Bill would increase reimbursement for foster families

As in-home spots decline, advocates call for additional compensation


State legislators are considering a bill that would significantly increase reimbursement to foster families for the first time in more than a decade, action that advocates argue is needed to recruit families to the foster system and cut down on high-cost group home placements.

Foster families in Maryland receive about $560 per child each month, a figure that includes a $25 rate increase that went into effect Jan. 1. State officials have promised to increase reimbursement by an additional $75 starting July 1, for a total of $635 a month on average, but advocates argue that figure is still $250 less than the rate recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The bill debated in the House Appropriations Committee yesterday would require Department of Human Resources officials to match the recommended federal rate by 2011. The slow ramp-up in reimbursement would give the state time to make budgetary adjustments, advocates argue, while offering foster families compensation that more accurately reflects the true cost of raising a child.

"This is a problem that you must address," said James McComb, director of the Maryland Association of Resources for Family and Youth, at yesterday's hearing.

State officials say they agree that foster families should have better support - financial and otherwise - but argue that increases should hinge on economic factors, not state code.

The debate comes at a time when DHR officials are still stinging from reports that foster children had been temporarily housed in a Baltimore office building, in part because of a lack of foster families.

The number of foster families in Baltimore, which has the highest concentration of foster children in the state, has declined from 3,019 in April 2001 to 1,552 in December 2005, according to state records. Advocates argue that one way to increase the foster family roster is to boost reimbursement.

They also maintain that an increase would bolster foster family numbers throughout the state. A number of foster families in Prince George's County have decided to take in foster children from Washington because it pays higher reimbursement rates, about $900 a month, according to McComb.

State officials don't disagree that the time has come to raise reimbursement rates but say they don't want to be bound by the law.

"A mandate of this nature, when we don't know future budget constraints, is problematic," said DHR Secretary Christopher J. McCabe. "It's not that we oppose the intent, but we have to be careful."

In written testimony, McCabe said the bill is unnecessary because he and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. have made it clear that they plan to increase foster care reimbursements. At the hearing yesterday, he added that his department has recently revived a foster parent association aimed at supporting families, and that it plans to unveil a statewide foster family recruitment effort in May.

"I'm an advocate [for children] too," said McCabe, a former state senator from Howard County who got his start in public service on a local foster care review board.

Advocates say that McCabe's office has misrepresented the true cost of the reimbursement increase, which could impede passage of the bill. They say that a fiscal note prepared by DHR states that passage of the bill would result in about $50 million in new costs, but that the true fiscal effect would be closer to $18 million.

"We know that this bill carries a large fiscal note, but we strongly believe that the state cannot continue to ignore the unplanned, unproductive way that placement resources have been managed," said Charlie Cooper, administrator of the Citizens' Review Board for Children.

Cooper said that the drop in foster families in the city has resulted in more children being placed in treatment foster homes, which cost about $3,200 a month, and group homes, which cost about $5,000 a month.

"We are absorbing major cost increases anyway, but to what end?" Cooper said.

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