Foster Care Frustrations
Recession makes a tough job even harder
by Krista Harper
Unlike most stay-at-home moms, Tammy Hadley can never be entirely sure how many children she will have on a given day. Most days, it’s 12. Today, she has 14 — and she never knows when more could arrive. None of her children today is under the age of 3, yet a toddler’s high chair sits on her porch, just in case.
She can be sure that 10 of the children are hers. Four are biological, three are former foster children she and her husband, Joe, have adopted and three are foster children permanently placed in the Hadley home. Two more are regular foster children, and the two extras she has today are foster children she is watching for another foster parent in need of a reprieve. It isn’t unusual for Hadley to get a call from another foster parent asking if she can take his or her kids for a night. She’s also signed up to take kids in emergency situations — children who have been removed from their homes quickly, under extreme circumstances.
Life is stressful enough, even without a dozen children to care for. But the Hadleys, like many Americans, live from paycheck to paycheck, Tammy Hadley says.
“You don’t go into foster care for the money.” That’s a common misconception, she says, one that foster parents fight every day.
“But,” she adds, “without the money, we couldn’t afford to take care of the children.”
The recession that started last fall has created a turbulent situation for children like the ones taken in by the Hadleys. Even under ideal conditions, supporting a foster child is a huge task. It requires the cooperation of state officials, relatives, foster parents and various nonprofits to make sure that a child is cared for physically, mentally and emotionally, to provide the best possible chance at success. But stressors like financial strain and unemployment make it more likely that parents will neglect or abuse their children. That puts more demand on the system itself, and more strain on nonprofits that help keep kids out of the system, and those who help children already in the care of Child Protective Services (CPS). At the same time, these nonprofits are scaling back services because there’s less funding to support them.
Oregon’s rising unemployment rate, one of the highest in the nation, takes a toll on families, especially those already dealing with other stressors. Rolanda Garcia, child welfare manager for Lane County Department of Human Services (DHS), says that in times of economic struggle, children are more likely than usual to be neglected. In the current situation, she says, “People are experiencing more stressors, which means we’re getting more calls.”
Megan Schultz, the executive director of Lane County’s Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program, says she’s noticed a rise in the numbers of children in care since the recession began last fall. “I feel like you could literally graph increases in foster children according to changes in the market,” she says.
New dependency petitions are filed for each child who comes into the care of CPS, whether the child is in foster care or being tracked at home by a social worker. A dependency petition is filed when it is believed that a child does not have a parent or guardian caring for them properly, and an investigation by CPS may lead to a foster care placement. In 2006 and 2007, new dependency petitions were filed at an average of 34 or 35 a month. The average jumped to 48 each month in 2008, and for the first four months of 2009, the average was 64 new petitions a month — almost double the rate of two years ago.
As children go back to school in the fall and are back around teachers (who are mandated by law to report possible abuse or neglect), she expects the numbers to jump again. “We’re holding our breath for what will happen in October, November,” Schultz says.
At a time when need is rising, nonprofit organizations need more assistance than ever, yet they are often the first to see a drop in finances. Garcia says that the biggest budget problem facing the foster care community is the budget shortfall of nonprofits serving those in need.
Irene Alltucker, executive director of Eugene’s Relief Nursery, says that the changing market has put a huge amount of pressure on her organization. “At a time when we have to make cutbacks in funding, the increase in demand is very difficult to deal with,” she says.
The Relief Nursery helps struggling parents keep their children at home by offering alcohol and drug recovery programs, parenting classes and other programs for children and adults. Though some funding for the Nursery comes from the state in the form of contracts, the majority of the budget is funded by the community and grants — and Alltucker says that funding from all sources has dropped considerably in the last year. But the need has risen. The Relief Nursery’s waiting list of families currently exceeds 280, while last year, the list hovered close to 80.
Alltucker has cut staff hours and laid off workers to reduce costs, and all the while, the Nursery has struggled to provide support to more families than ever. During the first three months of 2009, Alltucker says the Nursery served as many families as it did in all of 2008.
CASA has also been affected by the economic downturn. CASA volunteers are matched with abused and neglected children and collect information from adults involved with their children to determine what is best for them. They use the information to advocate for children in court. The organization’s budget comes mostly from donations and grants, with $80,500 coming from the state of Oregon each year.
When the economy started to sour, Schultz scrambled to conserve resources and managed to cut spending in 2008 from a budget of $677,000 down to $554,000. But with fewer donations and higher competition for grants, 2009’s budget is below $508,000. State funding has remained constant, but the funding reductions from other sources mean that more than 100 children will remain on the CASA waiting list indefinitely. Children with advocates get better access to services and are less likely to re-enter the foster care system because of subsequent abuse, and Schultz says it’s heartbreaking to see children with really rough histories go without a CASA because of a lack of funding.
“I feel like with this economy we’re standing on shifting sands,” she says. “It’s hard to plan for the future. My best shot in the dark is to conserve funds as much as possible without jeopardizing children we’re already serving.”
