A Critical Look At The Foster Care System: Incentives to Foster Parents
While there are many dedicated people willing to open their homes and hearts to children in distress, it can not be denied that financial gain is among a number of significant incentives leading some to become foster parents.
As the number of licensed foster homes has dropped to a low of 100,000 for the nations' estimated 500,000 foster care children, so has the quality of foster care homes unquestionably diminished over the years.
Judge Judy Sheindlin, supervising judge for the Manhattan Family Court, describes the foster parent typically found today in the New York City foster care system:
The typical foster parent I see is a single woman who has several biological children of her own. She is supported by welfare or social security disability. She is a high school dropout whose own kids are marginally functioning. She does not have the ability to help them with their schoolwork, and she has little hope for a brighter economic or social future.
A 1989 study conducted by the Child Welfare League of America found many foster parents in California to be similarly qualified.
In reviewing a handguide for foster parents, the League suggested adding photographs, drawings and graphics, as: "While some foster families may be college trained, many foster parents may be illiterate or have poorly developed reading skills. The aim should be toward the average foster parents' reading level."
Is it any wonder that we find so many foster parents like these when we have programs in place which draw their recruits from the public assistance roles?
One such program is the Michigan Living in Family Environments program, which was developed to link people who are eligible for public assistance with foster children who have developmental disabilities.
Eligible foster parents can earn $22,000 a year plus medical benefits for caring for a developmentally disabled child through the program. In some cases, a family taking an additional such child may be paid a total of $35,000 a year.
One Detroit foster parent had just applied for public assistance when her sister suggested the Life Program. Seeing it as a chance to avoid dependency on the welfare program, she ended up adopting her first foster child. She admits she was drawn to the program by the money.
Hers is counted as a successful story--she ended up adopting her first foster child. But how might the natural mother have fared had she had the benefit of a even a fraction of this income to stay at home to care for her own child?
The Detroit model of foster care recruitment from the public assistance roles is one that has apparently gained some measure of popularity among program administrators.
In answer to a recommendation made by the 1989-90 San Diego Grand Jury, the Chairman of the Social Services Advisory Board suggested that this recruitment model should be adopted in his county as a means of "professionalizing" foster parenting, writing:
Agree that foster parenting should be professionalized and recommend the Detroit example be used as a model. In the Detroit model single mothers on welfare are trained and hired as foster parents and receive a salary. They take 3-4 kids and are not penalized on the welfare side for this job.
These recruitment methods account--at least in part--for the high percentage of single foster parents in the system overall. In Massachusetts, for example, forty-one percent of foster homes are run by single parents, many of whom care for several foster children in addition to their own.
One of the ironies to be found is that a significant percentage of foster care children themselves come from homes headed by single parents.
According to a 1991 U.S. Committee on Ways and Means report, the majority of children in foster care come from families supported by Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and 46 percent of the foster care population are minority children. The majority of these families are headed by single mothers.
A majority of foster children have themselves been removed from their homes not for reasons relating to physical abuse, but rather on the basis of questionable neglect charges, such as "failure to provide adequate supervision," or "failure to provide an adequate home environment."
As Denise Plunkett of the Chicago Columbus-Maryville Children's Reception Center explains, the risk of losing children to the state is something of an occupational hazard for poor mothers: "The finding neglect on a mother's part is just another word for impoverished. Amongst the other terrors a poor family faces, the state could take your kid."
Brenda Austin-Thomas is one such single mother. She lost her four children largely because social workers determined that they needed "discipline, structure, routine, a sense of limits." Among Brenda's other alleged shortcomings was that she failed to fully avail herself of the "services" offered to her by the Massachusetts Department of Social Services.
"You're not a bad mother, but you could have avoided all this by working with us," the social worker told her after taking her children.
Brenda insisted she was doing a good job as a single mother of four active children: "I can't be everywhere, see everything."
Brenda's situation is by no means unique. According to the Massachusetts Research, Evaluation and Planning Unit Annual Report, in 1990, of all supported abuse investigations in Boston and Brookline, 72 percent involved neglect. In other areas of the state about 65 percent involved neglect. The majority of the cases in Boston involved single-parent families.
Single foster parents are not all single woman, nor is financial gain necessarily the only incentive for taking children into care. In 1995, a 24-year-old man described as an "unemployed bachelor" was indicted for raping one of his foster sons.
