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Posted at 11:50 AM ET, 01/ 6/2011

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

By Marcia Robinson Lowry, New York

In light 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 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 up in 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 commentary he went on to suggest that the District has “lavish[ed] . . . money on foster parents” and that it should consider cutting the “fat pay raises” for families willing to give abused and neglected children a safe home — and perhaps a few small pleasures of childhood, such as a toy, game or 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 it was $28,600 a year for relative caregivers. No matter how full foster parents’ hearts may 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 order been met, the District would 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 — and often 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.

The District’s fiscal problems are, 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 to at long last meet the requirements of the federal court order and produce a system that thousands of abused and neglected kids and vulnerable families through the city deserve and desperately need.

And finally produce a system about which the District can be proud and can feel it has gotten its money’s worth.

The writer is the executive director of Children’s Rights.

By Marcia Robinson Lowry, New York  | January 6, 2011; 11:50 AM ET
Categories:  D.C., child services  
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Comments

It’s always fascinating when Marcia Lowry starts debating Marcia Lowry. It was Marcia Lowry’s own report which found that DC pays its foster parents *more* than they need to cover almost every conceivable expense, including every toy, every game, every movie ticket and every amusement park ride (Think I’m kidding? Read Marcia’s “technical report” accompanying the study which explains the calculations. It’s available here: http://bit.ly/fvyts7 then check the table in the main report http://bit.ly/hL7aAf to see how DC compares.)

Indeed, the basic foster care payment in DC is $10,428 per year for younger children $11,280 per year for teenagers, again according to Marcia’s own report. And that’s tax free.

Marcia apparently believes that if foster parents don’t get that much they’ll stop buying toys for their foster children. I happen to think more highly of foster parents. I think most really aren’t in it for the money. So the real question is this, Marcia: Do you really think that the only way a foster parent will give a foster child “a few small pleasures of childhood” is if the government pays them to do it? Would you want *your* child placed with someone who would demand government reimbursement for buying that child a teddy bear? Or a sanitary napkin?

I’m not making that last example up. Check out the comments following my original op ed, (http://wapo.st/gPEmgK) and you’ll find one from a foster parent with a six-figure income, plus her husband’s income, who complains that the more than $45,000 per year she received tax free to care for four foster teenagers wasn’t enough to pay for things like sanitary napkins.

Overpaying foster parents attracts more such foster parents and fewer of the kind we all want – the kind who understand that if you really care about a child, if you are engaging in an act of charity and love, it’s worth it to dip into your own pocket, just a little. Foster parents like the one who wrote this for the Los Angeles Times: http://lat.ms/6QRj3

As for pitting birth parents, relatives and foster parents against each other, that’s Marcia Lowry’s specialty. Her settlements in Michigan and Georgia led those states to cut help for low income families and programs to keep families together in order to fund hiring binges for child abuse investigators and foster care workers.

And Marcia has been silent about the fact that DC takes away children at rates far higher than many cities, including cities that do a far better job of keeping children safe.

In tough times, everyone has to sacrifice. Is it really too much to ask that DC foster parents accept a little less than $10,000 per year, tax free, to take in a foster child?

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

Posted by: rwexlernccpr | January 6, 2011 12:54 PM | Report abuse

I think Marcia Robinson Lowry, for all her good intentions, is really a "systemite." She invests so much time, energy and money in trying to repair a system so damaged that it destroys the very thing it was created to protect. It's time to start over, start fresh. Foster children are exposed to sexual abuse, brutalized and murdered. (Google: child+foster+death). For all your good intentions, you can't fix that. While we never want that to happen to anyone, it should NEVER happen in foster care. EVER! But it happens all the time. Children who are not battered/orphaned should be with family. It costs a lot less to help a broken family build a better life and that kind of help given with love and inspiration does more for the child than foster care will ever do. Foster children and their families need our love and compassion. That's the missing ingredient in the child abuse industry. Why waste time trying to fix an industry that engages in human rights abuses. Why not invest your energy in something different? Something that will repair the very foundation that these children need to become whole again.

Posted by: jholderbaum | January 6, 2011 1:14 PM | Report abuse

The debate between Ms. Lowry and Mr. Wexler illustrates clearly how many opinions exist about the proper way to handle an array of issues that rest at the feet of CFSA on a daily basis. It seems that the old adage about putting 3 lawyers in a room and you'll get 4 opinions is not within the exclusive provence of the legal community. When so-called "experts" take each other's opinions to task in such no-holds-barred ways, one can only imagine how difficult it is for any child welfare agency to decide how to manage the enormously difficult job that is its to execute. Most agree on the outcomes desired. Few seem to agree on the process, or allocation of resources, or indeed something as intuitive as the desirability of adoption as permanency for children in the system.Critics of the DC Child Welfare system are free to vocalize their opinions ad nauseum and know that CFSA is not permitted to respond to most of the public "floggings" because it is CFSA's responsibility to honor the confidentiality of those within its care -- an obligation regrettably ignored by City Paper writers and Opinion drafters. The details of Judge Hogan's recent decision in the consent decree case acknowledge the extraordinary progress made by DC's child welfare system - a decision which adopted, nearly completely, the AGENCY's recommendations for exit stragegies, while rejecting those of Children's Rights'. Few "outsiders" to the case have sufficient knowledge to parce through the hundreds of pages of paper filed by those who are parties to the case to have a complete understanding of what has transpired and where the case stands now. The "spin" by Children's Rights is, predictably, not going to concede any aspects of the Judge's decisions that might be regarded as "defeats" or, alternatively, acknowledge any of the progress of CFSA. Sadly, if CFSA had just a quarter of the money that it had spent on lawyer's fees to Children's Rights, the Court Monitor and similar expenses, it might be able to do ALL of the things that both Lowry and Wexler desire. When critics stop siphoning off funds that should be used for children and when they acknowledge their own complicity in making the situation more difficult than it already is for the committed workers of CFSA, perhaps progress can be made on a timetable that meets everyone's needs.

