Underfunded Foster Care Sparks 'Crisis' in U.S.

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 18, 2007

In nearly every state, the cost of providing basic care for a foster child exceeds the government's foster-care reimbursement rate, according to national research released last week.

Only the District and Arizona have reimbursement rates that meet or exceed the estimated cost of caring for a foster child, according to a report by the University of Maryland School of Social Work, the national watchdog group Children's Rights, and the National Foster Parent Association.

The study, "Hitting the MARC: Establishing Foster Care Minimum Adequate Rates for Children," provides the first nationwide, state-by-state calculation of the real expenses of providing foster care. The researchers factored in the costs of housing, food, clothing and school supplies to determine a standard rate for each state and the District.

"There are such major disparities between the states and how they reimburse foster families, from as little as $200 in Nebraska, for example, and as much as $800 in the District," said Diane DePanfilis, the report's co-author and a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

Federal law requires state and local child welfare systems to reimburse foster parents for the cost of meeting children's basic needs, but there is no standard federal minimum reimbursement rate. State and local governments are free to set their own rates, and the report found that many states have no particular methodology in doing so.

"In some states, they've had pretty sophisticated methods for coming up with rates," said DePanfilis, who directs the university's Ruth H. Young Center for Families and Children. "In most states, however, there's been no actual method for how they construct the rates that they provide to foster families."

"Foster parents need to be paid within accordance of the cost of living within [their] jurisdiction," said Sharlynn Bobo, acting director of the District's Child and Family Services Agency. "Jurisdictions need to figure out what foster parents need."

The District agency must review its reimbursement rates annually as part of an agreement reached in May 2003 after the city regained control of the agency from federal receivership. Rates are based on cost estimates for raising a child, as published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In the District, foster parents are reimbursed between $869 and $940 per month, the national report says. The actual cost of raising a foster child in the District is lower, ranging from $625 to $790, according to the research.

In Maryland, the government's monthly foster care reimbursement rates range from $735 to $750, depending on the child's age, the report says. But it costs foster parents as much as $789 per month to provide proper care for a child, researchers found.

Brenda Donald, Maryland's secretary of human resources, whose department oversees the foster care program, said the new report will help the state determine its foster care reimbursement rates.

Donald said the state is trying to recruit more foster parents as it launches a "Place Matters" initiative to move children from more costly group home settings into family foster care.

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