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Foster Freeze

[whitespace] foster parents Paying the Price: Foster parents Sharon and Tom Unternahrer say they have paid out of pocket to cover childcare expenses for their foster children.

Christopher Gardner

High day-care costs are pushing toddlers out of foster homes at an alarming rate. Foster parents say it all comes down to money, but not all legislators agree.

By Traci Hukill

ELEVEN SLUMBERING FORMS fill the 3- and 4-year-olds' room in the McKenna Cottage of the county Children's Shelter, now encased in thick naptime quiet. The restless sleepers have half kicked off the bright afghans knitted by a group of concerned grandmothers they don't know. The others lie beneath smooth unmussed blankets, their childish breathing as soothing a sound as the hissing of gas lamps.

The county of Santa Clara built this room to hold six preschoolers on their first stopover along a road that will soon fork, leading either to immediate reunification with their parents or to foster care. For many of these kids, this trip of questionable fun started with the police or a social worker knocking on the door. Ideally there wouldn't even be enough kids to fill the half-dozen twin beds, but today 11 of these children experiencing varying degrees of trauma are sleeping in this room designed for six. Five of them sleep on cots lining the opposite wall.

At the McKenna Infants and Toddlers Cottage, cots mean overcrowding. So does the presence of on-call staff. And lately a lot of on-call staff here have been making up a lot of cots for toddlers, preschoolers and 5-year-olds--not because of a sudden influx of youngsters, but because of a shortage of places for them to go once they get here. Foster parents aren't accepting 2- to 5-year-olds like they used to.

"The disturbing fact is that toddlers in particular are staying longer," says Children's Shelter director Linda Carpenter. "The number of kids coming into the welfare system hasn't increased dramatically. It really is tied to whether or not we can place those children."

She blames the problem on the high cost of day care, a service that's become a necessity in the age of dual-income families--foster or otherwise. She also recognizes that the state rate of foster-care compensation--$345 per month--doesn't come close to supporting a child and paying for day care.

"Toddlers require a lot of time and energy," she says, "and one of the things we've seen is that those people who have the energy level to have little ones around are often younger families who need to have two people working.

"In recruiting foster families, some form of child care or respite is a serious issue, and they are not adequately compensated for that. It's probably our most urgent need right now."

Carpenter checked with other counties and discovered that finding foster homes for toddlers has become an issue statewide. That piece of spare-time research led the county Social Services Agency to lobby Assemblyman and former county Supervisor Mike Honda to sponsor a bill securing day-care funding for foster families.

In February Honda introduced AB 1820, designed to help place infants, toddlers and preschoolers in foster homes by reimbursing day care expenses for foster families. If it passes the state Assembly and Senate intact, 1820 will enable California to withdraw money from state and federal welfare funds--an estimated $57 million combined--and set it aside for the caregivers of the state's foster children under age 6.

Insufficient funding for foster children has long plagued the state. It's been eight years since California raised the foster-care stipend, during which period inflation has risen 17 percent. Today the county pays foster parents $345 a month (a statewide constant) to feed, clothe and otherwise provide for a child under age 5. Any parent knows that's not enough.

Denise Marchu knows all too well how hard it is to raise a child on the foster-care allotment. She's been a foster parent for nine years, and as president of the Santa Clara County Foster and Adoptive Parents Association, she was involved in a statewide push last year to raise the basic care rate for foster families.

"We figured the cost to have a newborn in the home is about $1,100 a month," she recalls. "We included everything--food, clothes, electricity, everything. And here the long-term rate is $345 a month."

When Assemblyman Jan Goldsmith (R-San Diego) introduced a bill to raise the stipend last year, it called for a 25 percent increase. The bill passed, but as a gaunt version of its original self: on July 1 it will go into effect as a 6 percent raise, bumping the infant-and-toddler rate up a notch to $365. In February the dogged Goldsmith, apparently having learned a lesson about what kinds of increases the state legislature will tolerate, introduced AB 2043, a bill aimed at increasing the stipend another 6 percent.

Clearly some help is on the way for foster families. But even if AB 2043 passes, raising the base care rate for kids under age 5 to $387, the stipend still won't come close to solving the child-care problem. The cost of full-time day care in a Santa Clara County child-care center averages $200 a week for kids 2 and under and $130 a week for 3- to 5-year-olds. Family day care in private houses, is expensive, too: It averages $125 a week for babies and $115 a week for older preschoolers.

Parent Trap

IN HER 11 YEARS as a foster parent, Sharon Unternahrer has grown used to spending money out of pocket to care for her charges, especially those of preschool age. She estimates each child's expenses run $100 to $200 a month more than the county stipend pays. Right now she has just one infant, but in the past she's had three foster children, all of whom needed food, clothes, toys and day care.

Technically, foster children are already eligible for subsidized child care under AFDC-FC (the FC stands for "foster care"). The problem is that foster kids have to wait their turn for the few available slots along with thousands of welfare kids. Unternahrer says the waiting list is so long that it's useless to foster parents, who by definition are temporary caregivers.

