Time to Foster Change

Lack of Adequate Foster Care Funding

The lack of adequate funding is most definitely the major reason why child welfare and more specifically, foster care finds itself in such dire straits around the country. While I have used the terms child welfare and foster care interchangeably they are really two different things. Child welfare is a system that emcompasses programs such as foster care, child protective investigations, adoption, and family centered support services. Foster care is a specific program within the child welfare system. These two terms are closely intertwined and are invariably used to describe the other.

This is most likely because when it comes to funding, it all gets lumped into the same category. Child Welfare programs, one of which is foster care, are resourced through federal, state, and sometimes local budget allocations. It sounds simple enough, but the implementation and funding of any social welfare program is an intricate dance between governments.

The reason being is that the American federal system has limitations on its ability to carry out national policies through the executive branch of state governments. To enforce national programs, such as foster care, it is essential for the federal government to obtain state assistance in the application of these programs. In order to comprehend the intricacies involved in this process, one would need to immerse oneself in the pages of our constitution regarding the separation between federal authority and state rights.

To get around this obstacle, Congress has figured out a couple ways to accomplish this task. The first option involves creating a delivery system for federal programs in which the national government encourages local implementation of these programs by providing matching funds. The second method involves the federal government taking control of a regulated activity at a national level unless the state implements its own program of regulation meeting minimum federal standards.

You may wonder why the federal government has to involve itself at all. Why not just allow each state to handle their own social programs? Because sadly, without federal involvement, many states would ignore or neglect significant social issues. This was the very reason behind the enactment of the Social Security Act of 1935. This was a huge piece of legislation that set the stage for many social programs, including the first grants for child welfare.

It also created the Aid to Dependent Children program which provided financial assistance to needy dependent children, with foster care being an added component  to this program in later years. This major piece of legislation, which in part offered grants for child welfare, was the motivation needed for states to begin establishing child welfare agencies.

For decades states have agreed to follow set federal guidelines when it comes to child welfare because many rely heavily on federal funding to meet their needs. The funny thing about this, however, is that most child welfare systems end up significantly underfunded year after year.

How is it that a combination of several governments still can’t come up with enough funding to properly address the needs of something as crucial as child welfare? Well, I took a dive into the 2018 federal budget allocation, as well as, each of the 50 states budgets for that same year. I was able to conclude that child welfare spending was obviously not a top concern.

Just looking at it from a budget perspective one could conclude that the physical, emotional, and mental health of our children appears to be way down on the list of priorities.

Let’s begin with the federal budget. In 2018, the Government collected 3.3 trillion dollars in tax revenue from the American people. This is how Congress chose to allocate this money: $574 billion dollars went to the Department of Defense. The next highest amount of $78.9 billion dollars went to the Department of Veteran Affairs. Now, I know it probably doesn’t surprise anyone to know how much the government values defense over all else. But, what is surprising, at least to me, is by how much.

There is a 700% difference between what was spent on military defense and veteran affairs. As shocking as that figure may be, there was an astounding 4000% difference between defense and what was allocated for child welfare ($14.4 billion). 4000%!! What a heart wrenching discrepancy. What a disgrace that our federal government actually thinks so little of the most vulnerable among us. The majority of us will give up a better part of our lifetime earnings to taxes. We retain no control in how this money is spent, although we do experience, sometimes very deeply, where it is not.

To add insult to injury the average taxpayer paid $10,000 to cover $54 billion dollars in waste (these figures vary depending on the source you google, but you get the point). These figures are gut wrenching. To misappropriate and overspend year after year and not expect an adverse effect on the welfare of this country is totally irresponsible. What is going to be left to defend if the physical, mental, and overall well-being of citizens, especially our children, aren’t given any greater importance than 4000%?

To illustrate my point, the following statistics represent where needy children fall on the budget scale (I’m sure you could take any social issue of importance and similar figures would ring true).

In 2018, the federal government spent 14.4 billion dollars toward child welfare (with 25% of the population being children). That may sound like quite a bit, until it is compared to the overall federal expenditures of 4.1 trillion dollars that same year. Those child welfare dollars turn into just 0.004% of the federal budget.

To be fair to the government, I will adjust the figure to 1.3 trillion dollars (the total of discretionary spending which child welfare funds derive). Making this modification raises the previous percentage basis to a whopping 1.1%! I get that there are 17 other federal departments to fund, but good lord, 1.1%!! A little over one percent. This is what the well being of at risk children is worth to our federal government.

