In U.S., Foster Care Funding in 'Crisis'

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 28, 2007

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

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 expenses 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 providing 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."

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.

"Adequate pay is just a basic component," Donald said. "If you have happy foster parents who feel supported, then they will encourage their friends and neighbors and church members and family members to foster," Donald said. "But if they're unhappy, they'll send out that message, and it will be that much harder to recruit good foster parents."

Maryland is significantly better off than some states, the report says. Ohio, for example, reimburses foster parents $275 per month per child, but the actual cost of raising a foster child in that state ranges from $635 to $797 per month, the report says.

In the District, foster parents are reimbursed between $869 and $940 per month, the 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 Virginia, the reimbursement rate ranges from $368 to $546, although the cost of raising a child ranges from $605 to $760, the report found.

"The bottom line is that when these rates don't reflect the real expenses that foster parents face, it's the children who suffer," Karen Jorgenson, executive director of the National Foster Parent Association, said in a statement.

There are more than 500,000 children in foster care in the United States, three-quarters of whom are placed by the government into foster parent households, the report said.

The inadequacy of reimbursement rates in some states is taking a heavy toll on foster parent recruitment and retention, said Julie Farber, director of policy for Children's Rights, the national watchdog organization.

"At a time when increasing numbers of abused and neglected children are housed in institutions and the number of foster parents is in steady decline in many places, this constitutes a crisis," Farber said in a statement.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company