BOISE – Conservative North Idaho Sen. Steve Vick has only been on the Legislature’s joint committee for a week, but on Monday, he said he saw a budget request that he views as more justified than others: Slightly raising Idaho’s low-ranking foster care reimbursements.
“It seems to be one of those that’s more justified in my mind,” said Vick, who once looked into becoming a foster parent himself.
He’s one of 10 first-time members on the Idaho Legislature’s 20-member budget-setting committee this year, a group that includes several who, like Vick, are suspicious of most increases in government spending.
The panel on Monday began a week of budget hearings on state Health and Welfare programs, starting with child welfare. Idaho’s child welfare system was ranked No. 1 in the nation by the Foundation for Government Accountability last summer, based on criteria including quick response to abuse allegations and maintaining stable foster care placements. Yet, the state’s spending is among the nation’s lowest on the program, with foster care reimbursements ranking among the worst.
Rob Luce, administrator of Idaho’s child welfare division, said last year lawmakers granted half the department’s request for a $1 million boost in reimbursements, the first in about seven years. Now he’s asking for the other half.
That boost moved helped move Idaho up from 49th to 48th in the nation for its rates for the youngest children, and 50th to 47th for those aged 6-12, but it dropped from 43rd to 45th in the nation for kids age 13 and older.
If the requested increase is granted, Idaho’s reimbursements still would rank among the lowest; they’d only rise by about a dollar a day. But Luce said last year’s tiny increase was a morale-booster to the state’s foster parents. “The symbolism of it is huge,” he said.
Idaho has 1,246 licensed foster parents, and in 2012, 2,526 children were in foster care at some point during the year.
Foster families in Idaho are paid just $9.90 a day to care for infants to 5-year-olds; $11.35 a day for kids age 6-12 and $14.90 a day for those 13 or older. The proposed increase would raise those rates to $10.82, $12.04 and $16.02.
By comparison, foster parents in Washington are paid $13.95 a day for infants to 5-year-olds; $16.48 for 6-12-year-olds and $18.91 for kids 13 or older. Oregon, Montana, Wyoming and Nevada all have higher rates than Washington; both Idaho’s and Washington’s rates are below the national average.
There’s no backlog in Idaho now of children awaiting foster care, but Luce said recruitment is tough with such low reimbursements. “We’re maintaining, but I think we’re low,” he said, noting that the rates are far below the costs parents typically pay for day care.
Vick recalled a “mountain of paperwork” when he and his wife looked into becoming foster parents for a toddler they’d been watching for two months while both his parents were in prison. Before they could complete the process, other family members had claimed the child, who was related to friend of the Vicks from church.
Vick, whose youngest child was adopted from India, also had a favorable reaction to a request for a new $420,000 program designed to try to find permanent adoptive homes for hard-to-place, older kids before they “age out” of foster care. “If we can get those kids out of the foster care system and into permanent homes, that’s a worthwhile goal,” he said.
Hearings on the Department of Health and Welfare budget will stretch all week; lawmakers won’t start setting budgets for state agencies until at least mid-February. The agency, Idaho’s largest, is requesting $617 million in state funding next year, a 1.2 percent increase.