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The hidden costs of foster care: When the bills land on parents

The hidden costs of foster care: When the bills land on parents

Picture of Jeremy Loudenback
Judges Julia Garratt (far left) and Patricia Clark (center) at a family treatment court graduation in Seattle.
(Photo courtesy of Eyewang Pictures)

Are parents whose children are being removed from their homes following allegations of abuse and neglect being billed for the cost of foster care and family reunification services? There are signs from attorneys, advocates and parents that the answer is yes. 

For this project with the 2020 California Fellowship, I am examining a little known facet of the child welfare system: how and how often costs are levied on impoverished families before they can reunify with their children, and what those costs may mean for parents working against strict court deadlines that could mean the end of their parental rights. 

My coverage will explore this issue from the perspective of the largely low-income, impoverished families who make up most of the child welfare system, focusing on the types of strains these financial requirements create, and the extent to which they hinder wellness and reunification — the preferred goal of the child welfare system.

Contrary to public perception, it is far more common for children and youth in foster care to be reunified with their parents than to be adopted away or grow up in the system. According to the most recent available federal data from the Department of Health and Human Services, 49% of foster children who exited foster care last year were returned to their parents’ care.

According to child welfare policy and practice, returning children to their parents whenever possible is also the preferred outcome. 

In California and across the country, the child welfare system is ultimately supposed to function in a rehabilitative way. Once social workers remove a child from home, parents are given a strict deadline to complete court-ordered services that in theory are supposed to address the underlying issues that led to the removal.  

Parents are placed on time-set performance and visitation plans, requiring things like drug-testing, counseling and domestic violence classes. In struggling communities, those services can be a challenge under any circumstance — but there are indications cost may be adding to the burden, according to researchers and attorneys representing children and parents in the child welfare system.

In this project, I’ll be examining the ways in which parents may be billed for foster care, and the services they need to perform to reunify with their children. 

At first glance, there seems to be little data about how widely this issue impacts parents in California’s foster care system. To start, I will be surveying California counties to better understand what rules dictate the fiscal responsibilities for parents and how they operate across the child welfare and child support system. To paint a better picture of how this actually plays out for families, I will be talking with attorneys that represent parents in juvenile dependency legal system, who often have the clearest view of the struggles of parents in the child welfare system. I also hope to talk to many parents who have experienced the child welfare system for a first-hand look at the impact of child welfare-related fees, as well as other advocates and child welfare policy experts.

There is precedence for examining the potentially damaging burden of bills for state-ordered services on vulnerable children and families. Over the last few years, an outcry over the fines and fees levied on families whose children were involved with the juvenile justice system led to California state Senate Bill 190, which prohibited counties from collecting money for the cost of juvenile incarceration and probation supervision. This has led to recognition of the way these fees can continue punishing impoverished families long after their teens are freed from juvenile halls and off probation.

The backdrop of the child welfare system lends urgency to this inquiry. Most children enter foster care as a result of neglect, rather than abuse, an issue that has led top federal officials to urge child welfare agencies to stop removing children for poverty-related reasons alone, such as lack of food or homelessness. What’s more, families who come into contact with child protective services are disproportionately impacted, depending on their race.

In Los Angeles County, African American children are over-represented by a factor of four in the child welfare system, one of the highest rates in the country. 

Income level is also a driving factor: Poor families are far more likely to have their children placed in out-of-home care and face greater barriers to reunification.  

In recent years, the percentage of children who exit foster care in California as a result of reunification has declined. While the reasons for this may be complex, it is no secret that poverty-related barriers often stand in the way of reunification. Parents might lack a phone, or transit access to locations offering services. 

Passing the tab for foster care-related programs to these parents could further jeopardize the very reunifications those services are meant to facilitate. 

Thanks to the support of the fellowship, I am looking forward to better understanding the way that financial costs can impact parents in the child welfare system, as well. I’ll let you know what I find out.

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