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Posted at 1:52 PM ET, 12/24/2010

Sacred cows in D.C.'s child services budget

By Richard Wexler, Alexandria

Ideally, a budget crisis would bring out the best in our public officials — a search for creative solutions and a willingness to take on even the most sacred cows to spare those who will suffer most as belts tighten and axes fall.

Not in the District, where, as part of a battle over closing a gap in the current budget, public officials pitted one of the groups most in need, impoverished children at risk of being placed in foster care, against another, children already in foster care. Meanwhile, alternative cuts that might advance the public good even as they save money were never even discussed.

First came Roque Gerald, who runs the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA). He proposed cutting in half a program that provides basic help to grandparents and other relatives who have custody of children. These are children who have not come to the attention of the CFSA — yet. The idea is that with a little basic help, it can stay that way. The grandparents won’t be forced to surrender the children because they can’t afford to care for them and won’t be plunged into poverty so severe that the CFSA would confuse it with “neglect” and take the children away.

Gerald also proposed deep cuts in the Healthy Families Thriving Communities Collaboratives, which provide help to families that otherwise might lose their children to foster care. The collaboratives are a key component of the District’s decades-long effort to turn around its child welfare system.

Then came D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, who amended Gerald’s proposal to restore some, but not all, of these cuts. But he did it in part by making deeper cuts to programs to serve children already in foster care.

That upset Gerald. In a letter to the D.C. Council, Gerald wrote that “the widespread belief that grandparent subsidies prevent entry into the child welfare system does not hold up under scrutiny. As you know, the mandate of the child welfare system is to protect and serve children who have been maltreated, and this is simply not the situation of the overwhelming majority of children being raised by their grandparents.”

If torturing logic were a war crime, that statement would get Gerald hauled before an international tribunal.

Every prevention program serves children who have not been maltreated. Maltreatment is what the prevention programs are created to prevent. That’s why they’re called prevention programs. Gerald’s logic is like saying a rent subsidy program doesn’t prevent homelessness because all of the people getting the subsidies are living in apartments.

Of course not every child whose grandparents lost their help would wind up in foster care — most grandparents will move heaven and earth to avoid that. But given how much more foster care costs, by one estimate five times more than the typical grandparent subsidy, it wouldn’t take all that many to use up all the “savings” from this cut.

But Gerald is right to complain that Wells’s alternative deepens cuts for programs to help foster children.

All of these cuts could be restored if D.C. stopped relying so heavily on both the worst form of substitute and the most expensive: group homes and institutions. The independent court monitor overseeing the District’s child welfare consent decree has found that “a substantial and unacceptably high” number of children are placed in such facilities, in violation of the decree.

It’s not just the CFSA that overuses this form of care.

In 2009, University Legal Services reported that, at any given time, various D.C. government agencies warehouse proportionately more children in so-called “residential treatment centers” than any state except South Dakota. ULS notes that the institutions “tend to be far from the District, expensive, abusive, and most importantly, generally ineffective” — and they cost $250 per day per child.

The waste doesn’t stop there. The group suing the CFSA, an organization that calls itself Children’s Rights, crusades all over the country for fat pay raises for the foster parents who take in poor people’s children. It argues that foster parents should be reimbursed not only for the basics but also for every toy, game, movie ticket and amusement park ride they buy for a foster child.

Only two places in America already lavish this much money on foster parents — and one of them is the District. In fact, the District pays foster parents significantly more than they need to provide all of this.

Yet somehow, Tommy Wells and Roque Gerald can’t think of anything better to do than to pit one group of poor children against another to fight over the leftovers — after the residential treatment centers, the group homes and the middle-class foster parents get more than they need.

