Opinion: It’s not fair that Arizona pays foster parents so much more than family members who step up for kids. Lawmakers can fix this.
| Arizona Republic
A family is magnificent structure. There is no better cocoon for nurturing children.
When parents abuse or neglect their children – or fail to protect them – the state has to intervene.
Nothing is ever simple when the state sticks its fingers into a family’s life.
How families get shortchanged
Research shows a child removed from home because of abuse or neglect does better when placed with relatives, rather than strangers, according to reporting by The Republic’s Mary Jo Pitzl.
This sounds like a no-brainer.
Being sent to stay with Grandma or an aunt or even a cousin can help a child retain a thread of the familiar as his or her life is upended. It offers stability, security and a sense of belonging.
Arizona provides far less financial support to kinship caregivers than it gives unrelated foster parents. So much less that the Department of Child Safety itself says kinship care “reduces the financial impact to the state.”
Paying them more would cost $74 million
3 ways to view child abuse differently
If we want to fix Arizona’s broken child-welfare system once and for all, we must rethink how we view child abuse and neglect.
This creates an incentive for the child welfare system to favor kinship care – even if it might not be in the best interests of the child.
In a state that has historically underfunded its child welfare system, that sets off a red alert.
Caseworkers should make decisions on where a child is placed based solely on what’s best for the child. The fact that the state saves money on kinship care should not sway the choice – even subliminally.
Let’s be clear: the cost savings to the state budget is huge.
According to Pitzl’s reporting, legislation proposed to allow kinship families who agreed to go through the foster-home license process to immediately get the same stipend as foster parents carried a $74 million price tag.
The bill didn’t get a hearing last session.
$90 a month doesn’t buy much
Let’s be clear about something else:
The impact on family budgets is also huge.
That is particularly important because there is a correlation between poverty and child removals in Maricopa County.
In all likelihood, the family members who step up to help are also facing tough financial challenges in a state where salaries are low and housing costs are high.
A woman profiled in The Republic’s news story got $90 a month from the state for caring for her two nieces. A foster parent would get $1,300.
The strain on caregivers is huge
Some argue that family members have a particular responsibility to step up and help take care of their own.
This is arguably true. But children are expensive. For a grandmother on a fixed income or a single working aunt, the cost can be crushing.
And don’t forget that financial cost comes on top of the emotional, psychological and physical strain of caring for a traumatized child or children.
This burden on family members is happening when the state is increasingly dependent on kinship care. Currently, 43 percent of children in state custody are in kinship care; a decade ago, it was 32 percent.
Avoid a lawsuit; lawmakers can fix this
Those numbers most likely represent a positive step by the state toward providing more stability for kids in care.
A federal appeals court in the southeast United States ruled last year ruled that kinship parents are entitled to the same payments as foster parents.
That ruling does not impact Arizona. But the unfairness of Arizona’s system invites a legal challenge.
It would be far better for lawmakers to fix this.
About this report
In 2016, when the number of children removed from their families peaked at more than 18,000, the Arizona Community Foundation gave The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com a three-year grant to support in-depth research on the topic. As part of that effort, editorial writer Linda Valdez and our other staff experts investigate the reasons behind the surge in foster children and the systems meant to support and protect them.
Are you part of the system? We want to understand your story. Go to childwelfare.azcentral.com.