Sadly, the figures associated with child welfare spending from all 50 states are just as pathetic. In 2020, only five states spent 2% or more of their state budget (4.4% being the highest) on child welfare spending. You’re probably thinking that’s deplorable, but actually, these states spent the most! A shout out to Indiana and Pennsylvania for leading the pack.

Nineteen states spent between 1%-2% of their (2020) budgets on child welfare spending. And yet, it gets worse. Five states spent less than 3/4 of 1% of their total budget on needy children. Alarming isn’t it? Couldn’t possibly sink lower than that? Of course it can! Twenty-one states, almost half of our country, spent less than 1/2 of 1%. Do you know what that looks like in written form? Something like this… 0.003%. Do we really have to wonder why state foster care programs and child welfare in general is such a mess? Seems kind of obvious to me.

I have dealt directly with Florida’s child welfare system for well over a decade. This system has played a significant role in my son’s life and will continue to maintain a presence until his adulthood. Due to the direct impact this program has had on my child, I made it a priority to understand every little thing about it.

To say I care deeply about child welfare in this state and the financial attention given to these children would be an understatement. My active participation within this system as both a foster and adoptive parent has given me a close perspective of what happens when adequate funding is not provided.

My son, along with my foster child, both took part in the Florida foster care program. I had the opportunity to experience this journey right alongside them. It was something to behold and a lot of it was not good. I don’t mean to pick on Florida but, this is where the events and issues that influenced my knowledge and understanding of the system took hold. So, sorry Florida, but I am going to speak my truth and that truth is not going to be pleasant to hear.

Nevertheless, I’m going to share with the world what I have witnessed and experienced with the hope that those who can do something about this miscarriage of justice will sit up and take notice. In 2018, the Florida legislature passed a state budget totaling almost 89 billion dollars. Allow me to state that figure another way, that’s $88,727,523,353.00. That dollar figure is the amount of money that was utilized by just one state out of fifty.

Can you imagine the combined dollar figure of all 50 states’ budgets? How do we end up with so many social ills barely addressed with this kind of money being collected from the taxpayer base? It just doesn’t seem possible that issues such as hunger and homelessness could still exist in this county when looking at such figures. One would think society’s well-being would be a number one priority, that it would take precedence over all else. But, year after year, it becomes abundantly clear that the betterment of society is not a focal point of our politicians.

Take for example the 453 million dollars the state of Florida allotted to manage the opioid crisis, mental health issues and school safety in the year 2018. That figure may sound like a lot, but it is only about .005% of the total budget (that’s one half of one percent). This was the amount designated by Florida lawmakers to fund the programs that provide for the physical, mental and emotional well-being of the millions of children in this state. Mental health improvement should be one of the forefront topics on any governmental agenda. But as you can clearly see from these figures, psychological wellness has been reduced to a passing thought as it pertains to overall human health.

I’m mystified that something so essential to society, such as mental health enhancement, is given so little credence by those in a position to help. Yet, in this same budgetary year, an action to advance a bill to arm teachers in the classroom was actually put forth by this same legislature. This 67 million dollar bright idea could have been utilized in a much more productive way.

Rather than utilizing tax payers money to coerce teachers into taking up arms to keep their classroom safe, use that $67,000,000.00 to tackle mental health and child welfare issues. There is nothing more important in our current modern age than the overall mental and emotional stability of our kids. If these issues were given the proper respect they deserve then maybe, just maybe there wouldn’t be such violence in and out of the classroom.

Let’s be real, what do you think happens when children are left exposed to abuse and/or left untreated from severe trauma. They grow up with their mental, emotional and physical pain intact. No where to unload it, but unto society. Shouldn’t focus be placed on getting these children the assistance they need in order to help prevent another Parkland tragedy instead of bracing for one. If these troubled children were provided the proper treatment at the time their symptoms began to manifest maybe these tragedies would occur less often.

The mental and emotional health of our youth is paramount, not only for each child needing care, but for the sake of society. The ripple effects from this aid and support would transform humanity. So why may I ask are such important issues such as child welfare and mental health continually underfunded?

Now let’s jump forward two years to 2020. In this year, Florida was one of twenty-one states who spent less than ½ of 1% of their total state budget on child welfare spending. When so little money is allocated for such a significant need the ensuing result isn’t going to be favorable one. Although my involvement with child welfare may have eventualized in Florida, much of the same could probably be said about any other state in the union. Forty-five states allotted 2% or less of their state budget toward child welfare. Is it any wonder why national child welfare is in a disastrous predicament?

Along with the proper attention and funding it deserves, these programs also require our lawmakers to care about the inner spirit of these innocent children. These kids have absolutely nothing, but their reliance on politicians. Not exactly a promising space to be in, especially in today’s political climate where party lines are so severely divided and party affiliation means more than accomplishing something meaningful.