Raul Vasquez, along with his mother, had served as a foster parent since 1992 to 51 children. The Massachusetts Department of Social Services had somehow managed to overlook the fact that nine of these children had run away from their foster home.
The problems associated with foster care placement are by no means unique to homes with single foster parents. And, in some cases, the payments made to foster parents may indeed be well deserved.
Foster mother Doris Marshall received $85,879 from the Massachusetts Department of Social Services in 1994. She cares for eight needy foster and adoptive children. One of her foster children has only the stem of a brain, cannot move and needs to be fed through a tube. Another has a rare chromosome disorder and, at the age of 5, cannot speak or walk. A third child has Down's syndrome. A fourth child was born drug addicted, and with a bone disorder.
This is the finest face of foster care. These children have true special needs, and they apparently are in a loving home with a foster mother who truly gives of herself for the benefit of the children in her care. And, the payments to foster parents are often much lower than the payments made to group homes or "therapeutic" facilities would be.
It must be emphasized that there are many caring and dedicated foster parents in the system. But, just as there is extreme variability to be found among caseworkers, managers, judges, and the many other actors in the child welfare system, there is extreme variability in the quality of foster care homes.
"Foster care is like Russian Roulette," explained a former New York City child protective caseworker, adding that any given foster home could well be "100 percent worse" than the home from which a child had been removed.
Standng in contrast to the ideal image of foster mother Doris Marshall, a Boston Globe review of payments made to foster parents in 1994 included accounts of these troubling cases:
Hazel and Pierre Cetoute, in whose home 3-year-old Gage Guillen died under mysterious circumstances, received $26,510 in fiscal year 1994, according to Department of Social Services records. At the time of the incident, the family was caring for four foster children and two adopted children.
Barbara and Michael Ohanian of Medway, in whose home a foster baby died of heat stroke after being left in the family car, received $24,837 in fiscal year 1994. The family had four foster children with medical problems, as well as four birth children at the time of the incident.
Carmen Torres, in whose home 13-month-old Luis Perez was apparently scalded so severely by an older foster child that he later died of complications, received $8,510 from the Department in fiscal year 1994. Torres had five foster children in her care at the time of the accident. Raul Vasquez, the 24-year-old "unemployed bachelor" accused of raping one of his foster sons, was, along with his mother, receiving $5,000 a month, or $60,000 a year, to care for 10 boys in two adjoining apartments.
Massachusetts state Senator Therese Murray (D-Plymouth), vice chairwoman of the Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee, explains that "in certain towns," foster care "is a cottage industry." But the foster parents she knows, she adds, "are not in it for the money. They deserve more money."
As former Congressman Mario Biaggi, who held a lengthy series of hearings investigating the foster care industry in New York City during the 1970s explained: "The fact is that foster care parents, to a large extent, take the children to make money, pure and simple. They may have with it a desire--a love for children, but that doesn't always necessarily follow."
A California Grand Jury investigating Nevada County's foster care system came to a strikingly similar conclusion:
Some adults become foster parents for no other incentive than the money to be derived from foster-child payments. This is a known fact and accepted by CPS and the State.
"Once these families receive their monthly payments," the Jury explains, "no accounting for how the funds are used is actually required in most cases."
In California, a San Diego County Grand Jury interviewed attorneys, physicians, specialists in child development, caseworkers and investigators, all of whom worked with foster children in one capacity or another.
The Grand Jury determined that by all accounts, "the most troublesome problem for the system is foster parents screening children for the 'right' one to adopt." It found that some foster parents who hope to adopt may "sift" through a number of children until they find the one they want.
In one case the Jury examined, legal counsel informed the Jury that the foster mother admitted that she was holding her foster care license only until the family found a "baby sister." The Hispanic natural mother of the baby girl who was placed in this home tried to visit her baby, but the foster mother frustrated the visitation efforts, instructing the caseworker not to transport the mother to the foster home.
In another case with what the Grand Jury described as "a bizarre twist," the foster parents believed the foster child was "too white to be Hispanic," and changed the baby's name to an English one as part of the process of making this child a permanent part of the family.
