OPINION AND COMMENTARY
Editorials and other Opinion content offer perspectives on issues important to our community and are independent from the work of our newsroom reporters.
Felicia Clark protests outside the Children’s Receiving Home in Sacramento on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, after Kendra Czekaj, 12, died chasing a resident who left the county’s foster care placement facility on the Auburn Boulevard campus.. Clark became a frequent protester at the home after her four children were placed there. I’m standing out here for Kendra, she said. I want to make sure that she gets justice for what happened to her here and that she gets justice in criminal court for what her father did. Czekaj’s father was sentenced to 14 years in state prison in June.
During the Middle Ages, prisoners in Europe were responsible for the cost of their confinement. They paid for their food, clothing and even the straw they slept on.
Today, American children are sometimes separated from their parents and placed in foster care, and then their parents get a bill from the government. Yes, parents are required to pay for their children’s stay in care.
Though foster care is supposed to help families get back on their feet, the parallel with 14th-century punishment is obvious.
The policy that upholds this practice is little-known. Most people are unaware that in 1984, the federal government required states to enforce child support obligations for parents of children in foster care. In California, over 60,000 parents pay into the child support system every year to offset the cost of their children’s care.
Some may find merit in the law. But are taxpayers aware of the cost of implementation?
California spends more money administering child support enforcement against these parents than it recovers from them. According to an Orange County-based study, taxpayers spend about $1 for every 27 cents returned to the government. That translates into millions of taxpayer dollars spent for a scanned return.
Why is it so hard to get parents to pay? Child protective services departments disproportionately serve some of the lowest-income families in the United States. Many such parents accumulate child support bills totaling several thousand dollars that they can’t afford. The government then employs an arsenal of strategies to extract the debt with interest.
It may garnish wages, withhold tax rebates, or even take veterans’ benefits. If parents still have no money years later, the government can take it out of their Social Security payments after they retire.
This isn’t good for government finances, either. For every month of foster care parents pay for, children remain in care for almost seven months longer. Why? Because the parents can’t afford to get their kids back. Child support payments destabilize these parents’ capacity to pay for rent, food and utilities. And extending kids’ care is not trivial; it’s cruel to children and families, and it also increases what we all pay for care.
The fiscal implications of this policy should be reason enough for concern, but the bureaucratic aspects of its implementation are more troublesome still. Child support enforcement varies by county and among individual caseworkers within counties. One study found that the application of the law was seemingly arbitrary, with little correlation among parents’ income, the likelihood of child support orders and the payments required.
One measure of good government is efficiency; another is consistency in administration of the law. This policy fails on both counts.
The California Legislature has an opportunity to reform the law under Assembly Bill 1686, which aims to reduce the number of Child Protective Services families required to pay for foster care.
Making parents pay for their child’s stay in foster care is reminiscent of centuries past. It’s also expensive for parents and the rest of us. Child support obligations should not be levied against parents trying to bring their children home.
Jill Duerr Berrick is a professor of social welfare at UC Berkeley.
Jill Duerr Berrick is a distinguished professor of social welfare and Zellerbach Family Foundation professor at UC Berkeley. Jill Duerr Berrick