Monday, January 24, 2011

Foster care in DC: As a matter of fact, most foster parents ARE middle class…


The previous post to this Blog dealt with a response to an op ed column I wrote for The Washington Post.  The response came from Marcia Lowry, executive director of the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights.”

Of all the things I wrote, the item that seemed to upset Marcia the most was a line at the very end in which I referred to the highest-in-the-nation pay rates for foster parents in D.C. (From $10,000 to more than $11,000 per child per year, tax free) as giving “middle-class foster parents … more than they need.”

Marcia insists foster parents really aren’t middle-class. She writes:

A recent survey in Illinois found that the average wage income for foster parents was just $35,500 a year and was $28,600 a year for relative caregivers.
Thus, she makes it sound like relatives earn $28,600 and strangers get $35,500.
But it’s not true.
I went back and took a look at the actual study.
Turns out, the $35,500 figure is the average income for all foster parents, kin and stranger combined. And the study in question was done in Illinois, which has one of America’s most progressive policies of placing children with relatives, so the unusually high proportion of kinship care parents brings down the average.
When you look only at what should best be called “stranger-care” parents, the average income is $41,220. That’s just short of what the same study said was the median family income in Illinois, $44,459. (Before anyone says “Hey, you switched from a mean (average) to a median,” that’s what the study did, you’d have to ask the authors why they felt it was the fairest comparison.  And it’s Marcia Lowry who cited the study in the first place.)
As for kinship care parents, NCCPR long has noted that they do, indeed, tend to be poor. And that’s precisely why it’s such a tragedy that Marcia Lowry runs around the country fanatically demanding that they comply with precisely the same licensing requirements as those middle-class strangers. Having waged a war against grandparents that forced at least 1,800 children out of such kinship homes in Michigan as a result of imposing such requirements, Marcia is in no position to pose as a champion of such parents. And to really see how much harm this licensing fanaticism can do in DC, just check out Jason Cherkis’ story in Washington CityPaper
Marcia would argue that she demands licensing because when grandparents are licensed state and local governments have to pay them the same amount as strangers, and the federal government reimburses states for part of those costs at the same rate as for foster care with strangers.
Those are good reasons to demand that states streamline licensing requirements for everyone, limiting them to those genuinely essential for health and safety and eliminating those geared to middle-class creature comforts.  They are good reasons to encourage kinship care parents to become licensed and help them to meet licensing requirements.  They are not good reasons to demand that impoverished grandparents comply with requirements that are far more onerous if you happen to be poor – or risk having their grandchildren taken away.
It is particularly disingenuous to hide behind kinship care parents when talking about the lavish pay for foster parents in Washington D.C.  The District does a particularly poor job of placing children with relatives.  The most recent data, from 2006, show that only 16 percent of D.C. children are placed with relatives, compared to a national average of 25 percent.  (In Illinois it’s 35 percent).
The way to help kinship care parents is, as noted above, to streamline licensing requirements for all foster parents and then provide kinship care parents with extra assistance.  Marcia, however, apparently prefers a “trickle down” approach in which $10,000 per year per child tax free, is lavished on, yes, middle-class strangers, just because it also will trickle down to the grandparents and other kinship foster parents.
We can do better than that.  And we would, if things like Marcia Lowry’s ill-conceived lawsuit settlements didn’t keep getting in the way.