It may seem like a no-brainer to say that foster parents should be well paid. They are good people doing the hard work of raising someone else's kids. Right?
Fifteen years ago, I was one of those people. I took good care of the kids who had been placed in my home after being removed from their birth families for various reasons — usually neglect: once because of a severe spanking, another time for "rough handling on the way to the car" when a child was suspended from school. But I also shopped around for the foster-care agency that paid the best, and I took the harder-to-place kids for the same reason.
I justified my pay by saying it was just like my other profession, nursing. I enjoyed taking care of patients, did a good job, but I still expected a paycheck. It took one particular foster child to show me the big difference between nursing and foster parenting.
I don't say "I love you" to my patients.
Michael moved in with me at 9 and at first just enjoyed the benefits of my financial status. He settled in, began to trust me and believed me when I said he was a great kid and I was proud to be his mother — if only temporarily. Kids in foster care need love, acceptance and affirmation even more than our own kids do. But try convincing them you were sincere when they find out how much you were paid for your parental love. They don't stay 9 forever. Some foster children stay with a family for years, and eventually they are old enough to question where the money for the vacations and the second car came from.
I'll never forget the look on Michael's face when he returned from a visit with his mother and asked me, "Did you, like, inherit money or something? 'Cause my mom works all the time and she only has two pairs of shoes. You hardly work and you have about 100."
I didn't have 100 pairs of shoes, but I was well paid for raising him, while his mother would have paid anything to have the opportunity. But she had nothing to pay. She had lost her kids when, at 18, she called the state for help after her husband deserted her. She had no family to fall back on, as she was a former foster child herself. Her poverty cost her the right to raise her own kids.
It seemed wrong to Michael because it was wrong. Money can put blinders on you, but since I took mine off and adopted my last foster kids, I can see many reasons why it is wrong to pay foster parents too much.
It creates a disincentive to adopt.
It creates a conflict of interest when a foster parent has to report on how family visits are going.
It makes kids look down on their own families.
It attracts people who don't even like kids.
Worst of all, it deals a blow to the child's self-esteem when he learns someone had to be well paid to love him.
Some foster parents are now complaining that they are not paid enough. A coalition of advocates for foster families in California, for example, has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that what the state pays is less than what it costs to board a dog in a kennel. At first glance it seems that we, as a society, must care more about dogs than kids. But boarding dogs is a "for-profit" business. Taking foster kids should be a calling.
California has the most foster children of any state — 75,000 — and about 19,000 licensed foster families. One study found that state reimbursement for care ranges from $425 a month for a 2-year-old to $597 for a 16-year-old. A state agency disputes those figures, estimating the average at $680.
I'm not saying that foster parents shouldn't be paid at all. Most are middle-class families that don't have a lot to begin with. But how can foster parents say, as some do, "I love him as if he were my own," if they are not willing to make some sacrifice?
But if there aren't enough foster parents who will do it for just a little help, maybe we should look to the people who already love the child, without conditions — the birth family. Yes, there may be cases, such as an abusive parent, in which a child cannot be returned to the family. But in many instances, such as Michael's, pay the family the amount that would be paid to foster parents to help them stay together in the first place.
And if it is still necessary to have a stable of "professional parents," such as I was, they should be labeled that. The children should know them from the very beginning — not as foster parents but as paid parents.
Mary Callahan is author of "Memoirs of a Babystealer."