Paltry Reimbursements to Foster Parents Cost Kids

Sister Michael Delores Allegri doesn’t serve as a foster parent for the money. That’s a good thing for two reasons. First, people who take in neglected or abused children must be about loving and nurturing them. Second, most states in the U.S. don’t come close to covering the costs of raising foster children.“All the money I get for kids goes in `em or on `em,” said Allegri, who has raised foster children in Colorado since 1999.

Still, the nun from the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth has had to go to her own sources for tens of thousands of dollars to cover the basic needs of the children for whom she cares.

That’s because Colorado reimburses foster parents  obscenely low rates, according to a new national study.

The study of Foster Care Minimum Adequate Rates for Children – or MARC – found Colorado would have to raise its current reimbursements by an average of roughly 92 percent to reach the minimum costs of normal living expenses for foster children.

“Obviously, I agree with the study,” Allegri said. “It costs a lot more than it pays to raise a foster child.”

The MARC study found that across the country foster-care reimbursements need to rise an average of 36 percent to cover minimum child-rearing expenses. Colorado’s foster-care reimbursement rates rank it among the nation’s worst, lower than traditionally poor states such as Mississippi. Colorado, with the eighth highest per capita income in the country, stands 44th in the percentage of child-rearing expenses it reimburses to foster parents.

Cheryl Duncan, a finance expert with the state Department of Human Services, said Colorado froze its base rate for foster-care reimbursement in 1997. The base rate is $14 a day. Individual counties may negotiate higher or lower rates with foster care providers, Duncan said. Few if any counties go lower. Some counties do go higher. But many counties, especially poor counties, cannot afford to add money to the state reimbursement rate. Counties sometimes farm out the job of finding foster parents to private placement agencies, said Duncan, because it costs less. But the cost savings that come from moving children wherever foster parents are available can leave children in homes far away from biological family and friends, making visitation difficult.

The reimbursement problem needs to be addressed, Duncan conceded. It needs to be taken care of “sooner than later,” she said. Human services officials are considering a statewide study that is more comprehensive than the MARC study, which didn’t include the costs of child care and transportation.

A state audit recently mentioned the foster-care reimbursement problem. The recent high-profile case of a child starved to death in foster care has raised concerns about the quality of investigations of abuse. Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter included millions more for better foster-care investigations in his current budget proposal.

It is all reactive.

“There’s no excuse to be abusive,” Allegri said. “But if we put the money upfront and work with biological parents who have a chance to change, maybe we’ll come to a place where we don’t need foster parents.”

Those we do need can be paid enough so that taking on a foster child does not become a crushing, stressful financial burden, one that could leave the child as neglected or abused as he or she was before.

The MARC study drives home the point in dollars and cents. For a two-year-old foster child, the study reported, Colorado pays an average of $348 a month. According to the study, the actual costs for that child, exclusive of child care and transportation, are $659 per month. As the child ages, the disparity grows. At age nine, the report says Colorado pays just $392 of a monthly cost of $755. At age 16, the reimbursement is $423 for a child costing $828 a month.

Do the math. For a two-year-old, that’s $3,732 a year in un-reimbursed but necessary expenses. For a nine-year-old, it’s $4,356 a year. For a 16-year-old, it’s $4,860 a year.

It gets worse. Foster parents not only have to come out of their pockets for hundreds of bucks a month in un-reimbursed expenses, their reimbursed expenses are paid roughly a month after they are incurred. It could be longer Duncan admitted, if foster parents or case workers don’t file paperwork on time.

The upshot is an economic and bureaucratic nightmare that drives away prospective foster parents. Or a system that leaves foster children without basic necessities.

Inadequate reimbursement “plays a strong role in keeping people away,” said Allegri. “I hear people say, `I can’t afford to do it.’

“The middle class struggles today to make ends meet.”

Those who take on foster kids, but can’t afford to pay out-of-pocket add insult to injury, Allegri said.

“The ones who suffer are the kids,” she said. “And they have already been through trauma.”

Adding a neglected or abused child to your household is a public service that involves a tremendous investment of time and emotion, said Allegri.

It should not also require a personal investment of thousands of dollars a year.

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Jim Spencer

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