Posted by: ConcernedMumsie | January 7, 2011 8:22 AM | Report abuse

Amazing, mumsie. You’ve actually put me in a position where I have to *agree* with Marcia Lowry on something. The DC system is so awful that even one of Marcia’s consent decrees has made it a little better – something I would not say about all of her consent decrees. Indeed your own comment cites improvements that are due to the very decree you complain about. The way to avoid spending money on lawyer’s fees and monitors is actually to comply fully with the consent decree, and then renegotiate its weak points, something DC hasn’t been willing to do for 20 years.

As for secrecy, the system is secret because CFSA and similar agencies want it that way to cover up their mistakes. NCCPR favors opening court hearings – as now is the norm in at least 15 states. None of those states has closed the courts again because people like mumsie were flat wrong – children were not harmed and the accountability brought at least some improvement in several states, and big improvements in some individual cases. Details are on our website here: http://bit.ly/hhXVhN

We also favor giving CFSA the right to comment on individual cases if they have become public in any other way, a right that agencies have in several other states, including New York and Arizona.

And though it will cost you $3.95, you might be surprised to find out who was the first, on these pages, to condemn former mayor Fenty’s scapegoating of CFSA workers in the wake of the Jacks case: http://bit.ly/gI4fEt

But you sure make that harder, when you say, in effect: We work there, so we know best, but everything’s secret, and we want to keep it that way, so you just have to take our word for it – and give us a whole lot more money!

And speaking of money, I’m a tax-and-spend liberal and proud of it. But DC spends on child welfare at a rate more than triple the national average and a higher rate than 49 states. It spends vastly more than states with much better systems.

If you want to know why DC spends so much and the children get so little, be sure to read that CityPaper cover story mumsie is complaining about: http://bit.ly/ew5ism And then check out mumsie’s comment on the story (#19) in which she actually suggests that after everything CFSA has forced the child at the center of the story to endure, letting her stay with her loving grandmother before she is formally licensed as a foster parent, somehow might be worse. (On that one, I’m sorry to say, Marcia Lowry probably would agree with you – see Comment #26).

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

Posted by: rwexlernccpr | January 7, 2011 11:07 AM | Report abuse

An update (In case anybody’s still here). Because one should never take any claim from Marcia Lowry at face value, I purchased and downloaded the study Marcia cites for her claim that foster parents are not middle class. Turns out she took the data out of context and grossly distorted it. Recall how she writes that

“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.”

Thus, she makes it sound like relatives earn $28,600 and strangers get $35,500.

But it’s not true.

The $35,500 figure is the average income for *all* foster parents, kin and stranger combined. And the study in question was done in Illinois, which has one of America’s most progressive policies of placing children with relatives, so the unusually high proportion of kinship care parents brings down the average.

When you look only at what should best be called “stranger-care” parents, the average income is $41,220. That’s just short of what the same study said was the median family income in Illinois, $44,459; (And before anyone says “Hey, you switched from a mean (average) to a median,” that’s what the study did, you’d have to ask the authors why they felt it was the fairest comparison).

As for kinship care parents, NCCPR has long noted that they do, indeed, tend to be poor. And that’s precisely why it’s such a tragedy that Marcia Lowry runs around the country fanatically demanding that they comply with precisely the same licensing requirements as those middle-class strangers. Having forced at least 1,800 children out of such kinship homes in Michigan as a result of imposing such requirements, Marcia is in no position to pose as a champion of such parents. And to really see how much harm this licensing fanaticism can do in DC, just check out Jason Cherkis’ story in CityPaper http://bit.ly/ew5ism

The way to help kinship care parents is to free them from the most onerous of the licensing requirements and provide them with extra assistance, not to lavish $10,000 per year per child tax free on, yes, middle-class strangers just because it also will “trickle down” to the grandparents and other kinship foster parents.

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

Posted by: rwexlernccpr | January 9, 2011 8:34 AM | Report abuse

So let's bring down the conversation to a regular citizen's level, we will pay thousands of dollars for "selected" foster parents (many with criminal intentions) money to sustain children in the foster care children. These children come from families that probably could not care for them due to economical reasons. So, instead of providing Tracy, who is working a double-shift at McDonalds to sustain her children, with an extra $400 a month so that she can stay with her children at home and care for them, we pay complete strangers $2,500 a month plus health insurance for the children so that they can alienate children from families and often times abuse or even kill these children. Wonderful! I get it now Lowry. 2011 is the year for child welfare reform.

Posted by: LynnMoscoso | January 12, 2011 10:50 AM | Report abuse

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