FIJ Quarterly - Summer 2022 Edition

You Get What You Pay For: The Federal Government Should Stop Paying for Foster Care Richard Wexler

For many years, Mary Callahan was a foster parent in Maine. When she realized that almost every child placed with her could have remained safely in her or his own home had their own parents gotten the financial support she was getting as a foster parent, she became an activist, fighting to reform the system. She wrote a book about her experiences called Memoirs of a Babystealer . 1 Callahan often tells a story about an executive for the private foster care agency she worked with. The executive told her, “We need 60 kids to make payroll, and we only have 61. We’re not talking adoption or reunification with anyone until we get our numbers up.” 2 Rarely are the people who run what should properly be called the foster care-industrial complex that blunt. Most of the time, they rationalize taking away children needlessly and prolonging their time in foster care; they rationalize it even to themselves. But whether they admit it or not, financial incentives matter. And in almost every state at almost every level of government, the financial incentives work against keeping families together. You get what you pay for. If we want states to stop tearing apart families needlessly, the federal government should stop paying to tear apart families needlessly. The federal government should phase out all funding for foster care. The money should be redirected into community- based community-run support for families. A Century of Incentives In his 1991 book, For Reasons of Poverty , child welfare scholar Leroy Pelton traced the rise and fall of the foster care population through most of the 20th century. He found the number of children in foster care actually declined during the Great Depression—because Congress

passed what was then called Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), making it possible for more families to avoid having their children taken because of poverty. 3 But in 1962, the law was changed, and ADC payments were allowed to follow a child into foster care. 4 So, during the prosperous 1960s, foster care skyrocketed. This paper explains the major financial incentives as they exist now, both for governments and for private agencies. It outlines how to change those incentives to promote safe, proven alternatives to tearing apart families. Financial Incentives for Governments There is a wide array of federal “funding streams” that either can be used to fund the family policing system or must be used only to fund it. 5 There also are various state programs and, in some states, local funding as well. This section looks at some of the most important. Although the incentives for the government do indeed push the government toward child removalandawayfromsafe,provenalternatives, it is not the case that “governments make money on foster care.” When the discussion is oversimplified that way, it makes it easy for ______________ 1 Callahan, Mary. Memoirs of a Baby Stealer . Pinewoods Press, 2003. 2 Callahan, Mary. “Statement of Mary Callahan, foster and adoptive parent, founder, Maine Alliance for DHS Accountability and Reform.” July 20, 2010. https://bit. ly/3uvlJp3 3 Pelton, Leroy H. For Reasons of Poverty . Praeger, 1989, p. 6. 4 For a full discussion of this change, and how it is related to racism in family policing, see Roberts, Dorothy. Torn Apart . Hachette, 2022. 5 For a list of these programs and a breakdown of how much is spent on each, see “Federal Appropriations for Youth and Families.” The Imprint , undated 2022 https:// Federal-Appropriations-Imprint-V2.pdf

56 | FIJ Quarterly | Summer 2022

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