In summary

Many parents have to pay for their children’s stay in foster care – based on accumulated evidence, that law should be abandoned.

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By Jill Duerr Berrick, Special to CalMatters

Jill Duerr Berrick is a distinguished professor of Social Welfare and a Zellerbach Family Foundation Professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Parents who witness their children removed to foster care often refer to that day as their darkest. For some, separation from their children is felt as a deep punishment. In California and other states, we make matters worse.  

An obscure policy requires many parents to pay for their children’s stay in foster care. Based on the accumulated evidence, that law should be abandoned. 

Many parents involved with Child Protective Services are referred to the child support enforcement agency and thereafter receive a bill for the cost of their child’s care. Payments can be steep, and the government has many tools available to enforce the law: it can garnish wages, withhold tax rebates, suspend driver’s or professional licenses, or even deny a U.S. passport if parents don’t step up.

The few well-designed studies on this topic show that child support enforcement harms families. It extends children’s stay in foster care and increases family poverty. Its implementation is cost ineffective, and it goes against the fundamental values of the child welfare system: to support families and protect children.  

One study examined the effects of child support enforcement on the duration of children’s stay in foster care, finding that for every $100 monthly payment, children’s stay in care lengthened by 6.6 months. 

But foster care is designed to be temporary. Why design a policy that keeps kids separated from parents longer than is absolutely necessary? 

What’s more, the policy has particularly pronounced effects for Black families.  Families of color are already disproportionately represented in the Child Protective Services system, and substantial evidence shows that Black parents are less likely to reunify with their children. Rather than address those troubling statistics, the current law exacerbates the challenges Black families face.

The painful irony is that child support enforcement targets the lowest-income parents involved with Child Protective Services. Just how poor are families involved with the child welfare system? In one study, more than half of parents had no recorded earnings in the year prior to their child’s removal; in another study, about one-third of parents had an annual income of less than $10,000.

Ample evidence shows that family poverty increases the risk of child maltreatment. But the current law intentionally increases family financial precarity, and therefore reduces children’s safety.

The current law is harmful to families involved with Child Protective Services, and it’s also a bad deal for California taxpayers. Cost-benefit analyses show that rather than recouping expenses associated with foster care, the government actually loses money at a ratio of at least 3 to 1.  

This year, the Legislature has an opportunity to reform the law as legislators consider Assembly Bill 1686, introduced by Assemblymember Isaac Bryan, a Democrat from Los Angeles, which would reduce the number of CPS families required to pay for foster care.

Child support enforcement represents the antithesis of the values and goals that the Child Protective Services system intends. Therefore, child support should not be imposed on parents trying to bring their children home from foster care.

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