Scraps for foster families

December 07, 2005

The second financial step in the Ehrlich administration's push to stem the eroding numbers of Maryland's foster families - boosting their monthly stipend by $25 per month - adds insult to injury.

With the administration currently spending $1 million on a marketing campaign to recruit more families to temporarily house children in desperate need, the roughly $1 million a year to boost monthly payments for the 3,400 families already providing such care is a pittance - particularly after 15 years of no increases. It's better than nothing, but it's far short of an incentive for potential foster parents.

And it in no way makes up for the disincentives the state has added in recent years. For example, in each of the last three years, the administration has cut child care subsidies and "flexible funding" accounts, funds meted out for such incidental expenses as rides to doctor appointments or winter coats. Case managers are often rotated on and off cases, leaving foster parents without a consistent voice at the end of the phone line. Some parents say the payment system is so disorganized they must call the Department of Human Resources every month just to make sure they get the stipend. Small wonder the state is having so much trouble recruiting and retaining families: Baltimore has lost 45 percent of its homes in the past four years, from about 3,000 to about 1,600, according to the department.

Of course, foster parents don't expect to be fully compensated for their intensive and round-the-clock work. But they deserve far more than the current $535-a-month base rate. Just to keep up with inflation since 1990, when that rate was set, parents should be receiving at least $797. That would bring the state in range of the $788 to $859 that the District of Columbia pays its foster families. No wonder more families in Prince George's County foster D.C. children than those from Maryland.

Such a raise also is in line with the advice of a child welfare reform committee invited by the Ehrlich administration to help fix this ailing system; the panel recommended increasing the monthly stipend by $300, phased in over three years. Members of the committee said they were initially heartened by the administration's response, but it turns out there is little cause for celebration. Twenty-five more dollars a month won't even cover school lunches.

Fewer foster families means more displaced children must stay in group homes or treatment centers. These institutions are not the preferred option in terms of socialization, stability and security, and they cost far more - from $3,500 to $12,000 per month.

For 7,000 Maryland children a year, foster families' services are priceless; as rich a state as ours can come a little closer to compensating these families for their invaluable help.

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