Starving the Foster Care Beast Hurts Only the Children

In his brilliant column of April 5, Sean Hughes explains why 20 years after the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was replaced, states still have to document a child’s AFDC eligibility in order to receive federal reimbursement for foster care. This Title IV-E “lookback” has potentially cost state and local child welfare systems billions of dollars over the past two decades.

According to Hughes, advocates have been reluctant to push for eliminating the lookback for fear of encouraging placement in foster care. As Hughes put it, “the focus seems to have shifted almost exclusively toward preventing entry into foster care, with little advocacy being devoted to actually improving the continuum of care for children in out-of-home care.”

At first, it was hard for me to believe that people who call themselves child advocates would stop caring about kids as soon as they are removed from their homes. Government-hating Reagan Republicans invented the term “starving the beast” to describe the strategy of cutting taxes to force government to shrink. But child advocates withholding money from children in foster care?

But then I read Richard Wexler’s column. According to Wexler, the Title IV-E “lookback” is the only restraint on the “runaway train” that is foster care, which rampages through poor communities, “ripping” children from their families. The only way to restrain this train is to cap the funding, even if that means the kids who are removed are essentially warehoused in the cheapest placements with the worst mental health services, education and services to their parents.

Wexler supports his argument by pointing out that rates of child removal vary greatly by state. Iowa “tears apart” families at a rate four times higher than Illinois, and it is unlikely that a difference in child maltreatment rates explains this. I totally agree. Clearly, there is no easily-applied objective standard for removals. Iowa is probably too ready to remove children; Illinois may be too reluctant.

There is a delicate balance in child protection. Some children who are not removed end up dying of abuse or neglect. Federal and state policies have often followed a cyclical pattern. Outcry about child deaths has led to more aggressive removal policies, while complaints about unnecessary removals have led to an emphasis on family preservation.

The CalYOUTH data cited by Hughes shows that 57 percent of the youths surveyed agreed that they were “lucky” to be placed in foster care versus 18 percent who disagreed. That information suggests that at least from the children’s point of view, the majority of removals in California were warranted at that time. That jibes with what I saw as a social worker in the District of Columbia.

In her recent column published by The Chronicle, Mary Callahan suggests that Maine was overly eager to remove kids when she was a foster parent over a decade ago. But things may have changed since that time. The general trend in the past decade has been toward keeping children at home whenever possible, and falling foster care caseloads around the country have been the result.

Regardless of whether too many or too few children are being removed from their homes, an obsolete funding formula is not an appropriate way to prevent unnecessary removals. There is no evidence that changing the federal reimbursement rate would have any effect on the number of removals in any state. The idea that states would respond to the increased reimbursement rate by increasing removals just does not ring true to me.

Hughes argues that eliminating the lookback might make foster care cheaper for a state or county than family preservation programs, for which the state would pick up the full tab. But this whole discussion is taking place in the context of a broader financing reform in which IV-E funds would be allowed to be spent on family preservation, thereby eliminating that problem.

Moreover, the scenario envisioned by Hughes – “the lookback simply ending” and resulting in more federal funds for foster care – is unlikely in this budgetary climate. As some have proposed, Congress would probably lower the reimbursement rate or find other ways to reduce the federal costs of expanding the entitlement.

So what could jurisdictions do with more federal funds? First of all, they could address the critical shortage of quality foster homes by professionalizing foster care or creating foster care communities that provide housing to foster parents. They could implement promising models like Neighbor to Family that keep siblings together. They could create quality residential options, such as North Carolina’s Crossnore School, which graduates at least 95 percent of its seniors every year. They could provide therapeutic child care and improve mental health services.

Foster kids deserve the best homes, therapists, medical care and education, not the cut-rate care most are getting now.

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Marie K. Cohen
About Marie K. Cohen 68 Articles
Marie K. Cohen (MPA, MSW) is a child advocate, researcher, and policy analyst. She worked as social worker in the District of Columbia's child welfare system for five years. She is a member of the Citizen's Review Committee for the DC Child and Family Services Agency and the DC Child Fatality Review Commission and a mentor to a foster youth. Follow her blog at fosteringreform.blogspot.org, on Facebook at Fostering Reform or on Twitter@fosteringreform.