The writer is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

By Richard Wexler, Alexandria  | December 24, 2010; 1:52 PM ET
Categories:  D.C.  
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Comments

Richard Wexler's comments are typically bombastic and not particularly informed by evidence. I will mention just two points that are contradicted by research but could raise others. Director Gerald is, indeed, correct that even though grandparents often do need assistance with parenting to help them out in their pursuit of raising children who get good educations and have posiive mental health but their parenting rarely has such problems that they end up being abusive to their grandchildren or having them enter foster care. Thus, this is not an optimal area for reducing child welfare entry or costs. The programs that do assist grandparents find most of their success in other areas--especially in supporting educational success and positive mental health. Richard Wexler is completely off the mark in indicating that most foster parents are "middle class" by almost any definition. Indeed, the National survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being indicates a preponderance of foster parents are living with a very marginal income level and a high school education or less. The efforts to raise the reimbursement levels of foster parents would typically bring them up to the real costs of raising children. Washington DC does reimburse costs at a rate higher than the national average--about $30 a day (depending on the ages of children); this is hardly "lavish." In many other states their rates of reimbursement was only half the recommended amount for at least one age group. Adjusting these rates upward has been hardly enough to qualify as a "fat pay raise" (especially because there is no pay for foster parents only reimbursement for their costs). Gerald and Wexler are both correct that we can find some cost savings in child welfare and need to do so. Gerald's approach is grounded in close scrutiny of what is needed and on research. Wexler's suggestions evince little real understanding of current research or operations.

Richard P. Barth,PhD
Professor and Dean
University of Maryland

Posted by: richardpbarth | December 27, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

Dr. Barth either is ignoring or failed to read the methodology section on a report for which he served as an advisor.

The report which I allude to in the column above calls for reimbursing foster parents for far more than food, clothing, and shelter for the foster children in their care. For example, it argues that foster parents should be reimbursed for any “extra” cost on their utility bill because their foster child left the lights on – or, maybe, opened and closed the refrigerator a few times.

The report also calls for reimbursing foster parents for every penny spent on after school activities and admission to movies and amusement parks. The study even calls for having the government pay a foster parent to buy his foster child a toy or a video game. Would you want a child placed with someone who demands government reimbursement for buying a foster child a teddy bear?
The study then concludes that DC already pays foster parents *more* than is necessary for a *middle class* family to cover all of these expenses. (And, by the way, because this pay is labeled “reimbursement” – just as Dr. Barth says – it’s tax free).

But hey, no need to take my word for it. Just check out the actual report here: http://www.childrensrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/06/hitting_the_marc_summary_october_2007.pdf See page 13 for the methodology and the table on page 4 for how DC compares.

Please reread what I actually wrote, Dr. Barth. I did not say all foster parents are middle class. But DC pays foster parents far more than what is needed for a middle-class family to raise children – again, according to the very study on which you served as an advisor.

Also, average income figures for foster parents are distorted by the fact that *kinship* foster parents tend to be poor, like the relatives they take in; while strangers providing foster care are more likely to be better off financially.

Dr. Barth also misses the point concerning aid to grandparents. Of course most grandparents won’t “abuse” their children even without a subsidy. But more of them may become poor enough for them to lose their children to foster care when that poverty is confused with “neglect.”

It’s regrettable that Dr. Barth resorts to name calling when he encounters a perspective with which he disagrees. I prefer offering readers sources so they can check facts for themselves.

Richard Wexler
Executive Director
National Coalition for Child Protection Reform
www.nccpr.org

Posted by: rwexlernccpr | December 27, 2010 11:01 PM | Report abuse

First of all, as I recall Mr. Wexler is trained in journalism not as a child or family expert. I have often found reports from his organization insufficient of expert analysis. I presume this is the type of concern that Dr. Barth is mentioning.

However, I do believe it is true that DC foster parents are overpaid for their services. The most recent figures provided by CFSA shows a payment range $900-$1,000 per head (tax free). Additionally, the foster parents can refuse to provide various tasks for their charges such as taking them to therapy or medical appts. (some of the foster parents do not even have cars), and they receive clothing allowances and other payments that the DC courts will routinely order to be paid. But really, how many of you parents spend $1,000 each month on your child? I wish I had that much given to me for all of mine now at home.

