Tak­ing toys from fos­ter kids won’t fix D.C. child ser­vices

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - The writer is the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Chil­dren’s Rights.

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.

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