New guidelines from the federal government will make it easier for states to end a controversial practice that, according to a 2021 NPR investigation, keeps poor families in debt when their child is placed in foster care.
When children are placed in foster care, there is often a surprise for their parents: many will receive a state or county bill for “child support,” to share the cost of caring for their child.
These parents, however, are almost always poor and struggling to pay. The added cost, according to the NPR survey, can keep children in foster care for several additional months and then burden already poor and struggling families with additional debt, often for years.
Now the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families released new guidelines to state and county child welfare officials who will allow them, if they choose, to stop billing parents.
“It will help a lot of single parents,” says Daisy Hohman, a Minnesota mom who was hit with a bill of more than $19,000 after her three children spent 20 months in foster care. Hohman, who was in the NPR investigation, then had his tax refunds seized by his county. “It’s the money I live on for myself and my children.”
In every state, parents are billed for the cost of foster care even though, as the NPR investigation found, so few are able to pay that state agencies tasked with protecting their children actually lose money when their staff spends time trying to find these parents and recover.
Parents’ salary and tax refunds can be garnished
Most collections are made by capturing paychecks and tax refunds from mothers and fathers. In 2021, according to federal government statistics, nearly $96 million was collected from these parents and returned to the US Treasury. States keep at least an equal amount. The biggest return to the federal government — $113 million — came in 2020 when state governments seized stimulus checks meant to help struggling parents during the pandemic.
Bree, a parent from Washington state, said the foster care bill had weakened her family at a time when she was looking for help to strengthen her.
Bree — NPR agreed to her request to use only her first name — and her husband lived in a state where they found their low wages weren’t enough to pay rent and other expenses. They moved to Washington State, bought a trailer they could tow behind their 20-year-old pickup truck, and together with their son lived in a trailer park halfway between Tacoma and Seattle.
“Obviously we were low income,” she says. “We were trying to increase our salaries.”
She and her husband found low-paying jobs, just enough to get by.
Things were going better. Then, in 2019, her husband was accused of assaulting their son. Bree and her husband disputed it. The boy, who was almost 4 years old, was placed in foster care.
Eventually, all charges against the husband were dismissed. It was 13 months before their son came home.
Then Bree and her husband got the bill: they owed the state $8,000 to pay for the boy’s foster care.
The money was seized from their paychecks. For Bree, about $1,400 per month.
It was chilling when she saw the first paycheck with the money seized: “I’m crazy because I see my check and I think, ‘Oh my God, how can I pay my bills?’
In court, she told the judge that the “child support” bill was too high: “We come from poverty,” she told the judge. “We’re barely getting out of it. And we’re paying off all our debts so we can have proper housing for our son. And you’re pushing us back into poverty.”
The judge reduced his monthly payment. But the $8,000 debt remained – and kept flowing out of their paychecks and tax refunds.
Today is better. Bree has completed her associate degree. A second child was born in September. The family left this caravan and, with a government rent voucher, now live in a house.
But they still have a debt to repay through this foster care – about $300.
“When a public child support agency takes what little money a parent has when a child is placed in foster care, it is more difficult for that parent to pay for gas or the bus or to get to work; harder to get or keep stable housing,” said Aysha Schomburg, who heads the federal agency that announced the new guidelines this month. “That’s not what we want.”
Schomburg, the associate commissioner of the Children’s Bureau — the agency that provides federal funding to state and county child welfare agencies — said in a statement to NPR that the new policy directs states that their “position by default” should be to stop charging parents and, instead, “find innovative ways to support families”.
New rules say agencies can stop charging parents
The new guidelines were welcome news for many state and county child welfare agency officials.
“We were thrilled, we were relieved, we were very excited as a state agency to see the updated federal guidelines,” said Allison Krutsinger, director of government affairs and community engagement for the Department of Washington State Children, Youth and Families.
Earlier this year, his ministry wanted to stop charging parents. But the federal government said no – and that it had to go through elaborate steps first and still consider each family on a case-by-case basis.
The new rules say they can act more broadly and stop charging.
Krutsinger says it will help struggling families become stronger. “What this means for families is that it’s one less potential economic hardship while they work to recover their family,” she says.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
Poor families continue to receive these bills until they are completely paid. In Washington State, some parents are still being billed for years, even 20 years or more, after reuniting with their children. “So it’s a financial burden that can weigh on families for years, even decades,” says Krutsinger.
This new policy in Washington State – to stop charging parents – will only apply to parents entering the system now. This will not apply to Bree and others who still owe money.
Jill Duerr Berrick, a professor at the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley, says not all states will stop charging. “With the new rules, we’re going to see a checkerboard,” she says. “We’ll have some states that are more generous and some that aren’t. And that’s the American way: location, location, location.
In California, State Representative Isaac Bryan introduced legislation it would end the practice of charging parents in that state.
A 1984 federal law requires state and county child welfare agencies to collect the money, if any, and remit a portion to the U.S. Treasury to reimburse the federal government, which pays a large percentage of the placement family.
Now, Democrats in the House and Senate have prepared a new bill — and are seeking Republican co-sponsors — that takes another step and ends, for good, the practice of sending parents a bill for the cost of foster care.