New guidance from the federal government will make it easier for states to stop a controversial practice that, according to a 2021 NPR investigation, keeps impoverished families in debt when their child is placed into foster care.

When children go into foster care, there's often a surprise for their parents: Many will get a bill from the state or county for "child support," to share the cost of their child's care.

These parents, however, are almost always poor and struggle to pay. The added cost, the NPR investigation found, can keep children in foster care for several added months and then burden already poor and troubled families with added debt, often for years.

Now, the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has issued new guidance to state and county child welfare officials that will allow them, if they choose, to stop sending bills to parents.

"This will help a lot of single parents out there," says Daisy Hohman, a Minnesota mother who got a bill for over $19,000 after her three children spent 20 months in foster care. Hohman, who was featured in the NPR investigation, then had her tax refunds garnished by her county. "This is the money I live on for me and my children."

In every state, parents get charged for the cost of foster care even though, as the NPR investigation found, so few are able to pay that state child enforcement agencies actually lose money when their staff spend time trying to find these parents and collect.

Parents' wages and tax refunds can be garnished

Most collections are made by garnishing the paychecks and tax refunds of mothers and fathers. In 2021, according to federal government statistics, nearly $96 million was collected from these parents and returned to the U.S. Treasury. States keep at least an equal amount. The biggest return to the federal government — $113 million — came in 2020 when state governments garnished the stimulus checks that were intended to help parents struggling during the pandemic.

Bree, a parent in Washington state, said the bill for foster care weakened her family at a moment when she was seeking help to make it stronger.

Bree — NPR agreed to her request to use just her first name — and her husband lived in a state where they found their low wages weren't enough to pay rent and other expenses. They moved to Washington state, bought a travel trailer they could tow behind their 20-year-old pickup truck, and, with their son, lived in a trailer park midway between Tacoma and Seattle.

"Obviously we were low-income," she says. "We were trying to get our wages up."

She and her husband found low-paying jobs, just enough to get by.

Things were getting better. Then, in 2019, her husband was charged with assaulting their son. Bree and her husband disputed it. The boy, who was almost 4, was placed into foster care.

Eventually, all of the charges against the husband were dismissed. It was 13 months before their son came back home.

Then Bree and her husband got the bill: They owed the state $8,000 to pay for the boy's foster care.

The money was garnished from their paychecks. For Bree, about $1,400 a month.

It was frightening when she saw the first paycheck with the money garnished: "I'm out of my mind because I see my check and I think, 'Oh my God, how do I pay my bills?"

In court, she told the judge that the bill for "child support" was too high: "We came from poverty," she told the judge. "We're barely getting out of it. And we're paying off all our debts so we can actually have proper housing for our son. And you're putting us back into poverty."

The judge reduced her monthly payment. But the $8,000 debt remained — and kept coming out of their paychecks and tax refunds.

Today, things are going better. Bree finished her associate's degree. A second child was born in September. The family moved out of that travel trailer and — with a government rent voucher – lives in a house now.

But they still have debt to pay off from that foster care — about $300.

"When a state child support agency takes what little funds a parent has when a child enters foster care, it makes it harder for that parent to pay for gas or bus fare or to get to work; harder to get or keep stable housing," says Aysha Schomburg, who runs the federal agency that announced the new guidance this month. "That's not what we want."

Schomburg, the associate commissioner of the Children's Bureau — the agency that provides federal funding to state and county child welfare agencies — said in a statement to NPR that the new policy instructs states that their "default position" should be to stop charging parents and, instead, "find innovative ways to support families."

The new rules say agencies can stop charging parents

The new guidance was welcome news to many state and county child welfare agency officials.

"We were elated, we were relieved, we were very excited as a state agency to see the updated federal guidance," says Allison Krutsinger, director of government affairs and community engagement for Washington state's Department of Children, Youth and Families.

Earlier this year, her department wanted to stop charging parents. But the federal government said no — and that it needed to go through elaborate steps first and still consider each family case by case.

The new rules say they can act more broadly and stop charging.

Krutsinger says that will help troubled families get stronger. "What this means for families is that it is one less potential economic hardship while they are working to get their family back," she says.

Impoverished families keep getting those bills until they're paid off completely. In Washington state, some parents still get billed for years — even 20 years or more — after being reunited with their kids. "So this is a financial burden that can stick with families for years — and decades," says Krutsinger.

That new policy in Washington state — to stop charging parents — will apply only to parents coming into the system now. It won't apply to Bree and others who still owe money.

Jill Duerr Berrick, a professor at the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley, says not every state will stop charging. "With the new rules, we're going to see a checkerboard," she says. "We will have some states that are more generous and other states that are not generous. And that's the American way: location, location, location.

In California, state Rep. Isaac Bryan has introduced legislation that would end the practice of charging parents in that state.

A 1984 federal law requires state and county child welfare agencies to, when "appropriate," collect the money and return part of it to the U.S. Treasury to reimburse the federal government, which pays for a large percentage of foster care.

Now, Democrats in the House and Senate have prepared a new bill — and are looking for Republican co-sponsors — that takes another step and ends, for good, the practice of sending parents a bill for the cost of foster care.

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