States bill parents for the cost of foster care, keeping families apart In every state, governments charge parents for the cost of foster care when children are taken away. When that happens, NPR found, poor parents can't make ends meet, so families are kept apart longer.

States send kids to foster care and their parents the bill — often one too big to pay

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The best thing for most kids in foster care is to be reunited with their parents. Child welfare agencies are supposed to help parents get their lives back on track so they can safely bring their kids home. For a homeless mother, that might mean finding a stable place to live, and that costs money. Here's the contradiction. Just as that mother is finding her footing, the state then turns around and gives her a bill, often a big one, to reimburse government for some of the cost of her child's foster care.

NPR investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro, working with Teresa Wiltz of Politico, looked at why it's a bill that few can afford to pay.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: After Daisy Hohman separated from her husband, she moved from place to place, stayed with family and friends.

DAISY HOHMAN: I moved in with the guy that had a few bedrooms open for rent - end up moving in with him. Fifteen days later, there was supposedly a raid at the house.

SHAPIRO: A drug raid in December 2017 - others were the target. Hohman wasn't at the trailer when the police came. Court records show no drugs were found on her. Police didn't charge her, but child protective services in her Minnesota county took her kids, said she'd left them in an unsafe place. Case records show Hohman did have a history of drug and alcohol use. Child protective services had been called to check on her family several times. Her three kids went into foster care. They came home 20 months later. The county billed Hohman for some of the cost of keeping her kids in foster care for $19,530.07.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD SIZZLING)

HOHMAN: I know...

SHAPIRO: I first met Hohman and her family two years ago.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: You're making chicken, potatoes and tomatoes.

SHAPIRO: Since her kids came home, Hohman has worked steadily and kept her family together. More recently, she moved with her three teens to a new apartment, bigger than the one when I met them with just two bedrooms.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Dear God, bless this food to our body. Hope we have a good dinner and...

HOHMAN: Watch and guard and protect us all, and keep us all safe.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Amen.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Amen.

SHAPIRO: But that $19,000 bill for the time her children were in foster care, it still causes problems for Daisy Hohman and her kids.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Nineteen thousand-something dollars.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Yeah, we could go get a new car.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I think I would use it for buying new clothes and stuff.

SHAPIRO: An NPR analysis of state and federal data shows that every state charges some parents for the cost of foster care, even though the NPR investigation found it's charged almost exclusively to the poorest parents. It keeps families in debt. It extends the time children spend in foster care. The government raises little money or even loses money when it tries to collect. Daisy Hohman's bill, that $19,000, was just a little less than her entire salary in 2019 in her seasonal work for a landscaping company.

HOHMAN: The bill, it hovers over me all the time. That's my biggest concern, is this bill.

SHAPIRO: The debt went on her credit score, which made it hard to find a better apartment or buy a dependable car to get to work. When Hohman filed her income tax, she didn't get the tax rebate she expected. Government agencies garnish that money for the unpaid bill for foster care. But when a poor family gets a big bill for foster care, that debt can blow up everything. Economist Maria Cancian has studied this.

MARIA CANCIAN: One common condition for a mom to get her kids back is to establish adequate housing, so to rent an apartment.

SHAPIRO: Cancian is at Georgetown University now, but she examined this while at the University of Wisconsin.

CANCIAN: And while it might not seem like that much to have to pay 50 or 100 or $200 a month in child support, if you have a very low income, a low-earnings mom, that can be the difference in being able to save money for, you know, first and last month's rent on a decent apartment or not.

SHAPIRO: She found that when parents in Wisconsin were charged $100 a month, it added almost seven months to the amount of time a child spent in foster care. The bill keeps going up, and that extra time matters because the clock is ticking. A family has a set amount of time, usually 15 to 22 months, to demonstrate they should get their child back. Otherwise, action starts to end their parental rights and place the child for adoption. Trish Skophammer runs child support collection in St. Paul, Minn.

TRISH SKOPHAMMER: In most cases, children come back home.

SHAPIRO: A little more than half the time, kids in foster care and their parents - or sometimes another family member - are reunited. But the foster care debt follows those children home to their parents.

SKOPHAMMER: And they are strapped with a $19,000 debt to the government, and they're low-income.

SHAPIRO: I told Skophammer about Daisy Hohman and her bill.

SKOPHAMMER: I know for me, if I owe somebody $19,000, that's a lot of money, and that's a lot of stress on me. The things that we do to try to collect on that can also add more stress, things like income withholding, driver's license suspension if people don't pay, tax intercepts.

SHAPIRO: Skophammer researched who got charged in Minnesota. NPR looked at her research and the few other studies. We collected data from the U.S. government and the states. This is a kind of child support that targets mothers. A disproportionate number are people of color. Many are homeless. Many have mental health or substance abuse issues. And almost all are poor - really poor. Here's Skophammer.

