Inadequate funding seems to be responsible for several problems in foster care programs in Utah, according to a report released by a children's advocacy group Tuesday.
Although "Children Adrift: Foster Care in Utah," a study undertaken by Utah Children, acknowledges that improvements have been made in the system, it pinpoints 14 problem areas, many rooted in tight budgets, and offers recommendations for further improvements.The study was a two-year project that included interviews, collation of information taken from questionnaires filled out by child advocates, employees of the Department of Social Services and foster parents, and an information-gathering session with foster children, according to Rosalind "Roz" McGee, director of Utah Children.
A sample of the problems cited by the report:
Inadequate funding has translated into too few foster care caseworkers to accomplish many of the permanency placement goals, according to the report. And foster care workers would like to receive additional training, particularly in special-needs areas. But already overworked caseworkers feel they don't have time to take advantage of special training, should it be made available.
The caseload also puts workers in a "double bind" when coupled with threat of lawsuits, tragedies that can befall the children, and unavailability of family therapy resources. The decision on where to place the children becomes especially difficult.
The report says there are not enough foster care homes to meet the needs and observes that standards for selecting and retaining homes are not high enough, or adequately monitored.
Faye Price, foster care program specialist in the Division of Family Services, said the problem boils down to money. "I'm concerned that the study doesn't mention the fact that one of the problems is low payment. We are paying about half of what it costs to raise a child. You have to wonder, how many can afford to provide care gratis? These are good people, but it's expensive to raise kids."
The state pays a rate of $7.26 a day for children over 11 and $6.32 for those under 11, for basic room and board. A little more money is available for special needs, like mental health treatment.
"We can't have comparative treatment at those rates," Price said. "A study showed it takes $12.26 a day to clothe, feed and provide a few personal incidentals. So we are losing excellent foster parents because they can't afford it."
Foster parents also face problems with feelings of isolation, the study says. And they would like to be more actively involved in treatment plans for their charges.
McGee said she is particularly interested in seeing the Guardian Ad Litem program expanded. Such a measure would help solve the court backlog problem and further protect the child's rights. She would also like to see more juvenile court judges to deal with the backlog in a timely manner.
Price agreed with many of the report's conclusions, but expressed concern that the study was "old" because it started two years ago. "There have been changes," she said. "We have decreased the number of children in foster care by a couple of hundred. We have better training and permanency planning."
Shirley Weathers, a researcher with the project, acknowledged that some of the material is older than they'd like, but said every effort has been made to update it.
"When you're dealing with data, age is an unfortunate reality. We can talk about relatively old and very old, but data's always old. We have verified the information (in the report) within the last four or five months, so we are comfortable with the conclusions," Weathers said.