DC could also control costs by stop paying the local attorneys for each of their trips to court and instead pay attorneys as do most all other jurisdications a lump sum per case. Also, parents have attorneys even when the parents are unknown or absent from court themselves. Why? These are civil/administrative cases. If you don't care enough to show you forfeit your right to counsel, but DC pays these attorneys anyway.

Furthermore, the family court is over populated with magistrates who often hold hearings every few weeks thus driving up the costs. They could easily cut the courts in half to handle all the cases and stop micro-managing CFSA.

Furthermore, DC holds wards up to age 21 even when the ward is refusing to attend school or get a job. CFSA has many young adults who are using drugs and running the streets but costing great sums to the public fisc because they require more attention with added court hearings and social worker efforts to track them down all the while the city still pays someone a daily board rate to keep their bed.

Finally, CFSA will not release a child to a relative unless that relative agrees to become a foster parent & take the monies even though the relative might say they don't want the funds!

IN sum, there are many ways to cut costs starting with droping the maximum age for keeping a person in foster care when that person refuses to participate in services for her/himself, but these choices require political courage-something often lacking in DC politics.

Posted by: familynet | December 28, 2010 8:36 PM | Report abuse

For those who commented on DC foster/kinship care parents receiving too much for the monthly costs of these children. I wholeheartedly disagree. I myself was a fosterparent of four teenage female siblings. That was not enough money. Please consider all of the projects these children are required to complete daily that require costly materials (i.e. assigned novels for book reports, magazines for collages, science projects, models of cells, one was even required to model a futuristic community). Please consider the number of leave requests the parents have to put in to get these children to doctor appointments, court hearings, CFSA family meetings, therapy, dentist appointments and include gas, car-maintenance and parking costs- the list goes on along with the hourly cost of leave at an over 6-figure salary. These children also needed clothing, shoes, coats (replacements for the aforementioned), hair appointments (minimum $40 per head, per bi-weekly appointment - can range up to $180 per appointment for braids), bedding, linens, necessities (sanitary napkins cost us loads of money), etc. Now, the food? If you have children, you are clear they're always feeding friends. Try feeding four teenagers and one friend each daily - that's about $1,200 per month right there. In raising productive citizens, you want to teach them how to budget and save - factor in allowance. Also, because these children had drivers' licenses, factor in the increased cost of auto insurance on TEENAGERS. This doesn't take into account high increases to utilities, property damage, birthdays, Christmas, graduations, back-to-school shopping, gifts for their friends' birthdays, prom, summer camps at $150 minimum per week for the two too young to work, transp and work-clothing costs for the two that could work, tutors, computer and related equipment, SAT prep class & test costs, drivers' education class, college applications, college visits, extracurricular activity costs and supplies, vacations (or should I have left them at home while I traveled the world?? That would certainly be fair). I could go on for days. The point of the matter is that I (thanksfully) wasn't in it for the money, but I can assure you that I invested quite a bit out of my own pocket. The monthly cost was not enough, honestly, if I didn't have a good salary of my own and factor in that of my husband's. If I were a poor/middle-class fixed-income grandmother, we wouldn't have survived. So, PLEASE before you make some farfetched statements like you have that effect our livelihoods, do your research by talking to the masses who have lived it. Leave the textbook, projections, forecasts based upon bad data alone. A PhD means little if you haven't lived it! Speak to those with their MRS or MOM first - those are the letters that count most when talking about our children. I'm offended, but willing to share more. Contact at bodymagicbykim@yahoo. If the money was well-spent, an increase is warranted.

Posted by: bodymagicbykim | December 29, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Thank you Bodymagicbykim for your comments. Like you, I am a middle-class foster parent with two "special-needs" boys, ages 6 and 7. While I firmly believe raising teenagers is far more expensive than raising elementary-aged children, don't forget babysitting fees, which average $15/hour in DC. These fees can easily total $300-400 a month. Thank God I have friends who sometimes babysit free of charge! If I coupled the monthly babysitting fees with an estimated 30% mark-up of my average monthly household expenses, property damage cost and vacation trips, I exceed the monthly foster care allotment. Like you, I am not doing this for the money but I do not want folks on here to think being a foster parent is a profit center. And remember, raising "special needs" children is very, very challenging and stressful. There is no fee associated with the physical and emotional demands placed on many foster parents.

