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Foster parents shorted, judge decides

California's payments fall below the amount needed to generate matching funds, violating federal law.

October 23, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Williams is a Times staff writer.

California's payments to foster parents are so low that the state is in violation of the federal Child Welfare Act, a federal judge in San Francisco ruled Wednesday.

Ruling in favor of three groups of foster caregivers who brought suit against the state, U.S. District Judge William Alsup noted the state's compensation rate has fallen to as little as 60% of the costs the state is obliged to cover to be eligible for federal matching funds.

Alsup ordered the state to create a system for determining the actual cost of foster care, but he stopped short of mandating higher payments.

"We consider the order an important first step toward bringing the state in line with its obligations under the Child Welfare Act," said Kim VanVoorhis, the attorney who argued the case for the caregivers. But she said the ruling's failure to require increased payments leaves foster families in limbo.

"The department is in the process of evaluating the court decision and is not in a position to comment at this time," said Shirley Washington, a spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services.

In their arguments before Alsup last week, attorneys for the caregivers warned that many of California's 75,000 foster children are at risk of losing their placements with families as the gap between promised and actual compensation widens. Payments vary according to a child's age, from $446 a month to $627, which caregivers said in court was 29% to 40% below actual costs.

Washington said the state has seen a 28% drop in foster care placements over the last seven years but attributed the decline to "many different factors, including those not necessarily tied to the rate paid foster parents."

The groups that brought suit argued that the shrinking pool of foster homes could worsen the budgetary crisis, if the shortage of foster parents causes more children to be placed in group homes, where per-child monthly costs are eight times higher.

Alsup instructed the state to begin a systematic review of the costs to the state of providing food, clothing, transportation and other services mandated by the federal Department of Health and Human Services in order for a state to be entitled to receive the federal government's 50% share. But Alsup did not specify what the state would need to do to meet a federal "substantial compliance" requirement.

Children's advocates warn that unless the state begins paying foster families more, the numbers of willing caregivers will continue to decline.

"We're losing them in droves," said Regina Diehl, executive director of Legal Advocates for Permanent Parenting, who adopted a 3-year-old girl she initially took in as a foster child.

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carol.williams@latimes.com

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