Social workers begged Stacy Mooney to stay a foster parent. Since 2009, Mooney has taken newborns into her rural Anoka County home, soothing them at all hours of the night as they screamed from withdrawal from their birth mothers’ drug addictions.
Mooney loved the job and even adopted one of the children, but this year she opted not to fill out her foster home renewal application.
“I was paying close to $400 a month out of pocket,” she said. “I just couldn’t afford it.”
A dramatic increase in the number of children placed in foster care since 2014 means that Minnesota needs foster homes more than ever. While the number of foster-care providers has gone up by 10 percent since 2011 to 3,811, it has not kept pace with the increase of children going into foster care.
Many foster parents like Mooney say the state’s reduction in payments means they’re breaking even or losing money, as they care for kids whose behaviors they believe are more challenging than they were five or 10 years ago.
The increase in foster care placements comes after sweeping reforms passed by the Legislature in 2015 following tragic failures in child protection. The number of abuse cases accepted by Minnesota’s child protection agencies has jumped 50 percent in the past two years.
That has more than doubled the number of cases investigated, where a child is more likely to need foster care placement as protection from abusive parents, according to the Department of Human Services. It’s the largest increase since the agency began tracking the data in 2000.
“There are not enough homes,” said Jim Koppel, the DHS assistant commissioner for Children and Family Services. “We know that children’s needs are not going to be met by the number of providers.”
A DHS work group in December made several recommendations to increase the number of homes and provide more support to parents, but Koppel said the agency won’t begin to consider those efforts until sometime this summer, and for others there’s no money to implement them.
And though Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill in May that increases the base pay of foster parents by 15 percent, it will not go into effect until July 2017.
Marsha Van Denburgh of Oak Grove, who has been a foster parent since 1999 and lobbied the Legislature for the 15 percent increase, said more needs to be done.
“I know of several families that have done foster care that have chosen to leave in the last several months,” she said.
Parents burned out
Without enough homes, children sometimes are forced to wait weeks in shelter homes as overstretched social workers often get turned away from providers. Hennepin County has seen the worst of the problems, leaving some children in hospitals until social workers can find a home for them.
At counties’ urging, foster providers are signing waivers that allow them to take in more children than their license allows. They often know little about the children and then are forced to deal with behaviors they’re not equipped to handle. They pay for baby sitters and sometimes day-care providers out of their pockets. Getting vacation or respite care — when another foster family takes in their children for a weekend — is rare.
Carrie Edberg of Elk River considers foster care her full-time job. As a single mother with three children of her own, she has little time for anything else. But caring for two foster children on about $18.50 a day in reimbursement for each of them has been a struggle.
Pay for foster parents was higher before January 2015, when the state’s Northstar Care for Children law took effect. Lawmakers passed Northstar to provide money to adoptive parents as a way to find more permanent homes for kids, but it also dropped the compensation for foster parents.
For Edberg, the pay doesn’t cover food, gas for the frequent trips to doctor appointments and parent visits, toys, blankets and bottles, not to mention the many unexpected expenses that come with caring for a child. If it weren’t for donations, reimbursement for formula and food stamps, she said, there’s no way she could continue to do it.
Edberg said she loves the job and the opportunity to help put an abused child in a better environment and doesn’t want to quit. But there are other struggles, like not getting enough information about the kids she’s taking in. One child was 8 months old and medically fragile, but Edberg said she was never told that. About five days later she found medical equipment dropped off at her door. Edberg thought there was a mistake until she made calls to the company, her social worker and the child’s doctors.
“I didn’t know he was supposed to be on oxygen 24 hours a day,” she said. “It took me a month to figure out his medical picture.”
In interviews, numerous foster parents lament that they are not told enough about the children they take in, including their medical and mental health backgrounds. Some take in kids without realizing they’re violent and can’t care for them, forcing the child to go to another placement.
Sally Larson, who has been a foster parent for 15 years, estimates that she’s had thousands of dollars of damage done to her Blaine home. Children have punched holes in her walls, ripped open couches and ruined carpet with food coloring. There’s supposed to be reimbursement for that damage, but she’s rarely submitted for it.
“[The county] makes it so difficult,” she said. “It takes a gargantuan effort.”
Larson thought about quitting but doesn’t know what else she would do.
“We’ve set up our lives to do foster care,” she said. “And it’s an important thing to do.”
Other parents just want more compensation for the care they are providing. Larry and Brenda Daml of St. Francis often pay the expenses of taking teenagers they’re fostering to therapy sessions.
“We’re lucky if we break even,” Daml said. “I had my tax guy ask why we’re even doing it.”
Other parents couldn’t keep going. Brenda Thomas closed her Ham Lake foster care home after 14 years, saying the combination of funding cuts and the challenges of the kids were too much to handle.
“The kids are harder. They’re more destructive, they act out more,” she said. “There are a lot more kids that have mental health problems, behavior problems, violence issues.”
She’s now working answering phones for $10 an hour. That’s 10 times what she estimates she earned as a foster parent.
Waiting for help
Desperate for more nonrelative foster parents, who traditionally make up about half of the providers for children in out-of-home care, counties and licensing agencies have stepped up their recruitment efforts. Kindred Family Focus, one of the state’s largest private foster licensing agencies, has hired recruiters, put up billboards, advertised at conferences and partnered with community agencies to find more providers, said Kindred Executive Director George Hendrickson.
The efforts have paid off, with Kindred adding about 100 new providers, he said. But the agency has lost about 100 providers during roughly the same time. When county social workers call Kindred to place a child, 90 percent of the time they have no openings, Hendrickson said. Children in their shelter homes who are only supposed to be there for at most 30 days instead end up staying there far longer, he said.
Kindred’s parent organization, Nexus Treatment, has 175 children on its waiting list for a bed in its intensive residential treatment centers. That’s also a strain on foster parents, said Mary Hass of Blaine, who has been a provider for more than 20 years.
“They’re staying in our homes,” she said. “We just have to try and manage their behaviors until they can get professional help.”
A DHS work group issued numerous recommendations last December to recruit foster parents and provide them more help, such as a statewide ad campaign and additional training. But Koppel said because the agency has been swamped, nothing has yet been implemented and planning won’t start until this summer. And there’s no money for other recommendations, such as the ad campaign.
But if more beds don’t open up, that will mean children will experience more trauma.
“That’s unacceptable,” he said.