Thursday, June 3, 2010

The overpaid foster parents of Washington, DC


Like most states and cities, Washington, D.C. is facing big budget problems. It was no surprise that, in his proposed budget, Mayor Adrian Fenty targeted for more pain and suffering those who already suffer most, but are least able to fight back – poor people.

In child welfare, the mayor wanted to cut a program that provides housing assistance to poor people on the verge of losing their children to foster care, and a program to help grandparents keep their grandchildren out of foster care. According to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, the D.C. Council restored those cuts, but cuts in a separate emergency rental assistance program and in homeless services remain.

While the homeless and those on the verge of homelessness are made to suffer, the Council made sure to spare one group: The overpaid foster parents of Washington. They were spared a ten percent cut in their pay. The Council should revisit this issue next year, if not sooner. Because that's one budget cut that makes sense – provided the savings are plowed into restoring cuts in programs that help keep children out of foster care.

Right now, D.C. foster parents are paid significantly more than they need to cover foster children's expenses - and not just the basics. The DC payment is more than is needed to pay for just about everything. D.C. pays foster parents more than anyplace else in the nation; the payments are 60 to 70 percent above the national average.

Who says so? None other than the group that has been suing D.C. child welfare seemingly forever, the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights (CR).

Raising foster parent pay has become an obsession for CR; they've taken to demanding it in one lawsuit after another, even though studies show that pay ranks low among the reasons foster parents stay or quit (respect is far more important).

In order to push its case, CR published a report, in which it created a formula that supposedly represented the "minimum" foster parents need to cover expenses. It's more like a maximum. Buried in a separate "technical report" is the fact that CR defines expenses very broadly. They're not just talking about food, clothing and shelter. CR's definition of what foster parents should not have to pay out of their own pockets includes any increase in electric bills caused by foster children leaving the lights on and opening the refrigerator door a lot. It also includes movie tickets, amusement park rides, toys and just about anything else you can think of.

The point is not that foster children don't deserve these things. But here's the question: Would you want a child placed with someone who demanded government reimbursement for buying him a teddy bear?

Naturally, almost every jurisdiction fell short of providing "enough" by this absurd standard. Almost.

Two places pay foster parents more than enough by this standard: Arizona, and the District of Columbia. In fact, with base rates ranging from $869 to $940 per month per child, depending on the child's age, DC pays foster parents from $148 to $240 per month more than CR says they need. (Also, though CR doesn't mention it, in every state the payments are tax free and foster children's health care is covered by Medicaid.)

The report notes that no data were available to adjust the "target" figure for DC for inflation, so they used their national average target figure. But D.C.'s rates are so high that they meet CR's absurdly high targets in every state except three with extremely high costs of living, and even then they come very close.

So here's what Fenty and the council wound up doing: They made it more likely that families will become homeless. Then, the child welfare agency will take away those children because the family us homeless. And then that same child welfare agency will lavish more money than they need on the total strangers who take in those children.

D.C.'s ridiculously high pay rates also may cause problems for Virginia and Maryland. It's been argued that some foster parents in those jurisdictions take D.C. children because the District pays so much more - at least that was part of the rationale in 2008 for spending an extra $20 million per year on foster parent pay in Virginia – money that could have been used to keep kids out of the system in that state.

And D.C.'s rates create the wrong incentive for foster parenting. I agree with those who say very few foster parents are "in it for the money." The vast majority do it for the right reasons. But foster parents are fond of saying that the proof they're not "in it for the money" is that there isn't enough money. That doesn't apply in D.C.

There's also a larger philosophical issue, discussed in previous posts to this Blog and in this excellent op ed column by Maine foster parent Mary Callahan: What is our "social contract" with foster parents? If foster care is an act of charity, then why shouldn't it involve dipping into one's own pocket to a modest degree? The volunteer who helps tutor children after school does not demand reimbursement for mileage or any supplies he may bring to help that child. He does it because the psychic satisfaction outweighs the small financial contribution. Don't we want foster parents who feel the same way?

At a minimum, don't we want foster parents who see a problem in raking in nearly 1,000 a month to care for a child who could have stayed in his own home if his own parents had gotten far less in emergency rental assistance?

A Washington Post story left open the possibility that, had the cuts gone through, CR might have opposed them in court. It certainly would have been interesting to see how they'd justify such a stance, when their own report says DC foster parents are getting more than they need. But given the relative power of foster parents and poor people who lose their children to foster care, we're not likely to see the issue go to court anytime soon.