States no longer need to charge families for foster care costs, HHS says Following an NPR investigation, the Department of Health and Human Services issued guidance to state and county officials that lets them stop charging parents whose children are placed in foster care.

The federal government will allow states to stop charging families for foster care

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When parents are in crisis, sometimes their children are put into foster care. And in 2018, Congress had set out what to do next for those mothers and fathers, and that is give them services to build up their families so the kids can return to their parents. But there's also another policy left over from more punitive times that gets in the way. Now, after an NPR investigation, federal officials are changing it. NPR investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro explains.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The law that gets in the way is from 1984. It said states and counties are required to send parents whose kids go into foster care a bill to share the costs for their child's foster care. The problem, though, is that these mothers and fathers are almost always poor. They don't have the money to pay the bills, which are often hundreds of dollars a month - parents like Bree.

BREE: Me and my family were living in a travel trailer.

SHAPIRO: A camper they towed behind their old pickup truck. They moved into a trailer park midway between Tacoma and Seattle.

BREE: Obviously, we were low-income. We were trying to get our wages up.

SHAPIRO: Then, in 2019, her husband was charged with assaulting their son, a charge Bree - we agreed to use just her first name - and her husband disputed. The boy, who was almost 4, was placed into foster care. Eventually, all the charges against the husband were dismissed. It took 13 months to get their son back home. The state of Washington billed them $8,000 to pay for the boy's foster care and garnished Bree's paycheck - $1,400 a month.

BREE: I'm out of my mind because I see my check, and I'm like, oh, my God. How do I pay my bills?

SHAPIRO: In every state, parents get charged for the cost of foster care, even though, as an NPR investigation last year found, it hurts children and their parents because it keeps families in debt and it extends by several months the time children spend in foster care. A mom who has to pay the costs of her kids' foster care might not have enough money left over to, say, rent a bigger apartment, which a court might require before she can bring her kids home. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services responded to our reporting. In June, the Children's Bureau - that's the federal agency in charge of policy on adoption and foster care - issued new guidance. It allows states and counties, if they want, to stop charging those parents.

ALLISON KRUTSINGER: We were elated. We were relieved. We were very excited, as a state agency, to see the updated federal guidance.

SHAPIRO: That's Allison Krutsinger from Washington state's Department of Children, Youth and Families. Earlier this year, her department wanted to stop charging parents, but the federal government said no. The new rules say they can after all, and Krutsinger says that will help troubled families get stronger.

KRUTSINGER: What this means for families is that it's one less potential economic hardship as they are working to get their family back.

SHAPIRO: In our investigation, we found it's people of color who, in disproportionate numbers, get charged with these bills for foster care. Bree has a Black parent and a white parent. One day in court, Bree told the judge that the bill for foster care was too high.

BREE: I told the judge this. I said, look. We came from poverty. We're barely getting out of it. And we're paying off all of our debts so that we can actually have proper housing for our son. And you're putting us back into poverty.

SHAPIRO: The judge reduced the monthly payment, but the $8,000 debt remained and kept coming out of their paychecks. Today things are going better. The family moved out of that travel trailer, and with a government rent subsidy, they live in a house now. But Bree still owes a few hundred dollars to pay off that foster care. That new policy in Washington state to stop charging parents will only apply to parents coming into the system now. It won't help Bree and others who still owe money. Jill Duerr Berrick, a professor of social welfare at the University of California at Berkeley, says the new federal guidance is a start.

JILL DUERR BERRICK: And with the new rules, we're going to see a checkerboard, where we will have some states that are more generous and some states that are not generous. And that's the American way - location, location, location.

SHAPIRO: But it will take an act of Congress to end for good the practice of sending impoverished parents a bill for the cost of foster care. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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