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

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“This will help many single parents,” Daisy Hochman, a Minnesota mother whose tax refunds were forfeited after her three children were placed in foster care, says of the change in federal leadership.

Meg Anderson/NPR


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“This will help many single parents,” Daisy Hochman, a Minnesota mother whose tax refunds were forfeited after her three children were placed in foster care, says of the change in federal leadership.

Meg Anderson/NPR

New federal government guidance will make it easier for states to end a controversial practice that, according to a 2021 NPR investigation, keeps impoverished families in debt when their child is placed in foster care.

When children are placed in foster care, their parents are often in for a surprise: many receive a bill from the state or county for “alimony” to share the cost of childcare.

These parents, however, are almost always poor and have difficulty paying. The extra costs, an NPR investigation has shown, can keep children in foster care for a few extra months and then burden already poor and disadvantaged families with additional debt, often for years.

Now Office of Children and Families, US Department of Health and Human Services. released a new guide state and county child protection officials, allowing them to stop sending bills to parents if they choose.

“This will help many single parents,” says Daisy Hochman, a Minnesota mother who received a bill of more than $19,000 after her three children spent 20 months in foster care. Hochman, who was featured in the NPR investigation, then received tax refunds from her county. “This is the money I live on for myself and my children.”

Every state charges parents a fee to support foster parents, though so few can pay, as NPR’s investigation found, that state child welfare agencies actually lose money when their staff spends time trying to find those parents and pick them up.

As her daughter Dayshauna watches, Daisy Hochman goes through the paperwork from when her children were placed in foster care. Hochman says having to pay the county of Minnesota was an added stress in her life: “This is the money I live off of for myself and my kids.”

Meg Anderson/NPR


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Meg Anderson/NPR

As her daughter Dayshauna watches, Daisy Hochman goes through the paperwork from when her children were placed in foster care. Hochman says having to pay the county of Minnesota was an added stress in her life: “This is the money I live off of for myself and my kids.”

Meg Anderson/NPR

Parents’ wages and tax refunds could be confiscated

Most of the collections are made through the registration of salaries and tax refunds of mothers and fathers. In 2021 according to federal government statistics, nearly $96 million was collected from these parents and returned to the US Treasury. The states retain at least an equal number. The largest federal government revenue, $113 million, came in 2020 when state governments provided stimulus checks designed to help parents struggling during the pandemic.

Bree, a Washington State parent, said the foster care bill weakened her family as she sought help to make her stronger.

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 travel trailer they could tow behind their 20-year-old pickup truck, and settled with their son in a trailer park halfway between Tacoma and Seattle.

“Obviously we had a low income,” she says. “We tried to raise our wages.”

She and her husband found low-paying jobs that were enough to live on.

Things were going better. Then, in 2019, her husband was charged with assaulting their son. Bree and her husband disputed this. The boy, who was almost 4 years old, was given to a foster family.

In the end, all charges against her husband were dropped. It took 13 months before their son returned home.

Then Bree and her husband got the bill: they owed the state $8,000 for the boy’s foster family.

The money was taken from their paychecks. For Bree, about $1,400 a month.

It was scary when she saw the first paycheck with the money taken away: “I’m going crazy because I see my check and think:” Oh my God, how can I pay my bills?

In court, she told the judge that the “alimony” bill was too high: “We came out of poverty,” she told the judge. “We are barely getting out of this. And we pay off all our debts so that we really have a normal housing for our son. And you again plunge us into poverty.

The judge reduced her monthly payment. But the $8,000 debt remained—and continued to come from their paychecks and tax refunds.

Today things are going better. Bree received her associate’s degree. In September, the second child was born. The family moved out of this travel trailer and now lives in the house with a rental voucher.

But they still have a debt to pay this foster family – about $300.

“When a government child support agency takes away what little money a parent has when a child is put into foster care, it becomes harder for that parent to pay gas or bus fares or commute to work; it’s harder to get or keep permanent housing,” says Aisha Schomburg, head of the federal agency that announced the new guidance this month. “That’s not what we want.”

Schomburg, assistant commissioner of the Children’s Bureau — the agency that provides federal funding to state and county child protection agencies — said in a statement to NPR that the new policy directs states that their “default stance” is to stop charging parents and, instead, “find innovative ways to support families.”

New rules say agencies can stop charging parents

The new leadership was welcome news for many state and county child protection officials.

“We were delighted, we were relieved, we were very excited as a public agency to see the updated federal guidance,” says Allison Krutzinger, director of government and public relations for the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families.

Earlier this year, her department wanted to stop charging parents. But the federal government has said no – and that it needs to go through rigorous steps first and still consider each family on a case-by-case basis.

The new rules say they can operate more broadly and stop charging fees.

Kruzinger says it will help disadvantaged families become stronger. “For families, this means one less potential economic problem while they work to get their family back,” she says.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Children and Families has issued guidance to state and county child protection officials to stop billing parents for foster care costs.

Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images


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Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Children and Families has issued guidance to state and county child protection officials to stop billing parents for foster care costs.

Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Poor families continue to receive these bills until they are paid in full. In Washington State, some parents are still billed for years — even 20 years or more — after they are reunited with their children. “So this financial burden can lie on families for years – and decades,” says Kruzinger.

This new policy in Washington State to stop charging parents will now only apply to parents who sign in. This does not apply to Bree and others who still owe money.

Jill Duerr Berrick, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare, says not every state will stop charging. “With the new rules, we will see a chessboard,” she says. “We will have states that are more generous and other states that are not generous. And it’s American: place, place, place.
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California Rep. Isaac Bryan introduced legislation this would end the practice of charging parents in that state.

A 1984 federal law requires state and local child protection agencies, when “appropriate,” to collect money and return some of it to the US Treasury to reimburse the federal government, which pays most of the cost of foster care.

Now, House and Senate Democrats have drafted a new bill — and are seeking Republican co-sponsors — that goes one step further and will forever end the practice of sending parents a bill for foster care expenses.

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