The Real Costs and Reimbursements of Foster Care
Can You Make Money From Foster Care?
Nothing is more insulting than some random person asking the question "Oh, do you do foster care for the money?" Well, first, I own a business and have a job (as does my partner), so we can comfortably support ourselves AND the kids. Second, the reimbursement rate for caring for a foster child doesn't even cover the basics like food or clothing, much less leave anything extra for normal kid stuff.
If you're deciding whether or not foster care is something you want to do, there are a number of things to consider. These include:
- The real costs involved
- The other hidden cost: your time!
- How much you'll be reimbursed
- Why you really want to do this
The Real Costs
In my state, we get $372 per month to care for a child, plus once a year they provide a clothing voucher for $480.
That amount doesn't cover homecomings, school supplies, sports, field trips, school pictures, summer camp, toys, computers, proms, movies, vacations, amusement parks... or anything else that is normal for a teenager to do. That all comes out of our pocket to make sure the kids can be kids.
$480 is great... unless the kid arrives with only the clothes on his back. Any idea how much it costs to outfit a 16 year old from the floor up, for all the seasons at once? Don't forget gym clothes, court clothes, swimsuits, and winter coats! Did I mention we only get the voucher for JCPenney's? Yeah, we never figured out how to make it stretch that far either.
Did you know most states do NOT cover daycare costs for foster kids? That whopping monthly payment you get also has to cover $200-$400 a week in childcare. And as an extra special bonus, you can only use state-licensed daycares.
And ouch, the utilities! Add a few extra-clean teenagers with a gaming habit, and my water and electric bill double! Ugh. My dish bill doubles with more boxes; my phone bill quadruples with more lines for those ninja texters.
Finally, the laundry. Oh, my God, the laundry never ends. How do they get so many clothes dirty in one day?
Do You Have to Spend That Much?
Well honestly, do you really think I'm going to go to an amusement park without the kids?
That I'm going to grill up steaks but give my foster kids mac and cheese?
Or that we are going to go all out for Christmas but leave the foster kids out of the fun?
Any kid in our house is treated like a member of the family. This isn't about money or stuff or going places: it's about being included, no matter what we are doing. The entire point of fostering is to have the child feel like they are home until they can go home.
We use two gallons of milk in a day. Seriously.
Three pounds of bananas last us one day.
I added three bedrooms onto my house and bought an 11-passenger van JUST for the kids.
The Other Hidden Cost: Your Time
Surely you know how much time it takes for normal everyday kid stuff... and time is money, right? So let me give you a typical breakdown of what happens when new foster kids move in.
Aside from total shock, dismay, and nervous laughter, you need to get some things done... immediately!
- The kids need clothes—and right now. They came with stuff that looked like it was from a dumpster and doesn't remotely fit. (If they came from another foster home, you are usually pretty good to go, because they will have sent the kids to you with stuff that actually fits.) So you need to take all the kids to the store and help them pick out clothes, shoes, socks, a backpack... the list goes on. They will either want nothing or Every. Single. Thing. They. See. Fun times.
- Within 24 hours of placement, you need to get the kid into see a doctor. Sorry if you had plans or work. You need to track down all their school info and have it faxed over to the new school. If the kids has an IEP (Individual Education Plan)—and most do—it can take a week to set that up before they can even start school. Again, I hope you have vacation time at work. Within three days you and the kids will head to a court hearing to determine if they even stay in care, if they should go to relative, or if they need special services. This is always fun when you buy a kid $300 worth of clothes, take three days off work, and then they leave... and you never hear from them again.
- You will be driving the kids to family visits. These will typically be an hour long, from one to five times a week. These visits are usually hard on the kids... so plan on letting them run crazy in a park to let off some steam afterwards. Then plan on fielding some pretty awful questions as these little people try to get their head around when they can go home. You learn to do your very best to not cry in front of them.
- Medical appointments... Oh, my God, you have no idea. In addition to family visits, the kids must also go to therapy at least once a week. Get a sibling group of five? That's right, pal: you're looking at five separate appointments a week, usually not in the same building or with the same person. Plus dental, which will almost always be some major situation: foster kids haven't usually had someone coaching them on good dental hygiene. Medical involves everything from general issues to mental health issues; plan on at least one actual doctor appointment per week if you have several kids. And that's if no one is actually sick.
