Taking toys from foster kids won’t fix D.C. child services
Inlight of the difficult decisions reflected in the budget amendments passed last month by the D.C. Council, it is particularly important to ensure that the discussion of budget cuts affecting vulnerable children and families is as accurate as possible.
In his Dec. 26 Local Opinions column, “Sacred cows in D.C.’s child services budget,” Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, seemed to disregard the core value of any child welfare system — that children deserve to be raised in families — and suggested that money could be saved by cutting payments to foster families who care for abused and neglected children.
While child welfare systems must keep children safely out of foster care when possible, it is an unfortunate fact of life that some children cannot remain at home with their parents despite even a well-functioning system’s best efforts, and they must be placed with a relative or foster family for their own protection.
The District, which has been under federal court order to reform its deeply dysfunctional child welfare system since 1991 (as a result of a class action brought by my organization), has a legal and moral responsibility to give children the opportunity to grow upin a family and not be relegated to institutions with the government acting as their parents.
Wexler would likely agree that this is the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency’s responsibility. But in his piece he went on to suggest the District has “ lavish[ed] . . . money on foster parents” and that it should consider cutting the “fatpay raises” for families willing to give abused and neglected children safe homes — and perhaps a fewsmall pleasures of childhood, suchasatoy, gameor amusement park ride.
But it is the availability of foster parents that keeps children out of costly, ineffective and often harmful group homes and institutions. And, in keeping with the preference outlined in federal law and the court order, many of these licensed foster parents are relatives of the children.
Wexler further suggested that while impoverished birth parents are suffering from the District’s painful budget cuts, “middle-class foster parents get more than they need to provide” for children in foster care.
The reality, however, is 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. The families who come forward to care for abused and neglected children are, by and large, not residing comfortably in the middle class.
In fact, all available evidence shows that the majority of foster parents subsist on marginal incomes. A recent survey in Illinois found that the average wage income for foster parents was just $35,500 a year and was $28,600 a year for relative caregivers. No matter how full foster parents’ heartsmay be, their wallets usually are not, and to suggest otherwise is to perpetuate an irresponsible stereotype.
District officials have agreed to a sweeping array of court-enforceable benchmarks for reform throughout the system, and had the requirements of the 1991 court orderbeenmet, the Districtwould now have a well-functioning child welfare system. It still does not.
Wexler is right that there is waste in the system, but payments to foster parents are hardly the issue. The truth is it does not cost less to run a malfunctioning system, and it is far more expensive to keep children in foster care longer than necessary. Putting aside the cost of human lives, kids left stranded in foster care inevitably deteriorate without appropriate care and services, develop even more challenging and expensive service needs— andoften leave the system unable to function as productive adults. Furthermore, there may even be greater financial consequences now that the federal court has indicated it is prepared to fine the District as a way to encourage compliance with the requirements of the court order.
TheDistrict’sfiscalproblemsare, of course, real. But they have not been helped by the District’s futile legal battle over the last year and a half to water down the requirements set forth by the federal court. Nor will they be helped by efforts to demonize foster families who open their hearts and their homes to abused and neglected kids.
Now is the time to take a hard look at what kind of management and planning changes are necessary toat long lastmeet the requirementsofthefederalcourtorderand produce a system that thousands of abused and neglected kids and vulnerable families through the city deserve and desperately need.
That could finally produce a system about which the District can be proud and can feel it has gotten its money’s worth.