Thursday, February 2, 2012

Foster care in Nebraska: Beware of the teddy bear subsidy bill

Suppose your child had to be placed out of your care because of some emergency – illness perhaps – and no one in your extended family was available.

Suppose a stranger came forward and said:

I’ll take care of him, I’ll even love him as my own  – just as long as you pay me for absolutely everything.  Not just food and clothing, mind you.  But if you want me to send him to an after-school activity you pay me.  If you want him to go to a movie, you pay me.  If you want him to have a teddy bear to comfort him at night – you better pay me for that, too!

Oh, and by the way, your kid opens and closes the refrigerator door an awful lot, and he keeps leaving the lights on.  You need to pay me for the additional electric bill as well.

Bet you wouldn’t want your child placed with anyone that greedy.

Yet a bill scheduled for a public hearing today in Nebraska would require that the state pay foster parents to cover all of these costs and more.

The bill would require that monthly pay for foster parents be jacked up to the point that it meets meet the level called for in a so-called study conducted by, among others, the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights” (CR) and the National Foster Parent Association (NFPA).  The study estimated a so-called “minimum adequate rate” that foster parents supposedly should be paid in each state.

“Minimum” sounds like they mean enough to cover the basics. After all, any parent who “loves a foster child like my own” would have no problem paying for a teddy bear or a movie ticket, right?

Not according to the twisted logic of CR and NFPA.

Their so-called “minimum” rate includes all of the items I just mentioned, and more.  (See for yourself: Check out the hard-to-find “technical report” issued by CR and NFPA which explains how the “minimum” was calculated.  I suspect it's called a “technical report” precisely because they hope no one will read it.)


This won’t come cheap.  Even though the report actually understated what Nebraska pays foster parents now, according to an estimate from the office of the Nebraska Legislative Fiscal Analyst, raising the rate to cover every toy, game, movie ticket and almost-everything-else-you- can-think-of will cost the state nearly $3.6 million in state funds every year, with the federal government forced to shell out nearly $900,000 more.  That's a lot of money for a small state.

Here’s what else $3.6 million can do:

● Provide $600-a-month rent subsidies for 500 families for a year, so their children aren’t taken away because of lack of housing.

● Provide $100-a-week day care subsidies for 692 families so their children aren’t taken on "lack of supervision" charges.  (By the way, the so-called minimum rate in the NFPA study includes reimbursing the foster parents for all day care and babysitting expenses.  So, under this bill, a child can be taken from impoverished birth parents because they can’t afford day care and then handed over to middle-class foster parents whose day care expenses would be  fully reimbursed by Nebraska taxpayers.)

● Provide Intensive Family Preservation Services interventions for 480 families. 

● Provide inpatient drug treatment at a family treatment center where children can stay with their parents for 144 families.

This would be outrageous in any state, but especially in Nebraska.  Any list of worst child welfare systems in America would be incomplete without Nebraska.  Year after year, Nebraska tears apart families at one of the highest rates in the nation – and traps proportionately more children in foster care on any given day than almost any other.  Most other lousy systems across the country could adopt as their slogan: “Hey, at least we’re not as bad as Nebraska.”

So at a time when Nebraska already tears apart families at one of the highest rates in the nation, some legislators in that state actually want to take scarce funds that finally could reduce Nebraska’s obscene rate of removal and divert those funds to cover a giant, needless subsidy for middle-class foster parents.


On top of everything else, the bill is incredibly insulting to foster parents.  

When foster parents are polled on why they leave foster parenting, low pay consistently ranks low on the list.  Far more important to most foster parents is the fact that child welfare agencies so often treat them the same way they often treat birth parents – like dirt.

 Foster parents often say that they can’t be in it for the money because there is not enough money.  For the overwhelming majority of foster parents it’s true.  But if this bill passes it will attract a lot of the wrong kinds of people to foster parenting.

The whole bill raises a fundamental question I’ve discussed on this Blog before: What is our “social contract” with foster parents?  If, as I believe, most foster parents really are in it for  the right reasons, including the good feeling it gives them to help children in need, why is it unreasonable that reimbursement not quite cover every expense – for children who, after all, foster parents say they love as their own?

If someone volunteers to tutor children at an after-school program, or serve meals at a soup-kitchen, he doesn’t get reimbursed for the mileage to get to and from the program.  He may even dip into his own pocket for some supplies.  Why is it wrong to expect the same of foster parents?

The best foster parents understand this.  Here’s how one I’ve quoted often on this Blog, Mary Callahan, explained it in an op ed column for the Los Angeles Times.

In addition:

● Existing rates aren’t as low as  CR and NFPA want people to think.  The existing rates cited in their “study” always are the “base rates.” But many states add additional payments and/or have additional tiers of rates.  In the case of Nebraska, for example, the Legislative Fiscal Analyst found that CR and NFPA failed to factor in the state’s coverage of liability insurance for foster parents.

Payments are tax-free since they are considered “reimbursement.”  In addition, foster children’s health insurance is covered by Medicaid.

● CR’s executive director, Marcia Lowry has suggested that if you don’t favor the rates she demands be paid to all foster parents, you want to take toys from foster children.  On the contrary, we want children placed with foster parents who care enough about those children to give them toys without demanding government reimbursement.

● Some proponents have argued this kind of huge increase is needed to help kinship foster parents who often are poor.  But it’s absurd to spend $3.6 million on mostly middle-class stranger-care parents because a little of it will trickle down to grandparents who provide kinship care.  There are other ways to target aid specifically to kinship care parents.

It will be interesting to see how many Nebraska foster parents really are so greedy that they'll come out and testify today demanding teddy bear subsidies.