The lack of proper funding affects at-risk kids in so many ways it’s difficult to choose a place to start. But, I’ll begin where it was most distressing to me. It begins with the severely underfunded, understaffed, and ill-trained third-party contractors of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) who are unable to appropriately handle the influx of children entering into the system at a rapid pace.

Most caseworkers are recent college grads who are thrown into the system ill equipped with not enough training, knowledge or experience and way too much power. When a foster family is unfortunate enough to be assigned an inexperienced case worker it can be a frustrating and unpleasant experience. The power that these individuals wield is just plain startling. The ability to influence the direction of a child’s life is a great responsibility and should be treated as such.

A position in this field is not meant for and should not be kept by an individual looking for a steady paycheck or using it as a stepping stone in the advancement of their career. Funds need to be designated for the initial and continued training of every individual connected within this system. I’m not just referring to systematics, training should also focus upon due diligence, compassion, and empathy. These are real children with real thoughts and real feelings.

Child welfare workers need to remember this is not just a job. If you find your commitment lacking, your workload overwhelming, your focus compromised, and/or you are following directives from higher-ups even though your intuition tells you otherwise, then please, for the sake of these kids, find another profession. This is not about reunifying the child and closing the case as fast as possible. There is an innocent human being commingled within the facts of this removal.

Every child’s case deserves the proper amount of attention and dedication it takes to generate an outcome favorable to them. From what I have witnessed, more common sense and discernment should be implemented in the decision making process replacing any bias, inconsistency, incompetence, aloofness, apathy, or any other possible hindrance that could obstruct this child from living their best life.

I personally believe every child should be entitled to legal counsel just as their parents. There is a massive difference between an attorney and volunteer guardian. Even though these guardians are court-appointed and certified it’s unquestionably an unequal representation. You have the parent represented by a legally educated attorney and the child represented by an individual who has taken a 30 hour training course. Where is the fairness in this logic?

On top of this partiality, the Guardian ad Litem Programs within Florida’s twenty judicial circuits are unable to fulfill their obligation in a majority of these cases due to the lack of volunteers. The Florida Statutes section 39.822(1) states “a guardian ad litem shall be appointed by the court at the earliest possible time to represent the child in any child abuse, abandonment, or neglect judicial proceeding, whether civil or criminal.” Without this guardian the child’s best interests are left unprotected. Which begs the question as to how a judgment is made in regards to which child is provided an advocate.

From my own experience, children who show signs of physical abuse or drug exposure are more likely to be assigned an Attorney ad Litem (court appointed attorney) or a Guardian Ad Litem. Children who suffer sexual, emotional, and mental abuse (afflictions that don’t leave obvious marks or tell tale signs) are less likely to have an advocate assigned.

It’s not always the case, but the reality is, this type of trauma doesn’t manifest itself as obviously. The children that bear these deep-rooted scars suffer just as much as the kids that show signs of physical and/or drug abuse. One classification of abuse shouldn’t be deemed more egregious than any other, but a determination has to be made because there are not enough guardians to go around. The parties in that courtroom, the abusive and/or neglectful parents/guardians, have the legal right to counsel and can be appointed one if they can’t afford one.

However, the young innocent, whose life is now in turmoil and who should be enshrouded with protection goes without representation. Each of these children, regardless of what type of neglect or abuse is at issue, needs an advocate to champion their best interests…no exceptions whatsoever. It is their lives and their futures that are being decided. The least this country can do is appoint an actual attorney who can aggressively assert the most favorable outcome for the child’s current and future well-being without any uncertainty or influence present.

It is long overdue that Congress and subsequently our state legislatures acknowledge not only children rights in general, but also recognize the importance of enacting laws that provide a legal barricade around these already traumatized children so they don’t become victimized twice.

Funding can also be attributed to the shortage of foster parents/homes. If a State’s welfare agency determines that the removal of a child from unsafe family circumstances is necessary, it only makes sense that the State becomes financially responsible for the obligation this action warrants. Part of this commitment involves the payment of a monthly board allowance to foster parent(s). This subsidy is intended to assist foster families in providing for a foster child’s needs, however, this contribution is not even close to being adequately sufficient.

Maybe this monthly allotment would be enough if the child’s only needs were food and clothing, but we all know it takes much more than the basics to raise a child. More importantly, many children upon entering the foster care system have pre-existing developmental delays. Their unique special needs may be physical, mental, emotional, behavioral or a combination thereof. Due to the lack of sufficient compensation from the state welfare agency, many foster families may feel compelled to use their own financial resources to address these issues because their responsibility and obligation to this child is not something they take lightly.

