SALT LAKE CITY — In Utah, foster care is a 24/7 "job" that pays about $30 a day per child on the top end of the scale.
It's also a job that hasn't provided a pay raise in eight years, even though it involves caring for highly vulnerable children in state custody who have experienced neglect and abuse at the hands of their own parents.
National comparisons say reimbursements paid to foster parents in Utah fall below those paid by many states; direct comparisons and rankings are difficult to measure as states pay for different goods and services.
A 2007 national study by University of Maryland researchers, "Hitting the MARC, Establishing Foster Care Minimum Adequate Rates for Children," said Utah's reimbursement rate for a child age 9 would need to be increased as much as 70 percent to cover the actual costs of providing care.
Laurieann Thorpe, a foster parent and president of the advocacy organization Foster Families of Utah, said the vast majority of people who become licensed foster parents aren't in it for the money.
"There really isn't a harder way to make the money. There's no cost-benefit where someone sits down and says 'Yeah, this makes good fiscal sense.' That's not happening around any real dinner table," Thorpe said.
"What happens is people who want to foster really feel compelled to make a difference for kids and then the reimbursement is an afterthought. But it really makes a difference for people being able to continue to do it."
Recently, Thorpe asked a committee of Utah lawmakers to consider raising daily foster care reimbursements for foster parents who care for children in the custody of the state Division of Child and Family Services.
There's a sweet spot between providing foster parents the resources they need to provide "basic maintenance" for children in their own homes yet satisfy critics who claim some people foster children for the money, says Thorpe.
The latter perception is "hurtful" to foster parents, many of whom step up to care for children in state care "out of the goodness of their hearts" or the possibility they may be able to adopt the child they foster, she said.
But adoption isn't a sure thing either because DCFS works to reunite children with their parents when it is safe and appropriate to do so. The agency is also serving a growing number of families in their own homes, which means fewer kids end up in out-of-home placements.
But for foster parents that care for children removed from their own families, flat reimbursement rates make it difficult to adequately meet foster children's needs, Thorpe said.
"We're not asking for 40 percent. But we're definitely not asking for 2 or 5 (percent) either. We're hoping to go somewhere in the middle there. We're hoping they'd go for 10 percent or higher," she said, explaining that the increase the organization seeks would apply only to families that provide foster care in their own homes.
Prospective foster parents willingly go through required home inspections, trainings and criminal background checks because they want to help children, but out-of-pocket expenses are often higher than they expected, Thorpe said.
The daily reimbursement rates for children newborn to age 2, for example, is $15.60 per day. By means of comparison, a can of infant formula sells for about $18 retail while an economy bag of brand-name diapers costs about $45.
"Once they get in there they say, 'My goodness, this really is more than we anticipated.' I would say that's a universal experience for foster parents," Thorpe said.
"So then it does become a matter of can we keep the people that we have doing it? It's less of an incentive to get involved than it is what's fair and right and what can foster parents reasonably be expected to provide versus what is the state's responsibility."
Currently, there are 2,624 children in out-of-home care in Utah, according to DCFS. The numbers of children in care whose foster parents would be affected by a rate increase would be 1,839.
Tanya Albornoz, DCFS foster care program administrator, said the rate increase was proposed by Foster Families of Utah, a nonprofit organization that advocates for in-home foster care providers.
Foster care services are also provided by contract providers and proctor homes, some of which provide specialized care in group residential settings.
It has been about eight years since any foster care provider has received a "true rate increase," Albornoz said.
"There were a couple of rate increases just prior to the recession. Then in 2008, when the recession hit, all providers were rolled back, including foster parents and all our contract providers, everyone was rolled back. They (state lawmakers) just recently, within the last two years, restored the rates prior to what they were prior to 2008," she said.
While some people foster children because they want to provide safe, temporary homes for them, others become licensed foster parents hoping they may be able to adopt the children in their care.
Either way, the division wants them to have the means to adequately support them, Albornoz said. For some foster parents, flat reimbursement rates give them pause as they consider whether they can accept foster children or care for other children in the future.
"I’m sure that for some families, because of the needs of the children, they have to take that into account. I’m sure it is a factor for some families," she said.
In addition to daily reimbursements, the state provides mileage, covers children's health care expenses and some specialized services. Daily stipends are intended to cover cost of care, supervision, daily room and board.
Rates are tiered to provide higher reimbursement for older children and children who have more intensive needs, such as physical or mental health conditions that requires advanced levels of care and supervision. Even then, the highest daily reimbursements are about $30.
Parents are expected to set aside $41 of the reimbursement for clothing and toiletries each month, although Thorpe said it is not uncommon for a child to enter a foster home with only a few changes of clothing in a bag, so those expenses add up, too.
Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, co-chairman of the Utah Legislature’s Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee, said the committee took no vote on the request, but the issue concerns him because "we're actually losing ground" as inflation has driven up costs while the foster care reimbursement rates have remained the same.
"For what it’s worth, that happens to be if not my No. 1 priority, right there very close to it as far as getting some additional funding. So hopefully we can pull that one out, it’s been a long time," Christensen said.
"I will be working on it. I do have more than a little bit to say about what happens. It is one of my big items, and it has been for a while."