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Study faults foster pay rates

Nearly every state reimburses families far less than the actual cost of caring for foster children, according to a national study released earlier this month.

Idaho, which ranks near the bottom in providing basic care, would have to more than double its rates and Washington would have to pay 76 percent more to cover the cost of providing foster care, according to first-of-its-kind research by Children’s Rights, the National Foster Parent Association and the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

Federal law requires state and local governments to provide for the basic needs of foster children, including food, shelter, clothing and school supplies, but the states can set whatever monthly rates they choose, ranging from $226 in Nebraska to $869 in the District of Columbia.

The study, “Hitting the MARC: Yet Establishing Foster Care Minimum Adequate Rates for Children,” calculated what researchers believe is the real expense of providing for foster children in each state and proposed a new standard rate for each state.

“There is a growing body of evidence that the inadequacy of current reimbursement rates is taking a heavy toll on foster parent recruitment and retention,” said Julie Farber, director of policy for Children’s Rights, a national watchdog group.

Idaho’s monthly reimbursement rate for foster children is $274 at age 2, $300 at age 9 and $431 at age 16. Those rates should be increased, according to the study, 120 percent to $602, 130 percent to $689 and 75 percent to $756, respectively, not including such expenses as travel to visit biological parents, for example.

An Idaho Department of Health and Welfare spokesman acknowledged that Idaho’s rate was among the nation’s lowest because of a tremendous growth in the number of children in foster care.

“What we see in Idaho is competing needs for a limited amount of resources,” spokesman Tom Shanahan said, adding that foster families have not had a rate increase since 2001.

Shanahan said the department provides additional reimbursements for clothes, school supplies and transportation, as well as for special needs such as behavioral health problems.

The Department of Health and Welfare is working with lawmakers to raise payments for residential care in the next legislative session, he said.

“Next year we will put the priority on foster family rates,” Shanahan said.

The research found Washington state’s reimbursement rate was $374 at age 2, $451 at age 9 and $525 at age 16. The study said those rates should be increased 76 percent to $657, 67 percent to $753 and 57 percent to $826, respectively.

Cheryl Stephani, assistant secretary for the Department of Social and Health Services Children’s Administration, said the “Hitting the MARC” study does not consider additional reimbursements provided to foster parents in Washington.

For example, Stephani said, when other services and payments, including health care, are factored in, Washington reimburses foster care costs for 16-year-olds at an average of $1,628.17 per month.

Stephani said that support is based on a child’s individual needs, which could include respite care to relieve foster parents, property damage, and school and sports activity fees, among other incidentals.

Washington foster parents this year received a 7 percent rate increase after a 1 percent increase in both 2006 and 2007, she said.

“There is always more we can do to support the demanding jobs our foster parents do, and we will continue to look for ways to do that,” Stephani said. “But we are clearly doing much better than what was reported in the study.”