Budgeting for Kids
For years, Oregon and most other states have paid foster parents rates well below the actual cost of raising children, according to research done by the advocacy group Children’s Rights. Thanks to the group’s studies and advocacy, many states, including Oregon, have begun to raise their foster care payments to meet basic estimated costs of child-rearing. As of Sept. 1, basic monthly rates for children up to age 5 went up from $399 to $639; for children 6 to 12, rates were raised from $414 to $728; and for teenagers, the rate went from $512 to $823. The new rates are designed to include necessities like clothing and diapers, which were previously not covered under the monthly rate. New parameters were set up to discern which children required more care based on their needs and how much their foster parents will receive. For the majority of foster children, an estimated 84 to 89 percent, payments will go up, while rates will likely drop for the other 11 to 16 percent of children.
Hadley says she is thrilled with the new rate changes, which are much more realistic for the cost of raising a child, but she says even the new rates only cover the most basic of budgets, which can be a challenge for foster families without much extra money to spare. For example, she says, it can be hard getting dinner together for a large family, especially if one of the children has an emotional outburst she has to deal with. It’s easier on everyone to go out for a cheap dinner — but even basic pizza for her large family costs around $100, she says, so it’s not really an option.
Luckily for Oregon children, many cuts to human services that were proposed by the Oregon Legislature early this year weren’t passed. Some would have impacted foster children directly, while others — such as funding cuts for domestic violence programs — would have had a trickle-down effect. Instead, $670 million in emergency federal aid and the passage of $1.1 billion in higher taxes on high-income corporations, individuals and health care providers brought the budget for state services to $15.2 billion, which is $600 million more than it would have taken to maintain current state services for the next two years. For now, foster care is fairly safe in that respect, but not if the recession doesn’t lift by the time the state budget is decided again in 2011.
Oregon may have a bigger problem coming up with funding for human services like foster care. Some conservatives are protesting the increase in taxes and have collected enough signatures to refer the taxes to the ballot. If Oregonians vote against the new taxes, the increased funding for Oregon foster care and support for other programs could be at risk.
Since the Oregon Safety Model (OSM) was implemented two years ago, the number of children in care has dropped. The OSM helps families create safety plans and get necessary treatment so that children who might otherwise end up in foster care can stay at home with their families. The number of children in foster care in Oregon today is still significantly lower than it was before the OSM, though there has been a slight rise in children in care since the recession began. From a five-year low of 793 children in Lane County’s foster care system in August 2008, the number slowly climbed over the fall and winter to 861 in April 2009 (the last available statistics). Though numbers of children in care in the mid-800s aren’t unusual, the recent upward trend is, especially given that numbers have generally been dropping since the OSM was put in place.
Foster parents face the recession
Though Hadley says her family is doing better than many foster families through the recession, changes in funding have made some aspects of her life a struggle. She says the state used to give out small grants for big-ticket items like bikes and camp fees for foster kids, but those funds were frozen last fall. Though the state never gave out much money to new foster kids for clothing, in the recession it became nearly impossible to get clothing vouchers, she says. Only in extreme circumstances — for instance, a child arriving with no clothes except those on his back — were there clothing vouchers available for the child, Hadley says. Foster parents turned to each other instead to redistribute clothes appropriate for each child, and some local DHS workers have helped by making lists of free clothes closets, she says. As the president of the Lane County Foster Family Association, Hadley often takes charge of redistributing clothing and other necessities such as the high chair sitting on her porch. Even with foster care rates redesigned to include clothing costs, many foster parents will likely continue to trade for clothes and other necessities, Hadley says.
The basic monthly rates given to foster parents for the care of a child, though recently raised, are too low to cover extra costs like high chairs and bicycles, Hadley says. Hadley says that paying out of pocket for services for her foster children continues to be an everyday reality.
Hadley is able to be a stay-at-home mom because her husband has a consistent paycheck, but she says many working foster parents need help paying for daycare. A couple she knows pays for their foster baby’s child care while they both work. There are no government resources to pay for child care in Oregon now, though the need has been acknowledged by the foster care rate redesign committee. So parents pay out-of-pocket for their foster children to be in daycare. In more extreme circumstances, some foster parents take in extra children for short stints to give others a break, as the Hadleys did today. Most parents need time away from their foster children to attend to their own needs and problems, and this respite care isn’t funded yet either, though it was also identified as a need for Oregon foster parents by the committee to redesign the rate structure.
In some ways, the recession has hit foster parents the same way as it has hit everyone else, but matters can be complicated by the children involved. One foster mom Hadley knows was laid off recently and is struggling to stay afloat. The mother takes in hard-core teenagers, Hadley says — some suicidal, some with mental illnesses like schizophrenia. The woman is having trouble finding a new job because of the recession but also because she can’t take work unless it’s flexible enough to let her go home at any time, in case one of her four teens has a crisis.
For now, Tammy Hadley says, her family has been doing OK through the recession. Though being a foster parent can be difficult financially and emotionally, Hadley says, “Loving these kids drives me.”
She adds, “We’re probably better off than other parents.”