BLOG: U.S federal law make the parents pay for foster care. The intention is to make foster care shorter – but do the law work according to the intention? 
Blogpost by Jill Duerr Berrick, Zellerbach Family Foundation Professor at U.C. Berkeley, U.S., and Professor II at the Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism, UiB, Norway.
The U.S. is an international outlier in so many ways. The ethic of personal responsibility runs deep, and parents serve as the principal and, often, the sole financial support for their children. Unlike many European nations, where governments pay child allowances to help cushion the costs of raising a child, in the U.S., payments to parents have been the exception. Instead, payments from parents have largely been the rule.
When parents do not live with their children, either due to divorce or separation, “child support enforcement” laws are in place to ensure that parents pay the custodial parent, or pay the government if the custodial parent is using government-funded services. The U.S. government uses various strategies to make parents pay: It may collect wages, withhold tax rebates, suspend driver’s or professional licenses, or it can deny a U.S. passport if parents try to evade their responsibility.
The federal laws relating to child support enforcement were amended in 1984 to include some parents whose children are placed in foster care. The intent of the law is to make parents reimburse the government for the cost of their children’s care.
“Multiple studies show a strong relationship between family poverty and the risk of child maltreatment. In spite of these known facts, child support enforcement targets the lowest-income parents who are struggling the most and deepens family poverty, with implications for children’s safety.”
JILL DUERR BERRICK
The policy is relatively arcane, and few researchers have studied its effects. But results from the few well-designed studies on this topic strongly suggest that child support enforcement likely harms families. It lengthens children’s stay in foster care, deepens family poverty, it is cost ineffective, and it frustrates the values of the child protection system: It neither supports families nor protects children.
One study examined the effects of child support enforcement on children’s length-of-stay in foster care, finding that for every $100 increment that parents paid to the government, children remained in care an average of six months longer. Black families were especially likely to see these effects.
This research corresponds with other studies that highlight the effects of family finances on children’s duration in care. In general, when parents’ income declines substantially during a child’s stay in foster care, children remain in care longer.
But in the U.S., foster care is supposed to be temporary. The median length of stay is about 13 months, and both policy and practice emphasize timely reunification. Child support enforcement thwarts these efforts.
One cruel facet of the policy is that it targets the lowest-income parents. Some states apply the law to all parents with children in foster care, but the federal law only requires states to target low-income families since the federal government only pays for foster care for low-income children. (When higher income families become involved with foster care, states and localities foot the bill.) In the U.S., a large proportion of families involved with child protection are extremely poor. In one study, over half of parents indicated that they had zero earnings in the year prior to their child’s removal; in another study, about a third of parents had an annual income substantially below the federal poverty line.
Multiple studies show a strong relationship between family poverty and the risk of child maltreatment. In spite of these known facts, child support enforcement targets the lowest-income parents who are struggling the most and deepens family poverty, with implications for children’s safety.
“The U.S. could learn a great deal from its European neighbors about how to support families, how to reduce poverty, and how to care for children. Eliminating child support enforcement for these families would be an important start.”
JILL DUERR BERRICK
The ultimate irony of this federal policy is the mis-match between its stated aims – to recoup expenses associated with foster care — and its success in meeting those goals. Two studies from Minnesota and California show that implementation of child support enforcement for families involved with child protection is expensive. The government actually loses money at a cost of at least 3:1.
Because the law relies on professional discretion for implementation, issues of equity are pronounced. One study found that implementation of the law varied by state, by counties within states, and between staff within counties. And another study showed little relationship between the amount of a parent’s income, the likelihood of a child support order, or the payment amount required of the parent.
Child support enforcement for parents involved with the child protection system contrasts sharply with trends in the U.S. to ease the costs associated with parenting. The Biden administration established child tax credits as part of the American Rescue Plan, offering monthly payments to most working families. Although these payments are due to expire at the end of 2021, they could be extended if the Senate passes the “Build Back Better” bill, recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. Other reforms in the area of child support for non-child welfare families have trended toward reducing family poverty as lawmakers recognize the relationship between family finances and child well-being. These are markers of movement that inch the U.S. closer to Europe.
Making parents pay for their children’s out-of-home care experience has, to my knowledge, no corollary in Europe. In some European countries, child allowances may be suspended after several months in care, but parents are not asked to pay for the cost of their child’s foster care. The U.S. could learn a great deal from its European neighbors about how to support families, how to reduce poverty, and how to care for children. Eliminating child support enforcement for these families would be an important start.
 This blog is based on a recently published article: Berrick, J.D. (2021). Imagining a new future: elimination of child support obligations for child welfare-involved families, Journal of Public Child Welfare, DOI: 10.1080/15548732.2021.1999362