Parenting at a price

March 17, 2006

Despite repeated promises to halt the practice, the Baltimore Department of Social Services continues to illegally house children needing foster care at the agency's downtown office building, using it as a makeshift shelter even though it has no beds or showers.

By now, the department's excuse for housing young charges in the building is well known: There just aren't enough foster homes for the 7,000 city kids who are wards of the state. Last year, about 150 children were housed in the building, sometimes for more than two weeks. DSS officials say just a handful of mostly older, troubled teenagers who ran away from, or refused to be placed in, foster homes have stayed there this year - and only for brief periods. Old or young, children removed from home because of abuse or neglect should not be "living" in an office building that is nothing close to alternative housing. The shortage of foster families and suitable homes can only exacerbate the emotional trauma suffered by young people whose lives have often been turned upside-down by state intervention - even if for their protection.

In the past four years, DSS has lost nearly half of its 3,000 foster homes, and many foster parents attribute this to inadequate support systems and financial assistance. Until recently, Maryland's monthly foster care stipend had not been raised in more than a decade. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. increased the stipend by $50 several months ago and announced yesterday that he will increase it by another $50 next year, bringing the total base payment from $535 to $635. That's still about $250 less than federal government estimates of the monthly costs of raising a child. Given Maryland's wealth and significantly more costly housing alternatives such as group homes and group shelters, the state should not be pinching pennies on foster care spending.

State lawmakers can reverse the decline in foster parenting by supporting legislation that would raise the foster care stipend beyond the governor's increase. The proposed legislation, which was debated in a Senate committee hearing yesterday, would set foster care rates based on child spending guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It would require the governor to include funding for foster care in the state budget in increasing annual increments.

Horror stories about abusive foster parents often make headlines, but good foster parents go unheralded every day while offering comfort and refuge to children in crisis. These parents deserve to be fairly compensated for the true costs of caring for foster children and for providing so much more that can't be quantified.

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