For instance, my foster child was so far behind in his educational needs that we covered the expense of a private tutor so the child could catch up to peers. In addition to the tutor, we paid out of pocket for five days of pre-school each week. This was necessary because School Readiness (the state program that supplements tuition for preschool foster kids) only contributes so much and the reimbursement from the county lead agency is a mere pittance. As any parent knows, education is only a part of the big picture.

There are extracurricular activities, swimming lessons, birthday parties, family vacations, and all the other things that allow a child to be a kid. We were fortunate enough to have the means to cover these extras for our foster child, however, there are many other foster parents who are unable to take on this kind of financial responsibility. If the child welfare system wants to keep and recruit good families it needs to realize that the average family will not be able to handle the influx of these additional expenses.

The willingness of these good people to be caregivers will always be present, it’s the inability to overcome the financial burden that causes many of these folks to hesitate in the renewal of their foster care license.

Additional funding is also needed in sifting out those foster parents whose intent is purely financial gain. Requiring a higher level of financial security will ensure that no home is taking on the privilege of caring for these kids just for a financial payment. Some of these homes are just as bad as the environment these children came from.

These folks need to be vetted out and precluded from ever obtaining a foster license. Placing a child or sibling group within a foster home with the perception that the board payment will be sufficient to provide for all the children’s needs is a gross misconception. I guarantee that a foster family will eventually have to supplement this monthly subsidy payment with their own finances. The financial health of would-be foster parents cannot be overlooked.

When you combine the reality that many good families are choosing not to continue as a licensed foster home with the already drastic shortage of beds available within the system you could see how the selection criteria could become lax. This cannot happen. It is imperative that a foster parent applicant is financially secure. Putting an at-risk child within a home with questionable means of support would be an irresponsible mistake. The mental health status of would-be foster parent candidates also needs to be carefully scrutinized. These children are already traumatized. They do not need additional mental or physical injury on top of their already very fragile state.

I know this sounds harsh and I wish I could say all you need is a big heart filled with a lot of love to share, however undertaking the responsibility of a foster parent takes much more than that. This is a tremendous responsibility and shouldn’t be awarded to just anyone. These kids deserve love, compassion, concern, kindness, and security. They have been dealt a shoddy hand and should be ensured a stable, healthy environment to lay their heads for a while. Therefore, it’s important that the State continues to carefully scrutinize all aspiring foster parent applicants.

It’s understandable that the child welfare system is desperate for foster homes, but the system cannot compromise on the safety and well-being of these children. The bar needs to remain high when addressing the financial, criminal, home, and health-related background checks of foster parent applicants. Providing a safe home and having a non-criminal record are obvious preconditions, but an added in-depth focus should be placed upon the financial independence of each applicant, as well as, a proven history of emotional, psychological, and social well-being.

The recruitment of good families is key if the system is going to endure. It is important that these requirements are not watered down in order to add to the number of beds available. To do so will not only compromise the system, but will do a hell of a lot more damage to an already frightened and traumatized child. Good families who are caring for these children out of compassion and empathy will not object nor mind going through extra steps it takes to keep these kids safe. If the shortcuts continue, the welfare system has no one to blame but itself.

Which brings me to alternative placement solutions and the funding needed to support these options. I wish it were possible to provide a safe and loving foster home to every child who became a ward of the state. But this objective is not realistic, especially considering the fact that the system takes great effort in keeping siblings together. This attempt is understandable, but it also places added responsibility and further financial strain upon the already scarce number of existing foster homes.

The government’s responsibility of assuring the safety and overall physical, emotional, and mental well-being of these children should warrant a sizable chunk of attention from our legislatures. Not to mention a substantial budget to insure this intention is met. Child welfare funding needs to be increased now more than ever with the influx of children entering the system. Foster care and other sensible alternative placement solutions need to remain well funded to provide that extra layer of protection for these at risk kids.

Lastly, I would like to touch upon the quality of health care that is provided to the children within the child welfare system. Which, of course, is Medicaid. The purpose of Medicaid in simple terms is to provide health care to low income families. It also shares the purpose of providing health care coverage to the children who end up in foster care. Although Medicaid is a federal program, each state is allowed to administer their own medicaid program.

This method therefore creates distinct differences in Medicaid coverage across the country. I will limit my discussion to the state of Florida’s program because it is this specific program that I have experienced and am most familiar with. The Medicaid coverage in the state of Florida is grossly insufficient in addressing the appropriate and proper health care needs most of these children require.

