Months after a quiet change to federal policy around the state use of child support to pay for foster care, Washington state announced it would end the practice entirely effective this month.
The issue was given a human face last year when reporting from NPR reporter Joe Shapiro revealed the extent to which states garnished parents’ child support payments to offset the cost of foster care, sometimes leaving poor parents fighting for reunification even poorer.
Also raised in Shapiro’s story is emerging research suggesting the cost of clawing back the child support exceeded the reduction in foster care costs. In Washington, a cost-effectiveness study found that for every dollar spent pursuing the child support money, the Department of Children, Youth, and Families collected 39 cents.
“We know that most parents are already facing financial hardships when they come into contact with the child welfare system,” said department Secretary Ross Hunter. “This old and misguided policy only deepened that hardship and made it harder for parents to get their kids home.”
Federal policy used to dictate that states could pursue child support to offset foster care costs in instances where the youth in question was eligible for Title IV-E federal funding, meaning that among other things, their birth family was poor enough to meet a 1996 standard of poverty.
The Biden administration’s Children’s Bureau, using a simple change to the Q&A-style Child Welfare Policy Manual on its website, said states go from using a case-by-case determination to pursue child support, to establishing across-the-board policies for when it should happen. Here is what the bureau recommended in its guidance in the update to the manual:
“These policies may reflect that an assignment of the rights to child support for children in title IV-E foster care is not required except in very rare instances where there will be positive or no adverse effects on the child, or the assignment will not impede successful achievement of the child’s permanency plan. For example, title IV-E agencies might consider policies reflecting that securing an assignment of the rights to child support isn’t appropriate unless the parent(s) income is above a specified income level.”
In other words: If you are going to chase child support, you should only do it when the loss of the money wouldn’t jeopardize a parent’s path to getting their kids back.
Since the change was made with little fanfare, Biden child welfare and child support leaders sent a joint letter to leaders in the states to let them know about the policy change. This line from the letter really backs up the spirit of what they want from states:
“Reducing a parent’s income impedes their ability to engage in reunification efforts, potentially extending the time the child spends in foster care,” the letter said.