"We never get to the top of the list for subsidized day care," she says. "You can get on the list, but sometimes it's years long, sometimes months." She laughs, remembering an absurd situation. "The one time we got the call from the center saying, 'You're up,' I had to tell them, 'He's been gone two months!' "

In some instances the cost of day care is actually prohibitive. Unternahrer, a full-time nurse, is a perfect candidate to take in children with profound medical problems--those on gastrostomy tubes or oxygen--but the cost makes it impossible.

"I have turned down some of the medically fragile kids because I can't find day care that is affordable that has the expertise," she says. "You can pay $40 or $50 a day for a center that can handle them--and it's impossible to find."

Pound Foolish

ARLENE AND VERNON Tollison can testify to the wrecking power of day-care costs. At the beginning of January the couple had a full nest in their Campbell home: 7-year-old Rodney (not his real name; state law closely guards the privacy of foster children), and two brothers, 5-year-old Timothy and 6-year-old Gareth.

The brothers' arrival in mid-December was a little rocky. "Gareth didn't want to leave his other foster home at first," Arlene explains.

"Oh, but when they saw me--" Vernon takes off his hat and runs his hand through a shock of rust-colored hair--"I have red hair also. Their mom and dad both have red hair. Then it was like, 'OK, this is going to be OK.' "

The brothers are working out well. Gareth goes to first grade and attends an after-school program, while Timothy spends three hours in kindergarten every day and the rest of his time in day care. But Rodney wasn't so lucky.

Behavioral problems dogged him from the time he arrived at the Tollisons' in September, and he was finally kicked out of school in December for violent behavior. After experimenting with several programs for kids with behavioral problems, the Tollisons gave up and enrolled him in day care.

It wasn't long before they realized that the nearly $1,000 they would have to spend on day care each month--$480 per month each for Timothy and Rodney--would break them. They had a choice to make, and because it's important and difficult to place siblings together, the couple decided to keep the brothers.

"We had to give Rodney up because we couldn't afford to have two kids in day care," Arlene says. "We felt really bad, but there was nothing we could do."

All too many kids in the child welfare system have behavior problems coming into the system that get worse the more they're shifted around. That's why county administrators and social workers are so eager to move children out of institutions like shelters and into stable foster care as quickly as possible. Politicians also recognize the need for foster homes. Mike Honda, sponsor of 1820, mentions future costs when he talks about foster care.

"My main objective is to increase the pool of foster parents for these children and recruit prospective ones," he says. "The longer those children are in institutional homes, the more detrimental it is to them. I think this is a way of preventing higher cost in the future."

Honda is talking about group homes, which cost $1,300 to $5,000 a month per child. The destination for hard-to-place kids, group homes can house as many as 30 children. Their well-documented drawbacks (an inordinate number of juvenile delinquents have lived in group homes) are finally prompting political action.

Jan Goldsmith introduced last year's foster-care stipend increase after he served on the Assembly's Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice. "I saw a constant theme in juvenile crime going back to kids being abused and neglected in the dependency program," he says. "We're being very silly. Some kids need the high professionalism of a group home, but some just need a warm house and some TLC.

"From the taxpayer's standpoint," he says, getting down to the bottom line, "if we're putting kids in group homes for $2,000 to $3,000 each because we don't have the foster families at $500 a month, then that's shortsighted."

Goldsmith is optimistic about 2043, having laid the foundation for it last year. But Mike Rattigan, the county lobbyist working with Honda to push 1820 through, cautions that his bill is "not a slam-dunk by any means."

"I frankly wouldn't anticipate any formal organizational opposition to it," he says. "But when it goes to the Appropriations Committee, we'll find out about the state Department of Finance. They'll be against it. That's their job."

On April 14, 1820 will go to the Assembly Human Services Committee for policy review. If it passes there, it will go on to Appropriations for approval by the same committee that passed Goldsmith's reimbursement increase bill last year--after it was wrangled down from 25 percent to 6 percent.

Rattigan expects opposition from the Republicans. And even though Democrats outnumber Republicans on the Appropriations Committee, Rattigan cautions that the Democrats won't necessarily be an easy sell. In short, he says, "I think the truth is that at some point we'll have to consider our options in terms of scaling back. It could be in terms of percentage [of day care paid]. It could be a dollar amount. It's hard to tell."

Honda's camp remains optimistic, if not about legislative concern for children, then at least about the political climate. "On the positive side," says Honda aide Ruben Pulido, "I think our chances are relatively good because it affects children. A lot of Appropriations Committee members in an election year will support anything having to do with children."

Political Football

DAY-CARE FUNDING would affect a lot of people. It would mean that working foster parents of kids 5 and under would be reimbursed up to $209 a week for full-time day care. And that in turn would free up stipend money for them to spend on the kids, which is what the stipend was intended to do in the first place.

Relief colors Sharon Unternahrer's voice when she thinks about child-care funding. "If 1820 passes, I think it will be so wonderful for those who are working, because it would allow us to pay for day care and use the money for extra things for the kids. I had a couple of boys who needed tutoring. And it would have been great to get them into more outside activities. Like they wanted to play football, but it costs $250 to sign up for football! It would give us that advantage."

And it would hopefully shrink the population of McKenna Infants and Toddlers Cottage down from 25 to the five or 10 it used to be. The cots could go into storage, the on-call staffers could go home and the only kids there would be the ones waiting for someone to pick them up and take them home.

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From the April 9-15, 1998 issue of Metro.

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