By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Wanda Lilly opened the envelope from the D.C. government and knew something was wrong.
For four years, Lilly had been the legal guardian of three grandnieces she had taken in when the girls were going to be split up and sent to separate foster homes. And for four years, she had been receiving a guardianship subsidy from the District to help cover the cost of raising them.
So when the statement arrived in the mail in April, Lilly was stunned to see that the District had cut the monthly stipend by a third, or about $1,000.
The reason: Shamice, the oldest of the three girls, had just turned 18, and under District guidelines she no longer qualifies for the subsidy.
It didn't matter that Shamice hadn't even started her senior year of high school. It didn't matter that as a young child she had lost a year of school, bouncing from one foster home to another. And it didn't matter that the subsidy would have continued until Shamice turned 21 if Lilly had kept the girls as foster children instead of agreeing to become their legal guardian.
"She's still in high school," Lilly said. "She's on the dance team. She's in the band. She has to keep up her grades. She has other things to be thinking about, more so than being independent and paying rent."
Many advocates say Shamice's cases illustrates how disparities in child welfare subsidies hurt children and hamper the city's efforts to move children out of foster care, especially older children, whose best hope might be a relative willing to become a guardian.
"It's not fair to children or their families," said Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children's Law Center, which advocates for the city's children. "It's unfair to make it easier to keep them in foster care than to allow them to live with their families outside of the government's control."
Almost a decade ago, when the District created a subsidy for guardianships, the city was at the forefront of a push to encourage extended families to take in young relatives who had been abused or neglected and could not return to their birth parents.
Today, almost 500 guardians are raising almost 800 D.C. children, many of whom might have otherwise remained in foster care.
Now, child welfare advocates say, the time has come for the District to again take the lead and extend the subsidies for guardianships and adoptions until those children reach 21 as well.
"Those of us that are parents know that kids aren't independent at 18 yet," said Margie Chalofsky, executive director of the D.C. nonprofit Foster and Adoptive Parent Advocacy Center.
Not only would such a change acknowledge the reality that most 18-year-olds are not ready to be independent, supporters say, but it could also increase the number of D.C. foster children moving into more permanent living arrangements. A guardian assumes legal responsibility for a child's care and is typically related to the child. Ties to the birth parents are not severed, as happens in an adoption. For older children, that can be important. They might have maintained some relationship with their parents and might not want a new last name or a new "mom" or "dad." Guardianships also do not carry the strict city and court supervision that foster care requires.
Many D.C. foster children seeking adoption are older than 12, and many have special health or education needs or are part of large sibling groups, all factors that can make them harder to place in adoptive homes.
A federal law enacted last year gives states, for the first time, the option to use federal funding to continue foster care, guardianship and adoption subsidies until age 21. The law is being phased in over two years.
Subsidy policies for foster care, guardianship and adoption vary widely. The District and about three dozen states, including Maryland, currently provide some sort of guardianship subsidy. In Maryland, the guardianship subsidy of $585 is considerably less than the base rate for foster care, $835 a month. Subsidies can continue until age 21 if the child is in school or is disabled. Virginia, which provides assistance for adopted children until 18 and for foster children until 21, is studying the possibility of offering a subsidy for guardianship.
In the District, the foster care and guardianship subsidies are the same amount until a child reaches 18. Advocates and the city's child welfare director, Roque Gerald, went before the D.C. Council's Human Services Committee last fall to lobby for a change.
Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), the committee's chairman, said in an interview yesterday that he expects to introduce legislation in the next 60 days to extend the guardian and adoption subsidies.
The change would not only help move more children out of foster care, but it would also allow the system to focus on the children most in need of help, Wells said. "The foster care system should be temporary and focused on youth in crisis," he said. "We should not be focused on raising children in foster care."
Advocates say extending the subsidy will pay for itself in savings. Wells said he expects some savings but that there will be additional costs, and he is awaiting the results of a fiscal impact study before finalizing the legislation.
The loss of the subsidy is a hardship for Lilly, 58, who makes $41,000 a year as a program assistant for D.C. public schools. She still receives assistance for Shamice's sisters, Shanae, 16, and Tracie, 14. But Shamice is staying put for now, living in the family's Temple Hills apartment, working her way through her senior year at Potomac High School in Oxon Hill and thinking about Prince George's Community College for next year.
And Lilly has no regrets; she knew raising three girls would not be easy or cheap.
"My concern," she said, "was for them not to be split up and for them to have a stable home, someplace they could call home. . . . I really wanted them to know a normal life."