Another California Grand Jury, based in Santa Clara, examined the "Fost-adopt" program, reaching the same conclusions as its counterpart in San Diego:
One of the most controversial programs in the Social Services Agency involving child welfare services is the Fost-adopt Program. There is even controversy as to which children are selected for the program. These children are referred to as "marketable children," meaning they are young and cute.
One case reviewed by the Jury involved a parent who worked, against all odds, to complete satisfactorily her reunification plan. Had it not been for the tenacity of a very strong, highly principled and sensitive social worker and her supervisor, a child would have been adopted by fost-adopt parents even though the birth parent had met all of the reunification goals.
"The social worker put her job in jeopardy and refused to be intimidated by administrators within the department, the court-appointed evaluator, and the district attorney's office," notes the report.
"It was obvious that DFCS managers and members of a private family agency intended to circumvent the positive reunification results and to allow the fost-adopt parents to adopt the child. This was only one of several instances in which the integrity of the department and adherence to its mission appear to be questionable."
In another case, a San Diego County social worker had discussed a particular child with her own sister before the child was even born.
Some time after the child's birth, social worker Debbie Reid steered the girl into her sister's home, even though--contrary to court order--she wasn't even licensed to provide foster care. The pair had obtained an "emergency certificate" to accept the child, getting the formal license later.
The girl's natural mother had herself been raised in the foster care system, and Debbie Reid was her social worker. County officials were aware of all this, but kept it from the court for almost two years.
The father, determined to get his daughter back, over the course of about 18 months managed successfully to complete his mandated reunification plan. His attorney, a veteran of 260 juvenile court cases, said he'd never had a client comply so fully.
The legal battle that developed dragged on into late 1989, when a court finally declared a mistrial. In March of 1990, a second Juvenile Court referee ruled that the girl, by then 3, should live with her natural father.
Around this point, allegations of sexual abuse were raised against the father. These allegations were determined to be without merit.
The father's attorney, enraged by the efforts of the County to prevent the reunification of father and daughter, called it a case of government-sanctioned child-stealing, and he tried to get the show "60 Minutes" to investigate the case.
A year later, apparently not yet content with the harm it had done, the County petitioned for yet another hearing. A third referee this time ruled that the girl should be returned to her foster parents.
The father was forced to appeal. The Court of Appeal sided with him, saying that the girl's bonding with the foster family cannot override the constitutional rights of her father.
The foster parents were apparently dissatisfied with this outcome. They asked the state Supreme Court to intervene to stop the girl's return to her father. Joining in the appeal was the County, the girl's court-appointed attorney, and Voices for Children, an advocacy group which typically supports the rights of prospective adoptive parents over the rights of natural parents in such cases.
By this time, the girl was six years old, and in therapy to help her deal with the uncertainty with which she was living. She could have been spared much of this needless trauma had the County followed its mandate and returned her to her father at the first avalable opportunity.
The problem is not isolated to California.
A Washington state legislative study of the Division of Children and Family Services found that "most individual foster families will accept only children meeting their specific criteria. DCFS personnel estimate that 50 percent of licensed foster families are interested in serving only a specific child or sibling group. Others have a primary interest in adoptive children."
In Nebraska, Jasmine Petty left her baby in the care of a friend's sister to pick up her boyfriend in Kansas City, Missouri.
She was to return home four days later, but the car she was driving broke down in Omaha on the way home. As she had no money with her, it took her about a week to get home.
Her judgement in leaving baby Angelaura behind proved to be sound. "I didn't want to endanger my daughter's life by taking her with me to Kansas City," she said. "The car I took wasn't in real good condition; so to be safe, I left her with my friend's sister."
For unknown reasons, rather than calling Jasmine's mother as directed, the babysitter instead took Angelaura to the Hall County Sheriff's Department. Angelaura was in turn handed over to the state Department of Social Services in Grand Island, and placed with an unlicensed foster parent who happened to be an employee of the Department of Social Services.
While Department procedures require that placement with a relative should be considered, the Department refused requests by Jasmine's mother and some other relatives to place Angelaura with them, even though the relatives held valid foster care licenses.
Jasmine and others met with DSS Director Don Leuenberger in Lincoln to discuss the case. Leuenberger admitted that a case worker had made errors in the placement of Angelaura, but said there was little he could do--that it was now up to the courts to decide.