Posted by: roscoedc | December 29, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

OK, so let me get this straight Ms. bodymagic. You make a six-figure income, you “travel the world” on vacation, and you’re whining because the taxpayers of Washington D.C. supposedly did not pay you enough to cover the cost of your own foster children’s Christmas gifts and school assignments? You demand this money even if it means cutting help to impoverished grandparents raising their own grandchildren?

At least I hope you never also ran around claiming that you treated your foster children “like my own.” And I hope the young people never found out that the thought of doing for them what any loving parent with a six-figure income does for her own children caused so much resentment on your part.

The good news for you, Ms. bodymagic, is that the group that calls itself Children’s Rights, the group that did the report for which Dr. Barth was an advisor, completely agrees with you. They think you shouldn’t be expected to do any of this out of caring or, God forbid, love, but rather you should be reimbursed for every penny. The bad news is that they’ve calculated that DC already pays you more than enough for this – even for teenagers, for whom foster parents are paid even more than for younger children.

It’s just that you wanted even more.

Dr. Barth, if you’re still stopping by: Is this really the sort of person you want to be a foster parent?

And lest anyone think that all foster parents are like Ms. bodymagic, take a look at this op ed, from the kind of foster parent I think we’d all rather see in the system, someone who has indeed “lived it” and who got her MOM degree by majoring in compassion: http://articles.latimes.com/2007/oct/16/opinion/oe-callahan16

Richard Wexler
Executive Director
National Coalition for Child Protection Reform
www.nccpr.org

Posted by: rwexlernccpr | December 29, 2010 4:04 PM | Report abuse


The govt. provides daycare including before/after care funds for free with approved caretakers and they provide for over $1k per special needs child. Also, you can count on one hand the number of foster parents who take world wide vacations let alone worry about taking the foster child along. CFSA routinely pays for various other costs including summer camp for 1-2 weeks. They also give furniture vouchers for those who make the request. Not to mention, the govt. pays for college room/board/texts for any qualified foster child. They also pay for a single apartment for the older youths and do so even in cases in which that youth is neither employed nor working towards a diploma.

Finally, it must be understood that the "reasonable care" standard does not envision a standard of care for children coming from families making over 6 figures. A reasonable standard better equates to what the child would have had if he/she did not need to have been removed from home. I wish I knew that my children's college tuition/board/texts will be paid by the govt. with no additional costs to me or them.

p.s. Nearly half if not more than half of DC foster parents are actually relatives who wanted the higher board rates to care for their blood relative. The Supreme Court years earlier required that state agencies allow relatives the same chance to qualify as foster parents and not make them accept lower board rates. And remember, these funds are TAX FREE. So the foster parent with four teens is gaining in excess of $48,000 per year. You and I would need to earn about $65k per year to have that take home pay.

p.p.s. The study that Mr. Wexler noted above makes hypothetical claims of monthly expenditures that, as a parent of five, I can tell you do not match reality of monthly expenses. That is, their accounting is highly inflated. Please note, I am not anti-foster care. I think these people perform an excellent and necessary public service, but if about 50 other states can accomplish the same tasks with far less expenses to the public funds, then why can't DC?

DC is bankrupting itself for reasons that have little to do with foster care, but those involved with child welfare must realize that foster care should not become the back door route to higher public welfare checks. And when relatives are making anywhere from $12k to tens of thousands per year for taking care of their blood relatives, then there is something wrong with that system. Imagine a parent being told that if she gets back her child, she can get TANF for about $150 per month, but she sees her aunt getting $1,000 by the same govt.


