Callahan, Maine Foster Parent, in a letter to Newsweek, 2002

I’ve written previously about the lousy work done in the name of children’s rights by a group that presumes to call itself “Children’s Rights” (CR) – how their Michigan lawsuit is likely to undercut reform there, by bolstering powerful private agencies and placement with strangers at the expense of safe proven programs to keep families together and, when that is not possible, kinship care. And how their recent report on New York City engaged in statistics abuse to distort data on reform in that system.

Now, they’ve got a new brainstorm: They want to compliment America’s large-scale transfer of children from their own parents to strangers with a large-scale transfer of money in the same direction.

On Wednesday, the group will stage an event to unveil a report demanding that every state pay every foster parent enough to cover every dime of the cost of food, clothing, shelter, and even school supplies, for every foster child in their care. (Naturally, the trade association for agencies that live off foster care, the Child Welfare League of America, will have someone there to cheer them on.) I haven’t seen the report; for some reason NCCPR isn’t on the list for advance copies. But I’ve heard all the arguments – in fact, I discussed them on this Blog in June, when a rate increase was proposed for foster parents in California.

The biggest problem with the CR’s bright idea is that it’s a profound waste of money. The same funds could accomplish so much more if they were used to help birth parents keep their children in the first place.

No, that doesn’t mean lavishing money on sadistic brutes and hopeless addicts. As is described in detail in our Issue Papers, ( are a very small percentage of the parents seen by the typical Child Protective Services worker. Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect.

We know that four separate studies in the past decade have found that at least 30 percent of America’s foster children could be home right now if their own parents just had decent housing. We know that the largest single category of child maltreatment allegation often is “lack of supervision” – and that often means a single parent, desperate to keep her job, couldn’t find day care. And we know that even when substance abuse is an issue, children do better when left with birth mothers able to care for them than they do in foster care.

So imagine what would happen if all the money Children’s Rights wants to lavish on middle-class foster parents were spent instead on rent subsidies and day care for the working poor, and on drug treatment programs where parents can live with their children? America’s foster-care rolls would plummet; so would caseloads for CPS workers, so our child welfare systems would have a better chance of finding the relatively few children in real danger.

But CR wants to take limited funds that could be used for things like rent subsidies and day care to help impoverished birth parents care for their own children and use it to make sure foster parents are reimbursed for every dime it costs them to take in those same children.

If this issue is even raised when the report is released, and it almost certainly won’t be, CR’s director, Marcia Lowry and her allies will have a smug and facile response: We want to fund both, they’ll say, and they shouldn’t have to compete with each other. Then where is the big, fancy report calling for helping birth parents with housing and day care, Marcia? And besides, we all know what will really happen if you tell Congress or a state legislature that you want to fund middle-class foster parents, who are routinely depicted in media accounts as saints, and also help birth parents who lose their children to foster care, people routinely portrayed as scum of the earth.

It is those very stereotypes which help explain what former Maine foster parent (and current adoptive parent) Mary Callahan understands so well: When a birth parent wants a little help with housing so she can raise her own child she’s a “welfare queen” but when her child is taken away because of unsafe housing, placed in foster care, and the foster parent wants significantly more money than the birth parent ever got – including payment for all additional housing costs - 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. If anything, CR’s proposal is likely to make foster care more attractive to the minority who go into it for the wrong reasons.

In most cases, reimbursement for foster parents isn’t as bad as most news stories make it sound. For starters, you can bet the CR report will 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 allowance 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 out again at any time. So it’s fair for the state to help out with the costs. On the other hand, no foster parent who is demanding that every cent of expenditure be reimbursed can also turn around and claim to “love these children as I do my own.” Anyone who really loves a foster child as much as her own child should be willing to pick up at least a small part of the cost of caring for that child.

Why would we want to completely cover the cost of what is, after all, 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?

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. But I read CR’s Michigan lawsuit as an attempt to pressure the state to force all grandparents and other kinship caregivers to become licensed or lose their children. So the one group that has a real case for an increase in reimbursement is the one CR is doing the most to harm. (See the top two entries in this section of the Blarchive:

And, of course, you can be sure that at the big event unveiling the report on Wednesday, someone will play the “kennel card.” In a tone of shock and horror someone will point out that it costs more to kennel a dog than some states pay foster parents to care for children.

Now, 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 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; and that’s a lot more than the cost of a kennel.

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.

The other argument often heard from foster parents is that they work 24/7.

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?

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.”

I suspect there are a lot of foster parents out there like Mary Callahan – foster parents who really don’t want to be welfare queens.