The case was investigated by officials of the Nebraska Department of Social Services. The state Foster Care Review Board also examined the case, finding that some violations of departmental policy had, indeed, taken place.
After two years of struggling to get her baby back, her parental rights to Angelaura were terminated in April of 1995 by a Hall County Court judge.
According to an article in the Omaha World-Herald, eight cases were reported in Nebraska in which a child has been turned over to a foster parent who also was an employee of DSS.
Jasmine's case has received a great deal of media attention. She said she doesn't mind being pointed out as an example of a mother whose child was taken and placed with a DSS employee.
"But that still doesn't help me," Jasmine told reporters. "I just want my baby back."
SPECIAL NEEDS CASES
While the definition of "special-needs" is as unclear as are the definitions of child abuse and neglect, the term generally includes a child born to a drug addicted mother, one who lacked prenatal care, or a child with a physical or psychological handicap. The term may also include a child that is difficult to place, for reasons of age, handicap or ethnicity.
The rates for special-needs children can be a high as $2000 per child, according to Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. At these rates, foster parents with two such children in the home can expect approximately $48,000 of annual tax-free income.
The 1991-92 San Diego Grand Jury confirmed that: "some foster parents improperly claim that a child needs special care in order to increase the amount of money coming into the home."
The Grand Jury found that some foster parents would claim that children needed treatment or therapy to obtain these increased payments, and that these payments were often retained by some foster parents who provided only marginal care for these children.
But there is another side to this story as well. The San Diego Union-Tribune describes the conditions found in the Hillcrest Receiving Home in 1994. Such facilities are paid substantially higher rates than are foster parents who provide individualized care:
The cramped conditions at Hillcrest Receiving Home, which temporarily houses abused and neglected children who have been removed from their homes, are deplorable. That a facility designed for 39 has had as many as 82 children, many sleeping in cribs lining the hallways, is a sad commentary.
Notes the Union-Tribune: "Prisoners are released early due to overcrowded conditions, yet when it comes to abused children, our community shows far less compassion. Unlike jails, there isn't even a court-set cap on the capacity of children's shelters."
To one child, the cramped conditions were so traumatic a court order was obtained to remove her from Hillcrest to a relative's home. And many foster parents were arguing that additional payments for children with true special needs were becoming more difficult to obtain, while children piled up in such facilities.
In South Carolina, a recent audit reveals similar trends. The audit identified discrepancies in "accelerated board payments" to foster parents. These are payments in addition to regular rates paid to foster parents with a child who has special behavioral or medical needs.
It was found that these accelerated payments to foster parents, once started, may continue for years. The auditors felt that agencies found it difficult to terminate these payments to foster parents with whom the agencies work closely.
It was also determined that the Department of Social Services has inadequate controls to ensure that accelerated board rate payments are appropriate, and, in the majority of the cases reviewed, it was found that the amount requested by the county was equal to the maximum amount granted by the state.
But there is another side to this story as well. In South Carolina, 73 percent of foster care children are in regular foster homes, yet these placements consume only 15 percent of the foster care budget. The audit found that 85 percent of foster care expenditures went to cover the costs of the special need placements in therapeutic and residential treatment centers.
The audit reported that these residential treatment centers can cost more than $10,000 per month. The auditors determined that at least 15% of these placements were questionable or inappropriate. It was also determined that children are often placed in such facilities by county agencies because there is a shortage of "regular" foster homes available.
A significant percentage of these special care placements will result in children being labeled as emotionally disturbed throughout their lifetimes, yet the audit found that at least 11% of the children placed in these treatment centers had no emotional problems, and that they had been so classified for purposes of placement in these facilities.
While it may be true, as the San Diego report would suggest, that some foster parents may know how to navigate the system for additional payments, and that some foster parents are considered as "favored" by some agencies, a disproportionate amount of expenditures continue to be provided to private foster care agencies.
As Benjamin Wolf, director of the Children's Initiative Project of the ACLU's Roger Baldwin Foundation, which won a far-ranging consent decree agains the Illinois child welfare system explains:
DCFS receives one billion dollars a year--how do they account for it? Foster mothers are paid $15 per day to feed and clothe kids, but residential treatment costs $300 per day. Why is it that the guy who runs an institution is paid $150-200 per day, but a foster mother doesn't receive that much in a week to feed the child? If we paid the foster mother, we could find adequate homes.