Posted by: familynet | December 29, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Wexler

You are showing your true colors. Attcaking foster parent comments in such a combative way seems below journalistic standards. You made your point but it seems that anyone who questions your conclusions is open to the very name calling and attacks you accuse Dr Barth about. Hopefully the Washington Post is following your comments and attacks and sees you for who you are. You are not a social worker, child welfare expert and probably have never seen inside of a child welfare office. You do have your followers but I hope more and more advocates and child welfare "true" experts will comment and have you attack each of them since "you" are always right and its your way or the highway. Bring it on I know you will comment as well on this post.

Posted by: inkblot1986 | December 30, 2010 8:09 AM | Report abuse

Well, since you asked, Inkblot …

I do indeed show my true colors, in every post – by signing my real name. My bio is on the NCCPR website, www.nccpr.org, as are comments about our work from a number of journalists and even a social worker or two, available here: http://bit.ly/djAesH. And, of course the website includes documentation for all of our claims.

All of that gives readers the information they need to decide if they feel that the documentation is sufficient and to decide if they agree in whole or in part with my conclusions, or disagree as you do. Much the same, by the way, can be said for Dr. Barth, even though we disagree.

Unfortunately, like so many people who post to places like this, you choose to conceal your identity – and, unfortunately, like most newspapers, the Washington Post chooses to allow this. So your “true colors” remain unknown. I do find it disappointing that you appear vastly more upset with how I said what I said than with Ms. Bodymagic’s actual comments.

Richard Wexler
Executive Director
National Coalition for Child Protection Reform
www.nccpr.org

Posted by: rwexlernccpr | December 30, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

Dear Mr. Wexler

Cokie Roberts , a journalist of such caliber that there are not many who can meet her bar, has stated that "civility" is more than goodmanners, it is a state of mind. You Mr. Wexler could take a good look and your bully behavior. The public forum "anonymous opr identified is for the public discourse> Whether we choose to be anonimous or public is incidental and of no consequence if what we say bears hearing. I personally know of many who would like to comment but are in fear that you will go after them or their organizations with such vitriol that siolences them. I doubt that is an environment that you want to foster. By the way, your great blog is not "free: for posting of opinions and you so claim, they must ask your permission to post a reply. Thank goodnesss the Washington Post still believes in free speech and the ability for anyone (publicly identified or chosen to be private) to comment and exercise their right of public discourse. You do make many worthwhile suggestions but their are also ill informed in that as you have commented about the CFSA Budget you cannot say wether those very suggestions of reduction in group homes or reductions in residential treatment was incorporated. You need only to go to a public website on the District Budget and you will in fact fined that the Mayor's Budget for the agency in fact incorp[orated a 30 percent reduction in group homes and a reduction in RTC placements. So before you call the kettle black, please also check your facts.

A DC Resident and Tax Payer that seeks good government and responsible decision making.

Posted by: inkblot1986 | December 30, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse

Dear Mr. Wexler

Cokie Roberts , a journalist of such caliber that there are not many who can meet her bar, has stated that "civility" is more than goodmanners, it is a state of mind. You Mr. Wexler could take a good look and your bully behavior. The public forum "anonymous opr identified is for the public discourse> Whether we choose to be anonimous or public is incidental and of no consequence if what we say bears hearing. I personally know of many who would like to comment but are in fear that you will go after them or their organizations with such vitriol that siolences them. I doubt that is an environment that you want to foster. By the way, your great blog is not "free: for posting of opinions and you so claim, they must ask your permission to post a reply. Thank goodnesss the Washington Post still believes in free speech and the ability for anyone (publicly identified or chosen to be private) to comment and exercise their right of public discourse. You do make many worthwhile suggestions but their are also ill informed in that as you have commented about the CFSA Budget you cannot say wether those very suggestions of reduction in group homes or reductions in residential treatment was incorporated. You need only to go to a public website on the District Budget and you will in fact find that the Mayor's Budget for the agency in fact incorp[orated a 30 percent reduction in group homes and a reduction in RTC placements. So before you call the kettle black, please also check your facts.

A DC Resident and Tax Payer that seeks good government and responsible decision making.

Posted by: inkblot1986 | December 30, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

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