Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Operating a foster care system on the cheap hurts children and costs more later

Child support: Youth-welfare advocates want more pay for foster parents
Rolland, David. San Diego CityBEAT.

Bob Fellmeth punctuates each word by rapping on the table with a clinched fist, as if hoping the sound or the vibration will jar loose some common sense.

“Eighty percent of non-kin adoptions are really coming from family foster care,” he pounds. “That’s why you want to put every kid in family foster care that you possibly can.”

Fellmeth, executive director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego, talks with passion, speed and authority on the subject of foster care. His Children’s Advocacy Institute, an offshoot of the center, has sued the directors of the state Department of Social Services and its Children and Family Services Division, alleging that the state’s meager reimbursements to foster parents violate the federal Child Welfare Act.

But to Fellmeth’s way of thinking, the low payments are simply the cause of a larger problem. By operating a foster-care system on the cheap, the state is pushing foster families out of the business of caring for abused or neglected children. His goal is to draw more families into the fold, which, he says, would better the chances of placing kids closer to their parents, siblings, schools and friends, decrease the number of children in group homes and increase the chances that more troubled kids will be adopted into healthy family environments.

Mary Butters is one of those foster parents who can’t keep afford to keep it up. The Oceanside grandmother has cared for 35 foster children during the past nine years, but she plans to get out within the next month. It’s just too expensive, she says. Butters currently has three children in her care—a 2-year-old, an 8-month-old and a 22-month-old who suffers from, among other maladies, spina bifida, a developmental birth defect that results in a malformed spinal cord—and she receives $446 from the state (through the county) per month for each of them. She reckons that she spends about $600 out of her own pocket each month to raise the children. The state pays for healthcare.

She’d continue if the payments were increased. “I like it. I really enjoy doing it. I really love the kids and everything, but I just can’t afford it anymore,” she says. “I can’t afford to support other people’s kids.”

Butters used to run a day-care business, and while she doesn’t find that as personally fulfilling as being a foster parent, she’s going to return to that line of work. Running day care, she has nights and weekends free and can make $160 a week per child. But, Butters says, “it’s not what I enjoy. I’d rather do foster care. When you do foster care, the kids are almost like your own. Day care’s not as enjoyable.”

As soon as she completes her sentence, the sound of a suddenly crying child can be heard in the background. She chuckles as she explains that her 3-year-old grandson, the man of the house, has just admonished one of the other kids not to tug on the curtains, prompting the sudden wail.

The concern about the low reimbursement rates is just part of a larger effort to reform the state’s foster system, which oversees care for roughly 80,000 children who’ve been, at least temporarily, removed from their homes and, for whatever reason, can’t be placed in the care of relatives.

A Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care later this month will present final recommendations for reform to the California Judicial Council, the policymaking body for the state’s court system. On Friday, Aug. 8, state Assembly Speaker Karen Bass and Assembly member Jim Beall Jr. will hold a hearing in Los Angeles on “Fixing Foster Care: Challenges and Solutions.” Bass, long passionate about foster-care issues, did not respond to CityBeat’s request for an interview.

For Fellmeth and Christina Riehl, a staff attorney with the Children’s Advocacy Institute who’s also researching issues related to the deaths of abused and neglected children, the solution starts with money. Every time a foster parent like Mary Butters leaves the system, they say, it increases the possibility that a child will have to be placed in a group home, which child-welfare advocates say greatly lowers chances for success in adulthood.

A 2007 Children’s Advocacy Institute report called “They Deserve a Family” cites a study done by researchers at the University of Colorado at Denver that found that adults who spent time in group homes as adolescents are less accomplished educationally and vocationally than their counterparts who were placed in foster homes and report lower levels of happiness and self-esteem. Advocates attribute that to group homes’ inherent lack of family-style attachment.

It follows, then, that kids placed in group homes have a greater chance of living in poverty, ending up on the government dole and landing in prison, Riehl says, noting the state’s long-term socioeconomic interest in making sure there are enough foster families to go around.