SKOPHAMMER: Eighty percent of the families showed up in my data had incomes less than $10,000 annually - 10,000. I mean, try living off $10,000 a year. You're in deep poverty if you're living off of that kind of money.

SHAPIRO: States used to pay for foster care by themselves. Then in the 1960s and '70s, the federal government chipped in, but only for children whose parents got welfare. In 1984, Congress told states to start billing parents for the cost of that foster care. At the time, there was a push to make people who received welfare share the responsibility of getting assistance from the government. Many states then added their own laws to charge parents with higher income.

Since then, the thinking has changed about what's best for families and children. In 2018, Congress reformed the funding for child welfare and made that shift clear. The new law said government needs to focus on doing what it takes to reunite kids in foster care with their parents. But the requirement to charge parents for the cost of foster care stayed the same.

STEVEN ELDRED: The original thought was that these were malefactors.

SHAPIRO: Steven Eldred, until he retired in March, ran child support services for Orange County, Calif.

ELDRED: They were people who had done something bad. They had mistreated their children, so we should make them pay for their program.

SHAPIRO: Abuse is suspected in only about 1 out of 5 cases when kids go to foster care. Mostly, the issue is the parent's neglect. Maybe there there's no food in the refrigerator, or the parent is homeless or addicted. These are often issues of poverty.

ELDRED: These people were not bad people. They were people in need of help. In the overwhelming majority of the people in the child welfare program, a significant contributor to the reason they're in that situation is poverty. So this just makes it worse. It's fuel on the fire.

SHAPIRO: Child support officers, like the ones run by Eldred and Skophammer, have changed in recent years, even changed their names from child support enforcement to child support services to show their intent on helping families. Now in many states, these officers send more of the money they collect directly to mothers and kids to pay for clothes, food and rent. But there's a leftover exception - the money that's collected from parents for the time their kids were in foster care. That money doesn't go to the kids. It doesn't even go to foster parents. It goes into state and federal treasuries. And there's one more thing about that money, a surprise that came up in Skophammer's groundbreaking research. It turns out government loses money when it tries to collect.

SKOPHAMMER: We're spending more to try to get this reimbursement than we're actually collecting in reimbursements.

SHAPIRO: Skophammer presented her research at a national conference of child support service directors. That's where Steven Eldred first met her.

ELDRED: When she said 25 cents collected for every dollar I spend, as an administrator, that just jumped off the screen. And I said, wow, if that's true, if I can validate that in my jurisdiction, I think that is something that I can move.

SHAPIRO: Eldred went home and told a team of researchers to look at the bills for foster care for almost 63,000 people across California. He got the same result. Child support offices in California spent a dollar for every 27 cents they collected. One year may be an exception - 2020. States collected 60% more. The reason - that's when parents got stimulus checks, money that was supposed to be a lifeline to families struggling during the pandemic. But those checks were easy for states to take when they garnish money for things like foster care bills.

Here's the key thing NPR found when we looked at federal and state data. What's collected is just a fraction, probably just single digits of what was billed and still owed by parents. So if it costs taxpayers to chase down what's owed, why do governments keep trying to collect it?

ELDRED: It's a perverse incentive.

SHAPIRO: The reason has to do with the complexity of welfare funding and government bureaucracies.

SKOPHAMMER: So we spend the money - we kind of send it off through our computer system, and we don't always know exactly how it's being distributed once it leaves us.

SHAPIRO: Child support officers spent more money than they collect going after these parents. But the little bit that they do collect goes to other state and federal agencies.

ELDRED: So this is all gravy for them.

SHAPIRO: There are some leeway in the federal law. It says parents should be charged when it's, quote, "appropriate." Some jurisdictions use that as an out not to charge poor parents. Many, though, keep collecting in every state and the District of Columbia. We wanted to ask officials at the responsible federal agency, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, why they don't make the rules clearer and tell state and county child welfare agencies the stop sending bills to impoverished parents. They declined our request for an interview, but some members of Congress want answers.

CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: This should be a system designed to help the child. It should not be a system simply to collect payments for state bureaucracies.

SHAPIRO: Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, plans to reintroduce a bill with other lawmakers that would end the practice of charging parents for the cost of foster care.

VAN HOLLEN: It makes no sense to me when you've got a family that is now ready to take back their child, struggling every day to make ends meet, that you would saddle them with a huge bill at the same time. That just puts an anchor around the family's neck at a time when you want to do everything you can to support them and their kids.

SHAPIRO: Parents who end up in the child welfare system, they're fragile to begin with. The whole philosophy behind the system is to help those parents get stronger. But when the poorest families are expected to reimburse government for an expensive program like foster care, those parents and their children struggle to become the families they want to be.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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