Stop TANF from Being the Child Welfare Slush Fund

National Coalition for Child Protection Reform executive director Richard Wexler head shot

richard wexlerImagine this scenario: Jenny is a single mother who loves her preschool daughter. She dotes on her and does everything she can to nurture her. But under the 1996 law that ended welfare as we knew it, Jenny must get some kind of make-work job.

She finds such a job, far from home in a suburban shopping mall. But who will care for the child? There’s no help for child care, so she leaves her child with a family friend. She’s not so sure about the guy but it’s that or leave the child home alone, or stay home with the child and get fired and cut off from all public assistance.

Someone calls child protective services. That agency isn’t so sure about the guy either. But instead of offering child care, they take the child away, and place her in a well-off home in the suburbs. The caseworker falls in love with the adoptive parents, whose home reminds her so much of the one where she grew up. So her agency rushes to seek termination of parental rights.

Then those middle-class foster, now adoptive, parents get a monthly subsidy to help take care of the child.

The adoption subsidy comes from the very federal program that was supposed to help Jenny with child care. The foster care payments came from that program, too. Even the cost of sending out a child protective services worker to investigate Jenny and take away the child came from that program — a program that is supposed to be used to help poor people become self-sufficient.

In the great debate over child welfare finance reform, few are paying attention to one of the biggest scandals surrounding how we pay for child welfare right now: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) has become a child welfare slush fund.

Under the so-called welfare reform law of 1996, TANF replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children. In theory, savings achieved by forcing families off welfare would be used to help those families become self-sufficient, by providing help such as job training and child care. But the actual language was broad and vague, and there was a special loophole allowing states that already were using a subcategory of AFDC (known as Emergency Assistance) for foster care to keep on doing so.

[Related: Child Maltreatment History Should Be a Bar to Being a Foster Parent]

We don’t know how many states are, in effect, robbing poor people in order to pay for taking away their children, holding them in foster care and/or adopting them out to better-off strangers. But we do know that of all federal dollars spent on America’s child welfare systems, 22 percent come from TANF. Here’s what else we know, thanks to a survey by ChildTrends:

♦ Eight states use TANF money to pay adoption subsidies. Michigan spent $47.8 million in TANF dollars on such subsidies last year, which are provided without regard to the income of the adoptive parent. So had Madonna adopted her children from Michigan instead of Malawi, she would have been eligible for government subsidies using money intended to help poor people become self-sufficient. (There are good reasons to exempt adoption subsidies from means testing, but there is no good reason to make poor people pay for it.)

♦ Twelve states use TANF money for in-home services, including preventive services to keep children out of foster care. But some of those states are using the TANF money not to increase such help but to replace state dollars, forcing the poor to subsidize their own assistance.

♦ Twenty-three states use TANF money for child protective services investigations. In other words, the money that could have provided day care to help a parent avoid losing a child to foster care on a “lack of supervision” charge instead is helping pay the salary of the caseworker who will take away the child.

♦ And 27 states use TANF money for foster care services including “case management.” Some of this money probably is being properly used to help relatives who are providing kinship care, but who are not formally licensed, making the case ineligible for reimbursement under other federal programs. But some of it also is going to pay middle-class strangers to pay for poor people’s children, when the money could have helped poor people take care of their own. In Georgia, the state spends more TANF funds on foster care than on support for needy families.

♦ In three states, TANF money helps pay for the worst form of “care” — institutionalizing children in “residential treatment centers.”

So if we really want to reform child welfare funding, here’s step one: Stop allowing the diversion of TANF funds from the families who need that help the most.

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

More related articles: 

From New York to LA: The best of Our Foster Care Coverage

GAO Calls for Reducing Barriers to College for Foster and Homeless Youth

California Law to Close Group Homes Stresses Importance of Family for Every Foster Kid


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