Thursday, January 20, 2011

Foster care in DC: An unflattering view of foster parents from a surprising source

 I’m sure Marcia Lowry, executive director of the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights” (CR) would insist she’s the last person to believe most foster parents are in it for the money.  But a recent op ed column she wrote for The Washington Post raises questions about how she really views the motives of foster parents.

As I noted in a previous post to this Blog, back in December, I wrote an op ed column for the Post decrying the fact that the D.C. Council was pitting programs to help keep children out of foster care against programs to help kids already in foster care, while ignoring far better places to cut.  Such places include D.C.’s overuse of group homes and institutions (like the residential treatment centers exposed by Washington CityPaper’s Jason Cherkis in an excellent story last week) and the lavish pay rates for foster parents - the highest such rates in the nation.

Specifically, D.C. pays at least $10,428 per year per child.  For older children, it’s more than $11,280 per year per child.  The money is tax free.  The government also covers foster children’s health insurance through Medicaid.
CR itself admits, in its own study, that this is more than enough to cover not only the basics for foster children but also every toy, game, after school activity, movie ticket, amusement park ride, etc.  In short, all of the things foster children (and children in general) should have.  (Check out CR’s “technical report” for the study so see all the things CR believes the government should reimburse.)

But Marcia Lowry seems to think that unless foster parents are reimbursed by the government for every penny they expend on these items, the foster children won’t get them.

In a response to my op ed column Lowry wrote that

 In his commentary [Wexler] went on to suggest that the District has “lavish[ed] ... money on foster parents” and that it should consider cutting the “fat pay raises” for families willing to give abused and neglected children a safe home — and perhaps a few small pleasures of childhood, such as a toy, game or amusement park ride.

So, tell me Marcia: Do you really believe that D.C. foster parents are so greedy that if they were paid less than $10,000 per year per child, tax free, and actually had to dip into their own pockets to buy a foster child a teddy bear they wouldn’t do it?  Would they really deny foster children they say they love and treat as their own “a few small pleasures of childhood” if those pleasures are not government-subsidized?  And if that is what you believe, do you really think it’s a good idea to place children with people like that?
Are you not at all concerned that these lavish payments might attract foster parents who whine at great length even at the prospect of paying for a foster daughter’s sanitary napkins?  (That’s not a hypothetical – it really happened).
Maybe you hold foster parents in such low regard, Marcia, but I don’t. I think the overwhelming majority are not in it for the money, and some are true heroes.  I think they have no problem dipping into their own pockets a little for children they sincerely try to treat as their own – just as people who, say, volunteer to tutor inner-city children may buy some supplies themselves and don’t expect to be reimbursed for the mileage getting to and from the school.  The whole issue of our “social contract” with foster parents is one that CR regularly avoids.
Marcia continues:
… it is the availability of foster parents that keeps children out of costly, ineffective and often harmful group homes and institutions. 
That’s partially true.  But it doesn’t follow that lavish reimbursement is required to get people to volunteer to open their homes to children.  Indeed, when foster parents are surveyed about why they quit, money ranks low on the list.  Ill-treatment and lack of respect from child welfare agencies ranks much higher.  (That’s why, when speaking to foster parents, I always ask: If that’s how they treat you, imagine how they’re treating the birth parents.)

To the extent that there are “shortages” of foster parents, it’s almost always an artificial shortage, created by states taking too many children needlessly in the first place.  Get those children back into their own homes and there will be plenty of room for children in real danger, without having to institutionalize them.

In addition, more and more states are finding that, using everything from Wraparound programs to “extreme family finding” institutionalized children can be returned directly to their own homes or the homes of relatives, bypassing what should properly be called “stranger care” homes entirely.  So, in fact, lavishly-paid foster parents are not the only alternative to institutionalization.

It also is flatly wrong to imply that all foster children were “abused and neglected” before the foster parents took them in.  In fact, children can be trapped in foster care for months before a judge ever decides if they actually were abused or neglected.  The status of these children is roughly analogous to that of poor people who remain in jail before trial because they can’t make bail.  (This distortion actually is at the root of a huge campaign by CR, something I hope to get to in a future post.)

Marcia goes on to argue that

…birth parents, foster families and relatives all need support when caring for a child, and they should not be pitted against one another as funding decisions are made. 

Nice thought.  It would be nicer, however, if CR’s lawsuit settlements didn’t constantly pit these very groups against each other.

Marcia’s Georgia settlement has led to diversion of funds to help alleviate the worst effects of poverty.  In Michigan, her settlement has led to slashing of programs to help keep children safely out of the system in order to fund a foster care worker/child abuse investigator hiring binge.  And, of course, Michigan is where CR’s war against grandparents has led to the expulsion of at least 1,800 children from the homes of grandparents and other kinship care foster parents – because they couldn’t comply with ten pages of hypertechnical licensing requirements.  (That CityPaper story I mentioned also illustrates the harm of the licensing obsession, by the way.)

Marcia also hides behind kinship parents in order to propound another myth, the myth that foster parents are barely getting by.  In fact, foster parents typically are middle-class.

More on that next week.