Foster Parents Entitled to Higher Payments

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Foster parents routinely complain that are entitled to more money to cover their costs, and a federal court in California recently agreed. Whether that means anyone actually gets more money is another matter.

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Aug. 30 that the federal Child Welfare Act gives foster parents the right to be compensated for the actual cost of providing children with housing, food, clothing and other care required by the state. 

“We have to often count on foster parents to use their own funds to take care of children. This is a way of saying we shouldn’t be doing that anymore,” said William Meezan, director of policy and research for the advocacy group Children’s Rights.

The ruling marks another in a series of small steps toward increasing foster parent payments in various jurisdictions. Over the past three years, Missouri increased reimbursements by $7 to $9 per month per child for each foster home, Maryland increased rates by $100 a month and Virginia raised rates by 15 percent in 2008 and by another 8 percent in 2009. Some states, however, have cut their allocations because of budget shortages.

The momentum for the recent increases came in part from a 2007 study – co-authored by Children’s Rights, the National Foster Parent Association and the University of Maryland School of Social Work – which claimed to be the first calculation of the real cost of providing foster care in each state. The study, Hitting the M.A.R.C.: Establishing Foster Care Minimum Adequate Rates for Children, also determined average national costs for foster parenting and compared them to the national average of what is paid: $629 per month for children up to 4 years old (compared with $488 that is paid), $721 for 5- to-13-year-olds (compared with $509 paid) and $790 for 14 to-18-year-olds (compared with $568 paid).

But Irene Clements, president of the National Foster Parent Association, said that while the report “did some good” in helping to increase payments around the country, some payments “got cut when the state budgets were in the hole” at the height of the recession last year.

California, which reports 5,600 children in foster care, has been fighting efforts to make it pay more. Earlier this year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said the Child Welfare Act, passed in 1980, requires the state to pay more to institutions, such as group homes, that house foster youth. The decision in that lawsuit, brought by California Alliance of Child and Family Services, is summarized here.

Now the same court has reached a similar finding about payments to foster parents. The lawsuit appeal decided last month was brought by the California State Foster Parent Association, the California State Care Providers Association and Legal Advocates for Permanent Parenting. But unlike earlier ruling involving group homes, this one does not order specific payment increases, leaving the various parties to iron that out.

“My one disappointment is that the court’s ruling is not binding for some reason,” said Meezan of Children’s Rights.

The California Department of Social Services said it is “considering all options available.”

Marc David Peters, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, is optimistic that the decision will help get more money for foster parents. “The state defendants who we sued, they are dedicated public servants who are working to provide services to children in need. They are not the bad guys by any stretch of the imagination,” Peters said.

Peters’ law firm filed a similar suit against New York State last July. It has not yet gone to trial.