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Cutting Foster Care in Baltimore

May 27, 2014 permalink

Molly McGrath Tierney led the Baltimore Department of Social Services for seven years until until February 2014. In a TED talk given in Baltimore this January she was as severely critical of foster care as any opponent of the social services system. Foster care produces bad results for children while in care, worse results after they leave care - penitentiaries, the morgue or another generation of foster children. Foster care itself does more harm to children than the abuse from which the child was taken. An unending chain of systems reformers (including Tierney herself) try to tinker with the rules to turn the system around and make it work. Tierney boasts of more success than most agencies: during her tenure she cut the city foster care numbers to less than half their former size. Before reading on, watch her presentation at TED or YouTube or a local copy (mp4).

Tierney suggests an alternative to placing large numbers of children in foster care: assist families in caring for children in their own homes. Since this approach relieves the agency, and the taxpayers, of the burden of providing food, clothing and shelter for children and foster parents, it is a lot less expensive. Now the cost is restricted to the occasional expert meeting the family and dispensing advice or material assistance.

To understand the hazards of the alternative, think of two parables.

Parable A

As things are now in most child protection agencies.

A child care agency has a thousand children in foster care. When the agency requests next year's funding, they quote a figure, maybe $40,000 per child, $40 million in all, to provide foster care for the next year. The legislators know that without the required appropriation, foster children will go without necessities. What is the chance that a legislator will advocate sub-standard care for foster kids? Let them go hungry? Go to school barefoot? An elected politician cannot stay in office advocating policies like these. The agency is assured of getting its $40 million.

And now the alternative:

Parable B

As things would be according to Molly McGrath Tierney.

The child care agency has a thousand children under watch, all living with their families, but getting expert advice from professionals. The cost per child is only $5,000 per year, $5 million overall.

This time a legislator can suggest cutting the funding. Rationale? We think parents should be paying a bigger share of the cost of their own children. This argument has enough political appeal that the agency cannot be sure of getting its $5 million, but might see it trimmed to $4 or even $3 million. A few rounds of legislative cuts like this will mean the extinction of the service.

Replacing foster care with in-home care is better for families, better for children and better for taxpayers. But it suffers from a fatal flaw. The unfortunate relationship between the appropriation process and the political process means that the alternative to foster care cannot survive in practice.