Shortchanging the needy

October 09, 2006

The number of foster children receiving federal assistance has dropped significantly over the last decade, and not because they and the families caring for them don't need the financial help.

Fewer children are getting assistance because they don't qualify under rules adopted by Congress as part of the 1996 welfare reform law. Those rules tied eligibility for federal foster care assistance to whether a child was removed from a family that qualified for public assistance under the old welfare program known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC. As a result, the federal government subsidizes a portion of states' foster care and adoption assistance costs only if the child's family was eligible for AFDC in 1996.

This regulation was proposed as a temporary measure that Congress was to later amend. But it has endured for 10 years, leaving the rules tied to a public assistance program that no longer exists and that are based on outdated and complex income-eligibility requirements. In the meantime, states have had to make up the shortfall using money that could otherwise go to enhancing child protective services and abuse prevention programs that keep more children out of the welfare system in the first place. Only 52 percent of the nearly 11,000 foster children in Maryland are eligible for federal assistance under the current rule.

Lawmakers have given this issue sporadic lip service instead of simply amending the law. As it stands, the regulation denies assistance to abused and neglected children and those with special needs who would otherwise be entitled to it.

A study by the Child Welfare League of America found that 55 percent of the 559,000 children in foster care nationwide in 1998 were eligible for federal assistance on average each month. By 2004, fewer than half of the 517,000 children in foster care were eligible. Child welfare advocates attribute the decline to the 1996 regulation.

Maryland Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin proposed legislation in 2003 that would have given states the option of using current welfare-eligibility standards, but the measure went nowhere in the Republican-controlled House. A similar measure was reintroduced last year, and it, too, has languished.

That's too bad. Ten years is plenty of time for reflection and review - in fact, it's far too long.

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