NPR Investigation: States Charge Parents For Their Kids’ Foster Care, Regardless Of Income Or Ability To Pay


Note: Quotes from the original NPR article will appear in a smaller font than the commentary.  Authors: Joseph Shapiro, Tereza Wiltz of Politico, and Jessica Piper, with additional reporting by Allison Mollenkamp and NPR’s Robert Benincasa. 

The NPR recently completed an investigation into a very important topic that seems to never be talked about: the weaponization of Child Protective Services (CPS) agaist the poor. This is not in reference to legitimate familial abuse, which legitimately requires children to be removed from their parents’ home due to imminent danger to themselves. Rather, the crisis evolves when a parent makes, quite literally, every possible attempt to follow all of the rules and regulations set forth by CPS, and is awarded their children back. They have shown that they are willing to do anything and everything necessary to get their kids back.

However, the investigation revealed a troubling trend among state CPS organizations. In many states, they are required or encouraged to charge the parents for the state’s care of their children regardless of their ability to pay. What this means, in practice, was shown by the story of Daisy Hohman, who was interviewed by NPR.

They tell the story of a woman from Minnesota. She has three children, and was separated from the father of her children. So, as a single mom with a low wage job, she could not afford a house or an apartment, and was living in a friend’s trailer. Apparently, one of the people at the that trailer was committing drug crimes, and it was raided. When the police came, her kids told social workers that they were afraid of the people coming in and out of the trailer. So, they were removed from their mom’s care and taken to foster care. This is despite the fact that she was not charged with any crime, and was not involved in the crime in any way.

After about two years, after doing everything her social worker asked her to do, including getting a different job and renting an apartment, her kids were returned to her. But then, she was hit with a bill for thousands of dollars, charging her for the foster care of her kids. The cost of that bill was nearly $20,000. This was without regard to her ability to pay, and since it is a municipality, they were able to garnish wages, as well as take a person’s entire stimulus check during the pandemic. This actually occurred in many cases, and made life that much harder for those who were already struggling financially, had lost their jobs due to the restrictions, and were unable to feed their families. We all heard about it at the time, but the NPR article has put a human face on one of those to whom it was done.

Daisy Hohman was separated from her three children for 20 months when they were placed in foster care. When Hohman was reunited with her children, she received a bill of nearly $20,000 for foster care from her Minnesota county. Image Credit - Joseph Shapiro/NPR

Daisy Hohman was separated from her three children for 20 months when they were placed in foster care. When Hohman was reunited with her children, she received a bill of nearly $20,000 for foster care from her Minnesota county. Image Credit – Joseph Shapiro/NPR

According to the article, “An NPR investigation found that it’s common in every state for parents to get a bill for the cost of foster care.

And the investigation found that two federal laws basically contradict each other: One recent law directs child-welfare agencies to prioritize reuniting families. The other law, almost 40 years old, tells states to charge parents for the cost of child care, which makes it harder for families to reunite.

For parents like Daisy Hohman, those bills can bury them in debt and make it harder to create the stable home they need to get their children out of foster care — and to keep them from being taken again.”

The NPR investigation also found:

The fees are charged almost exclusively to the poorest families;

When parents get billed, children spend added time in foster care and the extra debt follows families for years, making it hard for them to climb out of poverty; and

Government raises little money, or even loses money, when it tries to collect.

NPR analyzed federal and state data, collected published and unpublished research, and sent freedom of information requests to all 50 states and the District of Columbia for documents, demographic information and other data for state foster care and child support enforcement programs.”

Part of the problem is that certain older laws, written before it was understood that the best thing for children is to not be in foster care, are still on the books. These laws contradict newer laws.”


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“It’s long been recognized that the best thing for most children in foster care is to be reunited with their family.

In 2018, Congress reformed funding for child welfare when it passed the Family First Preservation Services Act. That law tells state child welfare agencies to make it their focus to preserve families and help struggling parents get their lives back on track so that they can be safely reunited with their children.

