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May 2023Vol. 24, No. 4States Should Use New Guidance to Stop Charging Parents for Foster Care, Prioritize Family Reunification

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities published an issue brief on recent guidance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) about charging parents for costs associated with foster care. The issue brief, States Should Use New Guidance to Stop Charging Parents for Foster Care, Prioritize Family Reunification, claims that the practice of charging parents for foster care delays family reunification and disproportionally impacts families of color. It suggests that states and localities change their policies to reflect the HHS guidance and prioritize reunification. Steps to implement the guidance will vary by state, but there are several that most states will need to take:

  • Develop clear guidance establishing nonreferral to child support enforcement agencies.
  • Reprogram computer systems to stop automatic referrals.
  • Provide adequate training on new guidance and practices.
  • Establish quality control mechanisms to review cases flagged for a referral before they are referred.
  • Adopt practices that improve coordination between child welfare and child support programs.

Historically, federal guidance on child support referral rules has been broad, and decisions have varied widely by jurisdiction. The new guidance gives greater clarification on "best interests" and encourages agencies to only rarely refer cases to child support enforcement. The reasoning for these changes in the guidance is based on the assertion that charging parents for foster care delays family reunification, as many of the families that come into contact with foster care meet or are below the federal definition of poverty—and too often poverty can be seen as neglect.

The issue brief explains that families can accrue debt from these payments, which can lead to longer stays in out-of-home care and risk further interactions with child protection services after reunification. These payments can exacerbate the racial disparities within child welfare, as structural discrimination disproportionately impacts Black and American Indian people in areas that can lead to a child welfare assessment that finds neglect.

Read the full issue brief for more information on the HHS guidance, the impact of the policy on families of color and those experiencing poverty, and suggestions for updated agency policies.