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Foster care is costly, and some states send more kids to relatives

Foster care.

When there’s is a suspected case of child abuse or neglect, often someone will call social services. There will be an investigation, and about four hundred thousand children a year will end up in foster care. But foster care is expensive - $200-$400 dollars a day. Increasingly children are diverted from pricey foster care and sent to live with family instead. This has led to debate about what’s best for kids. 

Sheila Brockington, a 60-year-old grandmother from the Bronx,  has made her foster role official. She’s a registered foster caregiver for her granddaughter and her granddaughter’s new baby, her great-granddaughter. Brockington works as a home health attendant for $10 an hour. So while she says she could take care of the kids on her own, it would be a hardship. 

“A small can of baby milk is $17 by itself and this little grandbaby I got likes to eat. Then the baby diapers and her wipes. She's 11 pounds and she's already outgrown all her clothes,” she says. “It would be tight, because everything is going up but my paycheck. We'd have to cut back. We'd make it,  but we'd be scratching, we'd be clawing."

Brockington’s 15- year-old granddaughter, Taraia, also gets support through the foster care system. “Taraia would get a tutor, if she needs it for after school...therapist, if she needs that,”  says Brockington.  And the new baby could be provided with a crib, a car seat and clothing.

But according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation,  in some states, including Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia, more kids are getting sent to family. but outside the foster system. The Foundation says that often means there’s no financial support, or caregivers don’t know it’s available. And, while states may save money, oversight for kids can be lacking. 

Shanequa Henry, Brockington’s case supervisor at Children’s Village, a non-profit that provides support for families and kids in the Bronx, says it’s an issue that pulls her in two directions. Forty percent of the time, she says, extra oversight isn’t necessary; but sixty percent of her feels that the government should stay involved. Family members, she says, can be too lenient on moms or dads who’ve been accused of abuse or neglect, but still want to see the children they’ve lost.   

 “Sure you can take them. Sure they can spend a night, even if they're not supposed to spend a night,” she says. “You think that it's ok but what if the abuse is still going on?” 

Fred Wulczyn, a senior research fellow with the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall Center for Children, says the debate over how to care for foster childten is not just about the money; it's also about values. There’s a delicate balance between a family’s right to privacy and the interest of the community that kids are safe. Wulczyn notes that most people raise their children without government intervention. 

"Every day, parents without the involvement of the state are making arrangements to care for their children when they themselves cannot.” 

“It really is a values thing,” says Tracey Feild, Director of the Child Welfare Strategy Group at the Annie E Casey Foundation. “Workers, when you talk to them, they say, 'why should we be involved in their lives? We’re just intrusive and families should be able to make their own decisions.' It’s not seen as just ‘we’re going to save money by doing this.’ It seen as a really good thing by workers – it’s best if we stay out of their lives.” 

Almost all the experts agree that children do best when they’re with their own families.   Which means, as Feild explains, diversion to family care isn’t the problem; it’s only problematic “if it’s done wrong,” and there's a  lack of oversight for children.  But too often, she says, that’s the case. 

“The child is left with grandma and no one know what happens next.”

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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