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Should Wisconsin Foster Parents Be Paid a Salary?

Foster parent payments are a topic at the forefront of Wisconsin foster care and almost every other state and county foster agency in the nation. Foster parents do receive a monthly foster care stipend, but in many instances, it is barely enough to cover the costs of caring for a child.

While the overwhelming majority of foster parents do not and should not rely on a stipend to cover their own personal expenses, how might that change if foster parents were paid a wage? Would foster care risk attracting prospective foster parents with self-serving agendas? Would foster parents be able to stay at home and provide additional care and experiences for their children if payments were higher? Might there be a foster home for every single child in foster care? These are difficult questions but worth exploring.

If foster parents are paid a salary would we have more loving homes for these kids?

There are approximately 7,500 kids in Wisconsin foster care. Some are placed with relatives, 20% are in treatment level homes, many are in group homes or residential facilities and the remainder are placed in county foster homes.

Community Care Resources receives 35-40 referrals each month from counties all over the state of Wisconsin. When a county does not have a home available for a sibling group or a child with higher needs due to trauma, a referral is made. If we have an appropriate home in the right location that will meet the needs of a child or sibling group, we place the kids. If we do not, the county is left scrambling to find a temporary home.

Foster family shortages stretch existing foster families thin and sometimes to breaking points. Prior to 2012, the number of kids in foster care dropped for 13 straight years. Then came the Opioid crisis. An estimated 1/3 of kids entering foster care are being removed from their homes due to parental drug use. In addition, the rising numbers of children were compounded by a double-digit decrease in the number of foster families.

Recruitment of new foster parents is challenging and much like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Since 2012, more and more families have two adults working outside of the home. In most cases, two incomes are needed to cover household expenses and everyday basic costs of living. Couples don't have the luxury of choosing a single income as many did in the past.

Life is expensive. I wish I could stay home and be a foster parent but we just can't afford that.  

A recent phone call with MaryBeth highlighted many reasons why Wisconsin foster care might see an increase in qualified foster homes if foster parent payments were restructured.

MaryBeth shared that she is a CNA working a 7:30-4 shift at a local assisted living center. Her husband is a technician at a local plant working 7-5 with occasional overtime. They were interested in fostering kids under the age of 10, have a 14-year-old son of their own, and a spare bedroom for up to two foster kids. Sounds great!! But wait a minute...

How can working parents meet the demanding needs of foster kids?

The answer to that depends on the "type" of kids being cared for. At CCR we place kids with a lot of trauma, which means they have a lot going on besides school and an extracurricular activity or two. In addition, sibling groups of 2, 3, and 4 are commonplace in our foster homes. With both MaryBeth and her husband needing to be at work by 7-7:30, who will be available to get the kids ready for school and on the bus? School in their district has a 3:20 dismissal.

We spoke at length about options and how MaryBeth might be able to adjust her work schedule to be available for foster kids with higher needs. In addition, we talked about the many "what ifs":

  • Can one of you be available to meet with your case manager once a week between 9-4pm?
  • What will you do with your foster children during holiday breaks and summer vacation?
  • What if the behaviors or emotions of your foster child prevent them from attending after school care until you can pick them up?
  • Will one of you be available to drive the foster child to their biological visits as needed?
  • If your child requires therapy support services, who will take them?
  • What if your foster child is preschool age but their behaviors prevent them from attending daycare successfully?

Many families depend on two incomes and cannot quit their jobs to become foster parents.

In the case of MaryBeth, she shared that she brought home about $1275 each month working as a CNA. It would be impossible for her to leave her job and care for foster kids. Although she would be receiving a monthly stipend for caring for a child, they could not cover fixed monthly expenses if she were to quit.

Sadly, they could not meet the flexibility piece required to become a foster family with us. This outcome is not unusual and it is frustrating, to say the least. We are desperate for more foster parents but yet we must turn away some very wonderful, capable people who want to help kids. We wish it were an agency decision to increase payments.

All Wisconsin foster parents are provided a monthly stipend to care for foster children. The foster care payment in Wisconsin is based on the age of the child. At Community Care Resources foster parents are provided a monthly stipend based on the age of the child AND the needs of said child. The additional stipend amounts are referred to as a supplemental rate and/or an exceptional rate. Most CCR foster parents are receiving a monthly stipend of $700-$1400 per month, again depending on the needs of the child(ren) in their care.

Don't quit your job yet! Foster parents may not depend on their stipend for financial stability.

Wisconsin requires that prospective foster parents must be able to demonstrate their financial stability and ability to sustain their household on their own financial means.

In other words,  the foster care stipend cannot be used as income to take care of your family or household. It is intended to reimburse foster parents for the expenses incurred caring for children. Hence,  why our conversation with MaryBeth was so productive as we were able to determine up-front if fostering would be financially possible for her family.

They could not afford to lose her income to have the flexibility our foster kids demand.

Changing jobs to make it work is an option for some people but for others, it is not. There are many jobs worth considering that offer flexibility if you really want to foster kids with trauma or larger sibling groups.

We have many very successful single foster parents here at CCR doing great work with their kids. Again, without the flexibility piece, it can be difficult to qualify.

Our single foster parents have many different occupations that allow for flexibility. School-related positions that are on the same schedule as the kids work great for many of our single foster parents. Some are self-employed,  retired, or have flexible work from home jobs. They make it work but do not rely on their monthly stipend for meeting their personal expenses.

Remember, the stipend is for the needs of the kids. When you do not have a placement there is no stipend.

That leads to another "problem" with paying foster parents a wage. What happens when there is no placement? Will foster parents be paid in between placements? How will that be funded? Too complicated to tackle here but these are the questions that legislators must consider.

If foster parents were paid a fair wage for their work with foster children, would recruitment outcomes change? Absolutely. Would we attract people that only want to foster "for the money"? Unlikely but possibly.

The application process is long and the discovery is thorough at CCR and most foster agencies in Wisconsin. We perform our due diligence during the licensing process to avoid any instances of ill intentions. More importantly, the work is not easy and most foster parents laugh at the notion of doing this work for the current stipends provided. 

The decision to pay foster parents a salary is not up to agencies like CCR. We wish it were. We wish we could pay our foster parents to do this amazing work.

What we can do is help those within Wisconsin government and positions of decision making look at options and solutions. We can provide statistics and real-life examples of what our foster parents are doing now and what additional care and services could be provided if we're able to pay them a wage.

We must demonstrate that with a wage, successful outcomes would increase. More kids would be in stable, loving homes and perhaps bouncing from home to home would diminish.

For now, it is what it is, as the saying goes, and it isn't going to change anytime soon. 

We will continue efforts to recruit new foster parents. We will continue to speak with prospective foster parents and brainstorm with them on ways to make it work for them financially.

If you truly want to foster kids with trauma in Wisconsin, we would love to speak with you and help you explore options. We are desperate for more foster families in all counties across Wisconsin and would love to have you consider joining our family.

Click here to learn more about how to become a foster parent.

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