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Governor calls to raise Utah foster care stipends, which haven’t increased since 2018

Gov. Spencer Cox wants lawmakers to raise daily stipends foster parents receive by 50%, which in the past have helped defray expenses but don’t fully cover costs of care

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Matthew McKnight cleans up after a tea party with his daughter Madison while she jumps on her bed at their Sandy home on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022. Matthew and his wife, Amanda, fostered Madison from the time she was born until her adoption was finalized.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

As foster parents, Amanda and Matthew McKnight never knew when they’d receive a call from a caseworker seeking to place a child in their care.

Some were newborn infants who came with what the hospital had provided, usually a pack of diapers and some baby formula.

One of the McKnights’ foster daughters, then in the second grade, showed up the day before Halloween. She had little more than the clothes she was wearing.

“I was like, ‘Well, you need a Halloween costume and you need clothes for school and shoes and socks and underwear.’ So we went that night and spent like $600 on things that she would need because she needed to start school,” said Amanda McKnight.

In the five years that the McKnights were foster parents, their out-of-pocket expenditures far exceeded what was provided by the state in terms of a one-time-per-placement clothing allowance and daily stipends.

The daily stipends have remained unchanged since fiscal year 2018, according to state Division of Child and Family Services data.

Currently, the stipends range from $17.10 for what historically has been called basic foster care for children newborn to age 5, to $33.90 for children age 12 and up who require family-based care with intensive treatment services and constant supervision.

On a monthly basis, foster care rates for an infant in basic care totals about $530 monthly while the rate for a teenager who requires intensive, in-home services is about $1,050.

The McKnights, who are working professionals, spent most of the stipends they received on child care to cover the hours they were at work.

“Trying to find someone to take a baby under 6 weeks, it’s hard,” Amanda McKnight said.

The McKnights adopted one of their foster daughters, whom they began caring for immediately after she was discharged from the hospital as a newborn. They are not currently accepting new foster placements.

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Matthew, Madison, Miles and Amanda McKnight are photographed in their Sandy home on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, in his recent budget recommendations, proposed a 50% increase in overall dollars for foster care and kinship placements.

“The first lady has an initiative around foster care families. We have not seen the increases in foster care family compensation that we should have over the years. We need to take care of our foster families,” Cox said in a recent meeting with Deseret News journalists.

Cox said he wants Utah to better support its foster care system in anticipation of impacts of the Dobbs decision. In Dobbs v. Jackson, the Supreme Court held that abortion is not a constitutional right, which returned regulation of abortion access to the states and overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

Utah’s abortion law, which has been challenged in state court, bans most abortions. It allows abortions only if the mother’s life is at risk, if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest, or if two physicians who practice maternal fetal medicine both determine that the fetus “has a defect that is uniformly diagnosable and uniformly lethal or ... has a severe brain abnormality that is uniformly diagnosable.”

Cox said he wants Utah to be the first state in the country to have a waiting list for parents seeking to foster and adopt instead of a list of children in care waiting for foster parents or adoptive homes.

From the Division of Child and Family Services to the nonprofit Utah Foster Care, which recruits and trains prospective licensed foster parents, the governor’s focus on foster care is welcome.

“The safety, well-being and success of a child is virtually always best assured through the safety, well-being, and success of the adults in their lives — and that absolutely includes foster parents. We are so grateful for the attention and recognition of foster families, and the support provided by first lady Abby Cox and the Show Up team and the governor,” said Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Sarah Welliver.

Michael Hamblin, CEO of Utah Foster Care, said the nonprofit organization is also grateful for the Coxes’ focus on foster care.

Abby Cox’s Show Up initiative “has been huge just in drawing attention to the things that foster families do. It’s so helpful for them to know that the work that they’re doing is seen, that somebody recognizes the difficulty and challenges in taking children in,” Hamblin said.

McKnight agrees. “The idea of someone even thinking of us and acknowledging how hard it is goes a long way,” she said.

It’s not about the money but it is about the money, McKnight said.

Aside from daily stipends, the state provides an initial clothing payment of $163 when they first come into foster care. The child also receives about $40 per month for clothing. 

Those payments don’t stretch very far, particularly in winter when a child needs a coat, boots and a pair of gloves, Hamblin said.

McKnight used the stipend to help pay for clothes for one child she was fostering. The child was returned to her birth mother but once again placed with the McKnights. Even though they packed the clothing they had purchased for her when the child briefly returned to her biological family, she returned to McKnights with little to wear. The family was told the clothing payment only applied to her initial placement.

Another source of frustration for foster families is the modest stipend they receive from the state, around $50, which is designated to purchase holiday gifts for the foster child.

“It’s also to help the child to purchase Christmas gifts if they want to for their siblings or for their parents or whoever else. It’s a little bit not based in reality,” Hamblin said.

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Matthew McKnight attends a tea party with his daughter Madison at their Sandy home on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022. Matthew and his wife, Amanda, fostered Madison from the time she was born until her adoption was finalized.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Utah Foster Care’s private fundraising helps to provide holiday gifts. Its Wishing Well program helps cover the cost of school activities not covered by fee waivers, private music lessons, class rings, yearbooks, formal wear for school dances and even a limited amount of funding available for vacation expenses.

In addition to providing foster children’s basic needs, fostering requires a significant commitment of time, McKnight said.

Children who are in state care have frequent appointments with health care and mental health providers, caseworkers, family visits, when possible, and occasional court visits. That’s on top of school and more typical childhood experiences such as participating in sports, music lessons or school activities.

Despite the challenges of supporting children in care on current funding streams, McKnight said there’s a lingering public perception that a key motivating factor for people becoming foster parents is financial gain.

One birth mom whose children were being fostered by McKnight and her husband, Matthew, accused them of doing it for the money.

A caseworker laid bare the actual reimbursement.

“I’ll never forget when the caseworker said ‘I hope you know for the dollars they spend for the pennies they earn, they’re not even close to what they’re putting into this child,’” she said.

McKnight, who is a public school teacher, said she hopes that through education more Utahns will understand how foster parents are compensated and the intensive needs of children in care.

Children in foster care are eligible for Medicaid and some federal nutrition programs, which helps too, McKnight said.

Foster parents welcome all sources of help but they often fill in the gaps from their own household budgets.

“It shouldn’t take away from the rest of your family to help someone,” McKnight said.

Clearly, more robust state funding is needed but so is respect for and consideration of foster families, she said.

Even though children in foster homes may only be there temporarily, foster parents would welcome the same degree of support that many businesses and government agencies extend to parents of newborn children or adopted children.

“When you get a foster child, life resumes as ‘normal,’” she said.

Somehow, the McKnights plowed through sleepless nights with newborns and young children while still attending to the needs of their biological son and their careers.

Fully understanding what’s required to be an effective foster parent, McKnight said she’s still open to fostering other children in the future.

“I think as long as we keep making these small little gains, hopefully people will be like, ‘Oh, it is a respected thing.’ People ask me all the time if I would do it again. Heck, yeah. Heck yeah, I’d do it again.”