Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The myth of the underpaid foster parent

The photo dominated the front page of The Arizona Republic Tuesday. Mom, Dad, their two kids sitting around the table saying a prayer before family dinner. The only nonwhite person at the table (seen from the back): One of the family's foster children.

The huge headline above the photo: "Slashed foster payments make it HARDER TO HELP"

All the usual clich├ęs followed – swipes at birth parents, the incredible nobility of the foster parents who rescued the children – and how it all might be in jeopardy because Arizona's budget deficit prompted legislators to impose a 20 percent cut in payments to foster parents.

Then, the story officially certifies this a "crisis," the reporter declaring that "Foster care advocates worry that the crisis has erased years of improvements to the foster care system."

They can stop worrying. First of all, with one tiny, recent exception, unrelated to foster parent pay, there haven't been any improvements to the foster care system in Arizona. On the contrary, it's one of the nation's most regressive. NCCPR issued a report on Arizona child welfare two years ago and, if anything, it's only gotten worse.

But also, no great harm is done by cutting payment rates that were, in fact, the second highest in the entire country – rates vastly above the national average. Even with the cuts, Arizona still is paying foster parents far more than most states.

According to the story, before the cuts, the average monthly payment to an Arizona foster parent was $910 per child. That's not including special allowances for clothing books education and other expenses. Now, with the cuts, it's a mere $728 per month per child. The extra allowances have been cut back, but they're still on top of that $728.

That was in the story. Not in the story: The money is tax free. And foster children's health insurance is covered by Medicaid.

The story did mention Arizona's second-highest-in-the-nation status, but the reporter got spun, big time, thanks to a study by guess who? Yep – the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights. (And yes, it is depressing that over and over this once progressive group reveals itself to have become one of the most regressive forces in American child welfare.)

Their "study" portrayed the exceptionally-high payments in Arizona and Washington DC as the bare minimum needed to care for a foster child – everybody else, the study said, was falling terribly short. Even a glance at the study methodology shows this is nonsense. But glancing at the methodology requires looking at a separate document called a Technical Report. Labeling something a "technical report" is like putting a great big sign on it that says HEY REPORTERS: DON'T BOTHER TO READ THIS!

And in this case, it seems to have worked like a charm. Because of all the stories written about this report, I've seen none that included the following information:

CR's calculation of "minimum" requirements includes far more than food, clothing and shelter.

It includes the full cost of day care for foster children – even those who were taken from their own parents on "lack of supervision" charges because those birth parents couldn't afford day care.

The so-called minimum also includes the increase in the foster family's electric bill caused by foster children leaving the lights on and opening and closing the refrigerator a lot – even when the children were taken from their birth parents because those birth parents couldn't afford a decent place to live.

The so-called minimum even includes every penny spent on movie tickets, amusement parks, games and toys.

But who in the world would want to place a child with foster parents who demanded government reimbursement every time they bought a foster child a teddy bear?

These are only some of the bizarre assumptions that make up CR's definition of "minimum." More are discussed in NCCPR's report on Virginia child welfare in which we argued, unsuccessfully, against a big raise for the state's foster parents.

I am among those who believe that the overwhelming majority of foster parents are not in it for the money. I'm sure the family in the Republic story, which is continuing to foster children in spite of the cut, deserves the praise it received. But you can't have it both ways: You can't say, as some others apparently do, "I'm not in it for the money, but I'll quit if I stop getting the second highest rates in the nation and have to use my own money the next time I take my foster child to the movies."

Similarly, you can't say, as many foster parents do, "we can't be in it for the money because there's not enough money" – and then keep demanding more money. Indeed, paying too much creates the risk that the wrong people will go into fostering.

And, in fact, precisely because most foster parents do care so much about the children they take in, when they are polled on reasons for quitting, pay actually ranks quite low. (Lack of respect from child welfare agencies – in other words, being treated the same way agencies treat birth parents – ranks much higher.) And that helps explain why, even with the second highest pay rates in the nation, Arizona still claims to have a so-called shortage of foster parents.

In fact, Arizona doesn't have a shortage of foster parents. Thanks to a take-the-child-and-run mentality that has left Arizona in a state of perennial foster care panic, Arizona has a surplus of foster children. Stop taking so many children needlessly, and the so-called shortage would disappear.

That's also why we shouldn't be fooled by claims that if Arizona pays foster parents at rates that are merely above average instead of second highest-in-the-nation that would force the state to throw even more children into group homes and institutions.

All these problems arise before we even reach the fundamental issue of taking so many children largely because they are poor and then giving vastly more financial help to the strangers who take those children in.

All that said, I'm not suggesting that the cuts in pay for Arizona foster parents are a good idea. They would be a good idea if the money was going to bolster prevention and family preservation programs. But those are being cut, too. The cuts are just making one of the stingier states in the nation when it comes to helping children even stingier.

This whole issue touches on something that doesn't get nearly as much discussion as it should: What is our "social contract" with foster parents? If foster parenting is an act of compassion, like volunteer work, done for the psychic satisfaction, is it unreasonable to ask that foster parents dip just a little into their own pockets – and shouldn't we be concerned about those who won't? I've raised that issue on this blog before, but there is a better discussion, by Maine foster and adoptive parent Mary Callahan, in this op ed column from the Los Angeles Times.

As for the one piece of good news from Arizona, that involves federal, not state money. As this story from Phoenix New Times explains, the state child welfare agency and local housing authorities in Phoenix, Tucson and Yuma, did an outstanding job in securing vouchers to help families in which children may be taken from their parents because of housing problems, or housing problems are preventing reunification. The vouchers also can be used for young people "aging out" of foster care. The federal program was restored, after an eight-year absence, thanks largely to the work of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare (the executive director of which is a member of NCCPR's Board of Directors). You can find out how your state and locality did by checking the NCHCW website.