Pay Foster Parents to Stay Home with Infants, Not Put Them in Daycare

On April 1 in The Imprint, Jeremy Loudenback reported on a California budget proposal that would allocate $31 million to provide emergency child care vouchers to foster parents caring for children ages 0 to 3. Based on my experience as a social worker for foster children in the District of Columbia, I would recommend moving in the opposite direction and using the funds to pay foster parents for staying home with younger children.

To illustrate the need for infant child care, Loudenbeck spoke to a couple who took in a newborn. They were unable to find a spot in a child care center and had to hire a nanny. The couple spent between $400 and $500 per week for child care, compared to their foster care stipend of only $688 per month.

Loudenback’s example raises questions about the policy. It is generally accepted that new parents should take some leave to bond with the baby, cope with sleep deprivation, and adjust to a new lifestyle. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees 12 weeks for unpaid leave for eligible employees after the birth or adoption of a child or the placement of a child in foster care.

Perhaps a prospective foster parent who expects to put an infant into full-time childcare should reconsider her intention on fostering. Moreover, foster parents need to be available to care for sick babies and take them to frequent doctors’ appointments; something that is hard to do when working full-time.

The economics of paying for infant care plus foster care are also questionable. California currently pays up to $1,192 per month for subsidized child care for infants and toddlers aged 0-2, which dwarfs the $688 foster care stipend. Talk about the tail wagging the dog!

But what’s better for the children? A major study of child care impacts found no difference between children who were cared for exclusively by their mothers and those who were also cared for by others. There were some modest negative impacts on behavior for those who spent many hours in child care.

Sheila Kuehl, the county supervisor who authored the current plan, says it will help in foster parent recruitment. I’d be willing to bet that Los Angeles could find more than enough foster parents for infants if they added $1,192 to the $688 foster parent stipend, for a total of $1,880 per month.

Loundenback mentions the situation of relative caregivers, who may have only a few hours notice that a child is being placed in foster care. An emergency child care voucher for these relatives does make sense. We cannot expect them to quit their jobs in order to care for a relative who might be with them temporarily.

Perhaps the best option is to limit the emergency child care vouchers to relatives. Or the state to offer the choice between a child care voucher and a higher stipend for non-relatives who wish to stay home with foster children between zero and three.

The current plan would allow foster parents to use the new vouchers for licensed or unlicensed settings, and adds no provisions for ensuring quality. This is short-sighted. Many young children enter foster care already behind developmentally due to neglect or abuse. Except for newborns and very young infants, most are traumatized by their removal and perhaps by the conditions that caused the removal.

The concept of trauma-informed schools is sweeping the nation, but the concept of trauma-informed child care does not seem to have advanced beyond Seattle’s Childhaven program. Kuehl’s proposal pays lip service to the concept of trauma-informed care by “making trauma-informed training available to providers,” but does not apparently require such training or the use of any particular practices.

In addition to being trauma-informed, child care for foster children should be developmentally appropriate and enriching. If California is going to allocate funds specifically for child care for the youngest foster children, only high-quality, trauma-informed and developmentally appropriate programs should be funded.

I hope that the California legislature will modify the proposal currently before it so that foster parents who want to stay home with babies and toddlers instead of sending them to child care can be paid to do so. In addition, the proposal should be modified to ensure that when the state pays for child care, it is both licensed and designed to meet the needs of young children in foster care.

Note: This article was updated to correct a mistake in California’s subsidized child care ceiling. It is $1,192, not $1,292.

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