But a 1984 federal law still stands, as do additional state laws, that call for making many parents pay for some of the cost of foster care. Among the costs the federal funding pays for: shelter, food and clothing; case planning; and the training of foster parents.

The result is that those struggling parents get big bills — NPR saw charges from $25 to more than $1,000 a month — that weigh them down in debt and make it harder to normalize their lives and their children’s lives.

This is a form of child support that targets both mothers and what family courts call “non-custodial” fathers — unlike the far more common kind that is charged mostly to those fathers. Of parents who get billed for foster care: A disproportionate number — 57% in California, for example — are people of color. Many are homeless. Many have mental health or substance abuse problems.

And almost all are poor — really poor.”

Trish Skophammer, a child support agency director in Minnesota, found in her research into this issue, Eighty percent of the families that showed up in my data had incomes less than $10,000 annually. Ten thousand. Try living off $10,000 a year. You’re in deep poverty if you’re living off that kind of money.”

The vicious cycle of debt that this causes in unconscionable. The stress inflicted, the struggle for these families who already are struggling, is cruelty, plain and simple.

The article goes on to say:

“Still, she waited to get her children back as the county and courts moved slowly to sign off on reuniting the family, says Rhia Bornmann Spears, a Minneapolis family law attorney who represented Hohman. The children say they wanted to come home and clashed with a foster parent. After 20 months, they were returned.

“It’s unjust,” says Bornmann Spears. “Keeping them in foster care continued to drive up the bill every month” — eventually to that steep $19,530.

Since her kids came home in 2019, Hohman has worked steadily and kept her family together. But the debt continued to cause problems.

“The bill, it hovers over me all the time,” Hohman said when NPR first met her and her children, as they made dinner together in their small apartment in Grove City, Minn., in 2019. “That’s my biggest concern — is this bill.”

The $19,530 bill was just a few thousand dollars less than Hohman’s entire paycheck in 2019, for her seasonal work at a landscaping company.

The debt went on her credit report, which made it hard to find an apartment big enough for her family or to buy a dependable car to get to work.

To keep down her costs, she made do with a 2004 Pontiac Grand Prix with more than 250,000 miles on it, changing the oil and doing minor repairs to keep it running.

When Hohman filed her income tax, instead of getting the large rebate she expected, she says, her refund was garnished.”

Do These Debts Make It Harder For Reunification?

“Cancian and her team of researchers wanted to measure: When parents get a bill for foster care, does that make it harder to get back their kids?

It did.

When financially strapped parents had to pay for some of the cost of foster care, they struggled to find money required to follow a case plan.

“One common condition for a mom to get her kids back is to establish housing. So to rent an apartment,” says Cancian. “And while it might not seem like that much to have to pay fifty or a hundred or two hundred dollars a month in child support, if you are a very low-income, low-earnings mom, that can be the difference in being able to save money for first and last month’s rent on a decent apartment or not.”

Even a small bill delayed reunification by almost seven months. “Our estimate suggested that charging a hundred dollars a month in child support increased the time that a child was out of home by about six months,” Cancian says. “6.6 months was the point estimate.”

That extra time in foster care matters. It increases the cost to taxpayers, Cancian notes, since daily foster care is expensive. And it inflates the bill to parents.”

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This investigation points to a need for a serious overhaul in how CPS decides when to assess these bills, and how families can be released from them. Imagine if you had just lost your job due to the pandemic, and on top of that, when everyone else got their stimulus check, yours was simply taken. Garnishment can be just another word for stolen. No matter what word you use, it is wrong.

It should not be up to non-profit organizations to investigate these types of oversights and system abuses. There should be government and congressional committees organized to discover these situations. It isn’t possible for non-profits alone to step up to such a heavy issue.

When you think about this, and you really stop to think, how can states charge homeless people (or even just very poor people) for the foster care of their kids? Why should they be reporting these debts on credit reports, making it nearly impossible for these families to get their lives together? It is not helpful, and perhaps this investigation will lead to some change in the foster care debt system. Or perhaps there can be more lawyers, such as the one Ms. Hohman had, to fight for the rights of these poor and marginalized individuals, so that they can really get their lives together and move on from an unhappy past into a better future.

