alifornia parents fighting to reunify with their kids in foster care face an arduous path. They must appear at numerous court hearings, complete hours of classes, and attend all scheduled visitations — often while finding housing, separating from abusive partners and kicking drug habits.
But a bill on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk would remove one of the barriers many parents accused of child maltreatment have also come up against — hundreds of dollars in child support payments to cover the cost of their children’s time in foster care.
Authored by Los Angeles state legislator Isaac Bryan, Assembly Bill 1686 is not binding. But it encourages counties to avoid seeking child support payments from impoverished parents who are caught up in child welfare cases where family reunification is the goal. These payments, he argues, end up causing even greater hardship and additional stress for families that can destabilize fragile efforts to remain safely at home together.
Candace Haller, a San Bernardino County parent with three children in foster care, felt the weight of these multiple agencies bearing down on her. Haller said her child support bill once totaled $700 a month. And when she didn’t make payments, the child support agency threatened to suspend her driver’s license, which she needed to visit her children in their foster care placements.
“After they took so much of my income from me — on top of still going out to see my daughter so far away, the cost of gas and all the court stuff — it feels like they’re trying to completely rip apart my family,” Haller said.
In cases like Haller’s, children have been removed from their parents’ custody by social workers, and a court has ruled the home is not safe, at least temporarily. In some instances, these cases are then referred to child support agencies — leaving parents on the hook to pay for at least a portion of the government’s care of their children. These debts can last even after the child is returned to the parent’s custody.
According to a legislative analysis submitted for AB 1686, as of January, child support agencies in the state included roughly 48,000 cases originating from the child welfare system.
Where parents live in California weighs heavily on whether they will end up having to pay. Some counties hand out child support referrals to most parents in the foster care system, while Los Angeles County avoids saddling parents with these costs.
Last year, the state reaped an estimated $17.7 million from parents with foster care cases, with another $3.5 returned to the federal government. Under Bryan’s bill, by issuing new guidelines to child protective services social workers, the state could lose an estimated $4.2 million in revenue each year.
Gov. Newsom has a Friday deadline to sign or veto AB 1686, which passed the state Legislature with no significant opposition. Proponents of the bill include the Alliance for Children’s Rights and the County Welfare Directors Association of California. They say the state’s longstanding practice of collecting payments from poor parents contradicts the goal of the child welfare system: to do what it can to reunify families in crisis.
Research shows that parents who are forced to pay foster care costs are more likely to be in deeper poverty than other parents making child support payments. Children of parents with child support debt are likely to remain in government care for longer periods of time. What’s more, parents facing these debts are more likely to be from disadvantaged communities of color, Assemblymember Bryan said, adding to the need for his legislation.
“It’s bad government, it exacerbates poverty, and it keeps families unnecessarily separated longer than they have to,” he said at a legislative hearing earlier this year.
Bryan’s bill would clarify the terms under which child protective services can refer parents to child support agencies. Specifically, it would require social workers to assume that paying child support would present a risk to a family’s efforts to reunify.
A 2017 study published in the Children and Youth Services Review that looked at child support referrals among parents with kids in foster care in Wisconsin found compelling reasons for some corrective action. The research found that increasing child support payments owed by parents by $100 a month delayed reunification with their children by 6.6 months. The study also found that more than half of parents reported no earnings in the previous year, illustrating the depth of their economic hardship.
Meanwhile, there is not much that the government gets in return for its stress-inducing billing practices. A study released by the Orange County Department of Child Support Services in 2019 found that parents of California children in foster care who were billed for their care were much more likely to be low-income or on the brink of poverty than other parents without kids in government custody. All total, parents owed the state a total of nearly $490 million.
The research also tracked the cost of collecting these debts. For every dollar spent by child support agencies to recoup money from parents with kids in foster care, counties only received 27 cents in return.
For decades, a 1984 federal law has required child welfare agencies — when “appropriate” — to collect payments from parents, in order to reimburse the government for the cost of foster care.
But some states, and more recently the federal government, have taken a new position on the issue. In June, the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued guidance to state and local officials that allows them the option of not collecting child support from parents with kids in foster care.
One state took significant action after the release of the new federal guidance. Effective this month, Washington state will no longer collect child support payments from families entering the child welfare system.
“We know that most parents are already facing financial hardships when they come into contact with the child welfare system,” said Department of Children, Youth, and Families Secretary Ross Hunter in a Sept. 1 blog post. “This old and misguided policy only deepened that hardship and made it harder for parents to get their kids home.”
While AB 1686 doesn’t go as far as Washington’s policy change, supporters hold out hope that a new clearly stated direction from the state will spare parents from the additional financial hardship.
Erica Phillips, a Southern California mother of a 13-year-old who entered foster care in 2019, said child support payments nearly “hijacked” her ability to reunify with her daughter. In a letter she wrote to California legislators earlier this year, Phillips said she was initially hit with a $945 monthly payment, before getting the total reduced to $495 for the remaining period of time her daughter was in foster care, plus an additional four months.
Her dependency court-ordered case plan involved attending parenting classes, participating in mental health evaluations and attending a domestic violence program, in addition to meeting frequently with county social workers. As a result of these multiple time commitments, Phillips said she was forced to leave her job. Meanwhile, she almost lost her housing because she had to pay hundreds of dollars a month to the government.
Phillips reunified with her daughter the Monday after Mother’s Day in 2021, she said. And she doesn’t want other parents to have to face similar barriers.
“I thought CPS was a system in place to protect and help children and families reunify, Phillips wrote to lawmakers. “Making us pay for foster care goes against everything that CPS says it stands for.”