Sunday, June 10, 2007

Foster homes are cheaper than residential placements

Capitol Watchdog: Foster care funding out in cold
California's low funding shifts wards into costly institutions designed for troubled kids as foster parents, including those in Orange County, leave the system.

Joseph, Brian. Orange County Register, June 7, 2007.

SACRAMENTO – When the state takes custody of abused or neglected children, the cheapest way to care for them is in a foster home.

That also happens to be the preference of child welfare experts, who say foster families provide greater stability than institutional facilities or intensive treatment homes.

The Legislature, however, has done little lately to support foster families, and as a result more and more of these kids are finding their way into more costly facilities designed for children with behavioral or emotional problems.

A key reason? Over the last seven years, the minimum cost of raising a child climbed to $750 a month while foster care payments huddled at about $494, according to the County Welfare Directors Association of California.

That's $126 less than the average kennel charges to house a dog, an association survey found.

"That's why so many people don't do it," said Rhonda Foster, a former Orange County foster parent trainer who says she's had more than 60 foster children live in her home over the years.

Foster said says families leave the foster care system or don't join it simply because they can't afford to provide the same care for foster children and their own kids.

"You can't keep a foster child at the same level as your own child. Not in Orange County."

Indeed, two studies released last month say the low rates have caused thousands of families to drop out of the foster system, which in turn has forced the state to put more wards in expensive facilities. The association reports 53 percent of the state's nearly 80,000 foster children live in treatment homes or institutional facilities, which cost $1,589 to $6,371 monthly per child.

In Orange County, 104 families, or 17 percent, have dropped out of the foster care system in the last four years. As of February, there were 2,792 children in foster care in Orange County. Some counties have lost half their foster care families.

A solution, of course, is to raise rates.

The association estimates it would cost $58 million to raise rates to $750 a month. The Legislature easily found money to pay for February's presidential primary, estimated to cost between $48 million and $80 million and which likely will feature a ballot measure to extend legislative term limits.

But children's welfare groups didn't even bother asking for that much money.

Instead, they supported a bill by Assemblyman Jim Beall Jr., D-San Jose, which would have cost $14 million to raise rates 5 percent and would have guaranteed rate increases in each of the next five years.

The bill also would have raised adoption assistance payments, rates for relatives providing foster care and set aside $25 million for a foster family support program.

Then, last month, it was killed in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

"I was shocked," said Ed Howard, a lobbyist for the Children's Advocacy Institute, which is part of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego School of Law.

Like many children's welfare advocates, Howard says the issue has fallen through the cracks because foster families are not an organized special interest that makes campaign contributions or lobbies on the Capitol.

"The moms and dads that open their hearts and homes to abused and neglected children are too busy taking care of them on our behalf to hire lobbyists," he said in an e-mail.

"But if just a tiny handful of legislators pledge that Sacramento business as usual will not endure so long as these parents are being abandoned by the state, then a policy that is both fiscally wrong and an attack on families would quickly come to an end."

To be fair, preliminary budget documents in the Assembly and the Senate call for a 5 percent rate increase as well, but the differences between those proposals and the Beall bill frustrate children's advocates.

The budget proposals include no support programs, no automatic increases, and no increases in kinship care or adoption assistance payments. They do include increases for institutional facilities and intensive treatment homes.

(Carroll Schroeder, executive director of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, which represents the institutional facilities and intensive treatment homes, said all of foster care is underfunded and it doesn't make sense to say one group of children deserves more money but not another.)

County Welfare Directors Association Executive Director Frank Mecca called the budget proposals a product of "the politics of parity" and said automatic increases for foster families have unfairly been lumped with the kind of autopilot spending the Legislature is often criticized for.

I asked Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine, why this might be.

DeVore is one of the Legislature's most fiscally conservative members (he was among those to vote against the February primary) and he often rails against unnecessary spending and autopilot budgeting.

He also has not been involved in the foster care debate.

The Assemblyman agreed that foster families likely don't have the political resources to make their positions known.

"A widely dispersed group of foster families probably has a less effective lobby than a private business," like the institutional facilities, DeVore said.

That doesn't make the institutions villains. They're simply better positioned because of their finances and focus to traverse the tricky landscape of Sacramento politics.

That said, DeVore, a member of the Assembly Budget Committee, said arguments for increasing foster family rates seem to make sense from both a moral and fiscal perspective.

"It would seem to me that any policy that shifts resources from more cost-effective and better for the child to one less cost-effective and more difficult for the child should be revisited," he said.

Brian Joseph covers Capitol issues for the Register. His Capitol Watchdog column focuses on government practices. To reach him, call 916-449-6046 or e-mail bjoseph@ocregister.com

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