WASHINGTON – Maryland has dropped a trial program aimed at getting kids out of foster care and into permanent homes with legal guardians who were drawn from the children’s extended families.
The state program was one of only a handful in the nation when it started in 1998, with a special waiver from the federal government.
It targeted 1,021 children in the foster care system who were being cared for by family members, either informally or in formal foster-care situations, and tried to get the caregivers to become the legal guardians of those children.
For informal caregivers, the inducement was financial: Where they got $167 a month in state aid as a “kinship care” giver, the state promised to give them $300 a month as a guardian.
Foster parents in the program would have seen their monthly assistance cut from $600 to $300 as a legal guardian. But becoming a guardian would have eased their obligations to the state: Foster parents have three separate attorneys, face monthly visits by caseworkers and require state permission for a variety of parental decisions.
But a state evaluation of the program showed that just 428 of the 1,021 children had been placed in permanent homes by 2003.
“Apparently, ending child welfare agency involvement with the family was not as great an incentive . . . when it meant reducing the assistance they received from $600 to $300,” the evaluation said.
Foster parents, who are used to living on a certain amount of money may have felt a pay cut would ultimately hurt their kids, said Mark Testa, co-director of Fostering Results, which advocates programs like Maryland’s.
“I think you would have seen more children move into guardianship . . . if they had a more equal pay scale,” Testa said.
He said that similar programs in California and Illinois offered guardians the same amount of assistance as foster parents, and those states have been able to move more kids into permanent living situations. A study of Illinois’ program showed that it was able to find legal guardianship for 2,033 children from 2000 to 2001; Maryland found permanent homes for 152 children during the same period.
But offering permanent guardians $300 a month was all Maryland could afford, said Sharon Hargrove, a manager of Foster Care and Kinship Care for the state.
Under the federal waiver, the state could not spend more on its trial foster care program than it would have on a traditional program, she said.
Advocates and officials said that Maryland’s cut in pay to foster parents who became legal guardians may account for the fact that fewer caregivers did so than expected.
“We didn’t know if maybe they offered $100 or $200 more they would have had more success,” said Susan Orr with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Hargrove said that 250 of the 428 families that made the switch still have children young enough that they remain in the system. She said those caregivers who became permanent guardians will continue to receive $300 a month until their children turn 21.
In the meantime, the state is looking into future foster care programs, she said.
“We need more time to explore this,” Hargrove said.
-30- CNS 10-13-04