My Own Experience
As an example, let's talk about my first foster placement. Let's say you got a new kid this week (who came with a dog... what the hell?), and you have managed to get him settled in your house with clothes, food he will actually eat, and dog food. (Again, who gives a homeless kid a dog?!) Now you find out he will need to go to the dentist once a week for six weeks to fill every single tooth in his head, and the dentist is an hour away. Somehow no one told you that his birthday is in four days (good thing you had his medical card with the dates on it!). The kid is 78 pounds, 4'7" tall, and 15 years old, so that should be looked at for sure. You make a note to call someone, but you're not sure who. Has the dog had shots? No? OK, well, he needs shots, so add that to the list. (You get to pay for that, too.)
Now for the therapy. That's also an hour away, but they can double up on the day you have to drive him the hour to see family, so that's fine. Once you find the right guy to deal with the kid's not growing, you find out the kiddo who you've known for three weeks now needs brain surgery. Flipping wonderful. Plan on sleeping at the hospital because he's afraid of his shadow and leaving him all alone isn't an option. (I really hope you didn't have anything planned for a few months!) The kid has surgery and gets six weeks off school to recover, which means you get to entertain a kid who can barely move his head for at least four weeks. Naturally you go on a shopping spree of crafts, models, and other stuff he can do sitting or lying down, which prompts your other kid to whine that HE should get brain surgery so he can get more stuff. (Sighs.) FYI, the kid is on a second-grade reading level, can barely add, and has the social skills of a bull—a wild bull—so be sure to plan time to work on all that stuff too!
Once you get the brain thing fixed and the kiddo on growth meds, be sure to set aside a mountain of cash, because in eight months this kid is going to tear through five shoe sizes and go from a Boys' size eight to a Men's Medium in clothing ( and I'm not even remotely exaggerating). Now remember: this is NOT your kid. You just stopped your entire life for a child who will eventually go home... for $372 a month. So how much is your time worth? Think anyone would do all that, and give up life as they knew it, for $372? Bottom line: anyone who thinks foster care is profitable hasn't thought it through.
(FYI, the kid is a respectable 5'7" tall now and totally fine medically.)
A Few Other Considerations
Did you know that, if you need a babysitter, you will have to get their social security number and have a background check done on them first? Same thing for the kids going to sleepovers. Can you imagine how awkward that conversation is? "Oh, little Johnny wants to spend the night. Can I just get you to fill out this form and wait one to three weeks for the results?" That's right, a foster kid who has lost everything cannot even hang out at their friend's house without you.
If your mom wants to come spend the weekend with you... yep, any adult staying the night in your home will need a background check as well.
There are so many other ways to make much more money that is not nearly as emotionally taxing as being a foster parent. Money should not be (in any way, shape, or form) a consideration in becoming a foster parent.
Missouri Foster Care Payments Fall Short
Foster Care Reimbursement Rates
I live in Missouri, so we'll use that as an example. According to the Columbia Missourian, a survey was conducted by Children’s Rights, the National Foster Parents Association and the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
The study identified the "minimum adequate rates for children" specific to each state and based on an analysis of the real costs of providing care. This includes food, clothing, shelter, daily supervision, school supplies, insurance and travel.
The average amount of reimbursement across all ages in Missouri for 2007 was $227 per month. The average minimum adequate rate across all ages was $711.
So in addition to feeding, clothing, and housing a child, you also get to pay for:
- Any damage they may do.
- All toys, games, and hobbies.
- Music lessons, scouts, or any other activities.
- Sports and all the equipment.
- Daycare or babysitters.
Plus, your time is now their time, so cancel all plans.
Maybe I'm using old-school math here, but I see no possible way to even break even in this equation. I have yet to figure out how to keep a human alive, fed, housed, happy, educated, cultured, and dressed for less than $13 a day.
So Why Do This?
Simple: for the kids.
If anyone wants to do foster care for any other reason, then they shouldn't bother.
Have you ever seen the face of a child light up because those new shoes you bought were their first new pair EVER?
Have you ever seen a child almost cry when they saw their "new room?" Or ask you how many people they had to share their bed with?
How about that surprised face when Santa actually came, when he never once remembered that kid before... and the the follow up heartbreaker of "Do I get to really keep the toys or are they going to get sold?"
Those moving moments when a child gets something they need and truly deserve are amazing. In those moments, the hassle and expense are truly worthwhile.