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Pressuring Families To Pay

“And states do try to collect.

When parents don’t pay, states garnish wages, take tax refunds and stimulus checks and report parents to credit bureaus.

They can use “a whole range of tools” to pressure parents to pay, notes Carol Becker, a former analyst for Minnesota’s Department of Human Services.

“They can take away their driver’s license,” adds Becker. “If they have another license — let’s say you’re a farmer and you need to spread pesticide, you need a license for pesticide.”

Those bills don’t go away, says Becker, who analyzed the issue for the state of Minnesota in 2018. Her unpublished report found that in 22% of cases, parents owed money for five years or longer.”

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These Are Issues Of Poverty More Than Issues Of Abuse:

“Abuse is an issue in only 16% of cases when kids go to foster care, according to Casey Family Programs, a foundation that seeks to reduce the need for foster care.

Mostly, the issue is the parent’s neglect. Maybe there’s no food in the refrigerator or the parent is homeless or addicted.

These are often issues of poverty.

“These people were not bad people. They were people in need of help,” says Eldred. “In the overwhelming majority of the people in the child welfare program, a significant contributor to the reason they’re in that situation is poverty. So this just makes it worse. It’s fuel on the fire. As far as it comes to taking care of the children.”

Becker says her research in Minnesota showed the same thing. “These are families on the edge. These are families that are struggling to feed their kids, that are struggling to have a roof over their head. And what do we do: We slam them with a bill from the government.””

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The Most Ironic Part?

According to researchers “There was another surprise that researchers turned up: It costs the government more to go after the money than it actually collects…

In Minnesota, they spend a dollar for every 24 to 40 cents collected, Skophammer found. The reason, she says, is that these parents are so poor, they have little to set aside to pay off this debt. And, also as a result of their poverty, they move frequently – and that means child support offices spend more time and money trying to find them.”

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Perhaps Worst Of All:

The article says, “States don’t actually have to go after all this money[!]. There’s some leeway in the 1984 federal law. It says parents should be charged to reimburse some of the cost of foster care when it’s “appropriate” — but it does not define what that meant.

Many child welfare agencies interpret that language as a reason not to charge parents. The most common exemptions are when a parent is unable to pay or if billing the parent is not in the “best interest of the child,” for example when the state is hoping to reunify the family.

But many child welfare officials feel obligated by the federal law to send a bill to parents. NPR found that every state and the District of Columbia bills parents and returns money they’ve collected to the federal government.”

And also, “There’s a lesson in the one year when collections soared: 2020. States returned $113 million to Washington, a 59% increase.

The reason: That’s when parents got the first round of relief checks, money meant to be a lifeline to families struggling during the pandemic. But those checks were easy for states to garnish.”

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In Conclusion:

In regards to the investigation, it would seem that there is a very strong need for further inquiry into this matter. The question remains, why are these programs still run in this way? Who is benefitting from causing stress to our poorest neighbors, especially those whose unfortunate circumstances led to their involvement in the foster system?

It is certainly not in the spirit of the current law that they are charged for the care of their children. And the question remains, why are these costs  charged to the poorest families? Why is there no forgiveness for these debts when it can be proven beyond the means of the parents to pay?

Why are there no waivers for parents who are in poverty, to make it easier for these families to stay together.  In so many cases, as we have seen in our previous article on the ALICE project, the poverty is not even their fault.  There are some people who cannot get higher paying jobs (whether they lack the skills, the education, or they have other issues), and in many states the federal minimum wage is not a livable wage.

Banner Image: American family. Image Credit – Josue Michel



This byline indicates that this article was penned by a member/members of the Staten Islander News Organization office team. Our staff writers are the backbone of our newspaper, performing all sorts of important tasks like conducting interviews, investigating leads, besides writing the news stories you see.

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