Opinion

The Foster Care-Industrial Complex Makes Its Move

Every ideology has its blind spots. For conservatives, it tends to be polluters, oil companies and the military-industrial complex.

For my fellow liberals, it tends to be the Foster Care-Industrial Complex: that web of public and private agencies and interest groups that could not survive without a steady supply of foster children.

There seems to be a naive belief among some liberals in Congress that just because an organization calls itself, say, the Child Welfare League of America, it’s primarily interested in the welfare of children. But CWLA is a trade association for child welfare agencies. When the interests of children conflict with those of the agencies, the agencies come first.

So when Democrats took control of Congress this year, it was only a matter of time before the Foster Care-Industrial Complex moved to grab more dollars at the expense of children.

They made their move in February. It came from a new, alleged organization created by the Pew Charitable Trusts, called Kids Are Waiting, which is made up of other organizations – most, if not all, of which were created by or get some money from Pew. Kids Are Waiting issued a report urging Congress to remove the only disincentive to throwing vastly more children into foster care and having the federal government pick up the lion’s share of the tab.

CWLA rushed to endorse the document. No wonder. It’s essentially a rehash of a report put out by CWLA last year.

Both reports target something called the “eligibility lookback.”

As things now stand, states receive from 50 cents to 83 cents from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for every dollar they spend when they throw an eligible child into foster care. There is no comparable federal reimbursement for alternatives to foster care. So while it costs far less in total dollars to, for instance, help a child’s family pay for housing or day care in order to avoid tearing that family apart, it may actually cost a state less to move the child into foster care, thanks to the federal reimbursement.

The only small check on this wretched incentive is that in order for a case to qualify for the reimbursement, the child’s parents must be eligible for payments under Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) – at the income levels that existed in 1996. About half of all cases meet this requirement. And because the eligibility has been frozen at 1996 levels, while inflation has driven up wages over the past decade, the proportion of foster kids who can trigger the reimbursement is slowly shrinking.

Last year, CWLA demanded that this “eligibility lookback” be abolished. Now Pew is doing the same through its new creation, Kids Are Waiting. Which is not to be confused with the Pew-created Commission on Foster Care; nor the Pew-created “Home at Last”; nor the Pew-created “Fostering Results,” all of which advocate whatever Pew wants.

The Pew report pretends not to endorse any one alternative to the lookback. Its list of alternatives even includes one very good choice: giving states the option to take their foster-care money as an inflation-indexed grant and letting them spend it flexibly on both foster care and better alternatives. But the description of this option is almost entirely negative, complete with scare scenarios conjured up by CWLA.

Options preferred by CWLA are characterized more favorably. And the thrust of the document is that getting rid of the lookback is far more important than worrying about the flaws in whatever system might replace it.

The report also is a betrayal of the Pew Commission on Foster Care itself – although I’m sure Pew can find a commissioner or two to issue a statement saying, “No, really, it’s fine with us.” That commission never proposed simply getting rid of the lookback. It proposed a compromise in which about $3.1 billion in foster-care entitlement money would be diverted to inflation-indexed grants that could also be used for alternatives, while other foster care funds (about $1.7 billion) would remain an entitlement, without an eligibility lookback.

The plan had one huge technical flaw: It combined foster care money and prevention money in one pot, making the prevention money vulnerable to diversion to foster care. That would have been easy to fix, by keeping the money separate. That fix would have made the Pew Commission recommendation a significant step forward.

But now, Pew has thrown away its own commission’s work.

This month, CWLA gets a new president, Christine James-Brown. Perhaps she’ll re-examine the issue and decide to truly put children first. More likely, vulnerable children will have to hope that my fellow liberals in Congress will ask tougher questions of their nominal allies than most conservative congressmen ever asked of oil companies and industrial polluters.

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