Costs of foster care soar reins underused Increase linked to expensive placements.

April 30, 1991|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Evening Sun Staff

Foster-care costs in Maryland are rising 25 to 30 percent annually, even though the state already has the means to reduce costs and improve services to children, according to a report released by the Foster Care Review Board.

Since fiscal year 1987, foster care's cost has grown from $45 million to this year's projected expenditures of $115 million. The increase can be tied to the number of children in foster care -- from 4,300 in 1987 to 5,350 in 1991 -- and to more expensive, lengthier placements.

Costs also are up because Maryland has increased its payments to foster parents, part of the state's recruitment drive to offset the number of potential foster parents who have "aged out" of the system.

But the state still could save money and reduce the number of children in foster care almost immediately by expanding the so-called Intensive Family Services under the Department of Human Resources, says board administrator Charlie Cooper.

Since 1987, social workers in test sites throughout the state have been assigned to work with problem families where children are at risk for foster care. So far, 90 percent of the cases have stayed out of foster care.

The cost of intervention is calculated at $2,000 per child. But the cost of 19 months in foster care -- just under the actual average length of stay -- is $31,000, Cooper says.

Cooper concedes that a 90 percent success rate would be impossible to match statewide. But, according to figures developed by the board, the state would need to prevent only 6.5 percent of all foster-care placements in order for the intervention program to break even.

"Supposing it could be 25 percent effective, which I think it could be," Cooper says. "That's a healthy chunk of money."

Based on the projection, the savings would be $5,750 for each prevented placement.

Intervention's merits don't stop at cost savings, Cooper says. A 25 percent success rate would mean that 900 fewer children enter foster care each year. As a result, he says, the rest would increase their chances for more appropriate placements.

Foster children also would enjoy more supervision, which could result in shorter lengths of stay, the report argues.

The board says the money for intervention could be found in the Department of Human Resources' budget for fiscal 1991, which ends June 30. Board rates in the current budget are based on a projection of 7,000 children in placement by year's end, although fiscal year 1990 ended with only 5,350 children in foster homes.

The board suggests that DHR revise its projections downward, to 5,800 children. This would free at least $5 million, according to the report, "which could be applied to fiscal 1992 for family support and prevention programs, rather than to be applied to the general deficit."

The Maryland General Assembly has asked DHR to develop by June 1 a plan for expanding its family services.

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