A foster parent will be hard pressed to find a decent psychologist, psychiatrist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, applied behavioral specialist, social skills therapist, the list goes on. I have paid thousands of dollars out of pocket for specialized care for my adopted foster child because I could not locate the proper professional needed under the Medicaid program.

I am not stating these specialists are non-existent, just few and far between. Locating a speech or occupational therapist wasn’t an easy task, but they can be found. What I found to be a much more difficult task was finding any doctors in the mental health field. To this day I have been unable to discover a pediatric psychiatrist or psychologist who is willing to accept Medicaid. The same can be said for applied behavioral therapy.

I have found no specialist or therapy clinic in a three county range (and I live in a highly populated area) who accepts Medicaid for payment. Health care includes so much more than primary physicians and dentists. These specialized health care providers are an absolute necessity for most of these children. The inability to obtain such services by qualified providers is shameful.

The mental and emotional stability of these kids should not be taken lightly and when the mental health care coverage offered to protect these children is inadequately sufficient we shouldn’t be surprised by what we read in our news headlines some years down the line. I believe our legislators, both federal and state, should be required to use medicaid coverage for a period of one year. I guess because it’s free, any recipient should be appreciative. As someone who has utilized this government freebie on behalf of my adopted foster child, appreciation isn’t the word that comes to mind. The words frustration and disgust seem more apropos.

I would like to implore our federal and state lawmakers to rethink this “family first” mentality that seems to have taken over any constructive move toward strengthening and improving the welfare system by funding the areas that need attention. By passing the Family First Prevention Services Act, you have essentially made it much easier on yourselves to cut into the child welfare budget under the Pollyanna view that children can remain within their families thus creating a less likely need for more well rooted foster homes, family style residential homes, or any other alternative placement solution.

The intent behind this act is to dedicate funds to the treatment of keeping families together and preventing children from entering the system at all. For those like me, who have seen first hand the effects that parental negligence and abuse can have on a child, it feels more like an easy fix than an admirable plan. This would be a lovely concept in an ideal world, but we don’t live in such a place. This is an extremely idealist view of today’s society and a disaster in the works. The child welfare system has been around for over 80 years and for good reason.

We need to face the fact that mental illness, drug addiction, child abuse, sexual abuse, physical and emotional abuse, domestic violence, and neglect are mainstays in our natural world as long as humans draw breath. Do we as a society truly believe that every individual who is blessed with a child automatically evolves into this loving ball of energy?

That families instinctively become this source of deep affection and warmth? Our society reads, hears and witnesses on a regular basis the ongoing domestic violence and child abuse that is rampant within our communities. The majority of such suffering inflicted upon the victim by their closest relative(s). We can’t assume a child’s family is the best alternative. I know it’s easy to fall into the mindset that a child is the responsibility of their parents.

After all, they are the ones who brought this child into the world, so shouldn’t it be their duty to physically, emotionally and financially provide for said child? This viewpoint is totally understandable, but highly implausible. Some families have been exposed to generational abuse, thus caught up in a timeless toxic wheel.

Some families are mentally or emotionally unstable, thus ill equipped to take on the responsibility of parenthood. Some families are caught in a web of drug addiction. And some families frankly just don’t care. If we continue to buy into the two most stereotypical philosophies known to humankind: 1)that blood is thicker than water, and 2) biological families provide the best solution for an at-risk child, it will only be a matter of time before the ripple effects of these out-dated thought processes infiltrate our communities, cities, states and country.

How is such a thing possible? Because dysfunctional parents raise dysfunctional children who in turn grow into dysfunctional adults who then pass down their learned behaviors to the next generation. Reality has shown this world again and again that the parent/child relationship for so many of us is not one of unconditional love. No matter how much we as a society would like to convince ourselves that this connection is one of the most precious loving bonds humankind will ever experience, we can’t ignore the truth, this is just not the case for millions of individuals.

The parent/child relationship should not be perceived in black and white terms. There exists a whole lotta gray. This Act should be used as a starting point, but in no way should society except that the premise behind this act will be a cure all solution to an incurable problem. And while this Act may benefit some children under certain circumstances, tens of thousands more will no doubt endure further mistreatment from the actions or inactions of their families.

Let’s be honest, the dysfunctionally wounded will continue to have children, there is absolutely nothing that can be done to stop this fact. But, to assume an abused child’s best option is first and foremost “family first” is in my opinion irresponsible and quite frankly taking the easy way out. A program to keep families together is laudable, but serious consideration needs to be given to all the children that this law will not safeguard or protect.