But she and Fellmeth say there can be a quicker return on investing in higher monthly payments to foster parents.

Raising the payments by 40 percent, Fellmeth and Riehl say, would cost an additional $24 million per year, and since the federal government pays for half, that’s just a $12-million increase, which they argue is a drop in the bucket considering the state’s budget is $100 billion.

They calculate that the state would get that $12 million back if it were able to move 600 kids from group homes to foster homes—assuming there are that many in group homes who don’t require the sort of intensive social work for which such facilities were designed. Whereas the monthly cost of family foster homes is measured in the hundreds of dollars, the monthly cost of group-home placement is measured in the thousands. A spokesperson for the state’s Department of Social Services told CityBeat that the average monthly payment per kid in a group home is $5,490.

The state just isn’t being smart, Fellmeth says. “It’s like a math quiz that they’re flunking. It’s not even an algebra quiz. It’s third-grade level.”

CAI’s lawsuit, then, is a means to a much-coveted end. The suit says that federal law requires states that collect federal foster-care funds to cover the cost of food, clothing, shelter, daily supervision, school supplies, personal incidentals, liability insurance and travel for visitation with birth parents.

“California applied for and willingly accepts this federal funding, but does not cover the costs incurred by foster parents as required by federal law,” the suit alleges. “Even as costs to feed, cloth, house, and transport foster children have risen every year, California’s foster care payment rates have not kept pace.”

After a 5-percent increase that took effect on Jan. 1, the state now pays foster families between $446 and $627 per month, depending on the child’s age. State law requires the reimbursement rates to rise according to increases in the California Necessities Index (CNI)—but that’s “subject to the availability of funds,” state law says. The lawsuit charges that even though the CNI rose 24.9 percent between 2001 and 2007, the state did not adjust the foster-care rates during that time. Between 1989 and 2001, the rates were increased twice—a 12-percent bump in 1990 and a 6-percent hike in 1996.

The lawsuit goes on to note that the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that, nationwide, a family earning between $43,400 and $73,100 per year, spends an average of $962.64 per month raising a single child. A study by the University of Maryland School of Social Work recommends raising California’s rates to $685 for a 2-year-old, $785 for a 9-year-old and $861 for a 16-year-old.

“We have good evidence,” Fellmeth says. “We’ve established that the state has no idea what the costs are. They don’t care.”

A spokesperson from the state Attorney General’s office referred CityBeat to the Department of Social Services for comment and, just before press time, e-mailed a copy of the state’s legal response, which essentially denies the plaintiffs’ substantive charges. A spokesperson for DSS said his office’s policy is to withhold comment on matters involving litigation.

As concerned as Fellmeth is about kids while they’re in foster care, he’s equally mindful of the before and after.

“Nobody ever talks about prevention,” he says. “Nobody ever talks about parenting education. Nobody ever talks about unwed births,” which correlate strongly to the demand for foster care, he says, particularly in the African-American community. “Then you’ve got methamphetamine, which hits hard and is even a bigger cause of poverty,” he adds. “It destroys maternal / paternal instinct. Probably 60 to 70 percent of the cases we see in our clinic are methamphetamine-connected. It’s enormous.”

After foster care, when kids “age out” of the system, they’re pretty much cast adrift, and too many become homeless. CAI proposes that the state set up a “transition guardian” program. Under it, the state would give each foster kid roughly $50,000 to live on for five years while receiving vocational training or higher education. The money would be distributed monthly through a court-approved guardian, and each recipient would be required to check in with a judge, preferably one who’s been overseeing a youth’s care since the first custody hearing, every six months.

“If you believe in family values, these are your children. Literally. Legally, these are your children. This is not welfare to someone else’s kids,” Fellmeth says. “You’ve been paying for them already. You’ve raised them. These are your courts. This is your state. Now, are you going to follow through? Are you going to be a good, decent parent and follow through like other parents do? Or are you going to be a bad parent? That’s the proposition.”

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