Missouri's foster care system: Missing the MARC

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then what is the value of 11,000 pictures must be immeasurable? Based on figures from the Missouri Children's Division, more than 11,000 children reside in foster care in the State of Missouri. More than 11,000 Missouri foster children wonder if today is the day they get to see brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, or if today is the day they move to yet another “placement” as it's called in “the system.” “Placement.” A cold, sterile word for referring to a home. Imagine being torn from the arms of Mom or Dad and being swept away by a stranger, someone called a caseworker, and dropped off with a garbage bag of clothes—whatever the caseworker could grab, if anything at all—then told in the car ride not to be afraid, that you're going to live with a new family and suddenly arriving at a strange place, being told this is your new house. A child is then expected to seamlessly fall into the routine and expectations of this new “foster family,” folks selected and assigned to her to nurture, care, and provide. Confused thoughts, worrisome fears, the unknowns … feeling like life has been diminished, only to arrive at a home where the family is struggling to make ends meet and can barely afford to put food on the table. Is this what it means to be rescued? If no foster homes are available, she will have to live in a facility? This is reality for Missouri's foster children, and because of alarmingly low foster care reimbursement rates, the future of assuring a solid pool of foster homes is uncertain. According to Rebecca Woelfel, Communications Director for the Missouri Department of Social Services, of the 11,000 children in foster care statewide, 28 reside in Cooper County, with the average child being 9-10 years of age. Many of these children are burdened with medical and/or emotional needs due to abuse and neglect. There is a need for more foster homes. Woelfel stated, “There is always a need for foster homes.” She shared that, “The Children's Division makes every effort to match the strengths of families with the individual needs of children in care … The more homes we have available, the better our chances of finding a good match for the child close to his/her home.” The sad reality is that many people choose not foster, who otherwise would, because of financial barriers. It is expensive to raise a child. But, what about raising someone else's child? Yes, it still costs money, even beyond the minimal current reimbursement rates for providing foster care. The breakdown for reimbursement is as follows, remaining unchanged since July of 2008: Monthly maintenance: $282 for children ages 0-5 years; $335 for children ages 6-12 years; $372 for children ages 13 and over. Additional monthly infant allowance of $50 for children ages 0-3 to assist with diaper and formula costs. Annual clothing allowance: $250 for children ages 0-5 years; $290 for children 6-12 years; and $480 for children age 13 and over. Most foster parents also qualify for a professional parent payment which is reimbursement of $100 per child, per month. CNN Money Online reported that the cost of raising one child from birth to age 18, for a middle-income family, not including college, is on average $226,920, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This figure has increased nearly 40% in the last decade. With one year of spending hovering near $13,000, this does not come close to the mere $282-472 dollars per month provided from the State to cover the expenses of a child. This is less than half of the Missouri-assigned maximum rate extended for caring for a teenager at $6144, which includes the professional parent bonus and clothing allowance. Caring for an elementary-age foster child would allow for a mere $5,510 annually. The math just doesn't work. According to the University of Missouri extension, a leading reason for the USDA to release the cost of living is for states to determine foster care rates. Missouri's foster care reimbursement rates are close to the lowest in the country, among the bottom four states. The current rates would need to more than double to cover the real costs of raising a child. Children's Rights, a national advocacy group working to reform failing child welfare systems, published extensive reports, the first of its kind specific to “real” minimum adequate rates for children (MARC) in foster care. Children's Rights reports that Missouri needs to increase its rates between 120-131%, depending on the age of the child, to hit the MARC. Missouri's obligation to provide for the basic needs of children in foster care clearly dovetails with foster families ensuring that they have the financial means to take on the burden of care. Children's Rights shares that, “Low rates can negatively affect foster parent recruitment and retention, which can set off a chain reaction of long-term life consequences for children.” With reports of difficult financial times looming, and no foster care reimbursement rate increases in sight, the question prevails....will fewer families step forward to provide foster care. “When a child welfare system cannot maintain an adequate pool of foster homes, children may be more likely to be placed in institutional facilities, which are costly, or shuttled from placement to placement, an unstable situation which harms children and can decrease their chances of growing up in a permanent family,” Children's Rights report. A stigma exists for foster parents asking for—advocating for—more money. It's as if people think they are “just in it for the money.” Some think families foster children for the money, the paycheck. I think we can safely dispel this myth for most by looking at the aforementioned numbers where the current rates don't come close to adequately providing for Missouri's foster children's needs. The time has come for Missouri to more closely examine its level of commitment to a population without a voice, children being sent to and fro with no say in the matter. An increase in foster care reimbursement rates will increase quality placements. Missouri social services have missed the MARC (minimum adequate rates for children). There is so much reward in caring for children through foster care, where lives are being changed and saved. Anyone interested in foster care or needing more information should contact the Cooper County Children's Division office at: 409 High Street, Boonville, MO 65233 or call (660) 882-5311. ■