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Denogean: State budget cuts increase foster families’ financial burden

Kris and Joe Jacober have fostered 11 children over the past eight years and are awaiting their next placement.

“We have met the most wonderful children,” said Kris Jacober, president of the Arizona Association for Foster & Adoptive Parents. “Really, it has been our honor to meet those kids and to be able to work with them, care for them when they most needed it and to hopefully send them on to a better life.”

The reward for being a foster parent is priceless. But taking on the responsibility isn’t cheap.

The association Jacober leads recently conducted a survey of nearly 600 foster parents to measure the impact of state budget cuts.

Fourteen percent of those surveyed said they may not be able to continue to provide foster care because of the 20 percent reduction in the daily reimbursement rate for foster care and other cuts in foster care allowances.

“I have said before that foster parents don’t do this for the money but it is difficult to do without the money. Now, it’s more difficult,” Jacober said.

Earlier this year, faced with a $1.6 billion shortfall for fiscal 2009, the governor and Legislature cut the Department of Economic Security’s budget by nearly $102 million. DES, when it added in another $51 million in unfunded caseload growth, was looking at a budget deficit of $153 million.

The cuts DES made in response touched virtually every population it serves, including the vulnerable children served by the foster care system and Child Protective Services.

As of March 1, foster care reimbursement rates for the nearly 4,700 children in family foster care were reduced by 20 percent.

The foster care camp and vacation allowance, which earlier had been reduced from $550 to $250 per child, was eliminated.

The emergency clothing allowance was cut in half, from $300 per year to $150 per year.

The emergency clothing extra allowance, provided in cases of fire, flood or theft, was cut from $200 per year to $100.

The allowance for books and other educational expenses was sliced from $165 to $82.50 per year.

The special needs allowance – for holidays, birthdays and special occasions – was cut from $45 to $22.50 a year.

And the diaper allowance, for children older than 2 with a medical need for diapers, was cut from $125 maximum per month to $62.50.

Jacober said foster families had to dip into their own budgets to provide adequate care even before the budget cuts.

“You can’t clothe a child for $150 a year,” she said.

“Every child who has come to my home has come only with the clothes on their back.That’s it. So, in the first three hours, we spend $150 to get them pajamas and a toothbrush and shoes and socks and underwear, just all that basic stuff,” she said.

DES spokeswoman Liz Barker Alvarez said the magnitude of the state funding cut to DES for 2009 left it with no good options.

The Legislature continues to negotiate the 2010 budget, which could include additional cuts for DES. Even a reduction of 5 percent would have a significant impact, Barker Alvarez said.

“Some of the reductions made this year – such as the 20 percent reduction in the foster family reimbursement rate – that we thought would be temporary until the end of this fiscal year, would instead become permanent,” she said.

Jacober said she understands the state is wrestling with huge deficits – $3 billion for 2010. But cutting funding for children should be the last resort, she said.

“In my opinion, this would be the last place you would go to cut because these are vulnerable children. They have no voice. They have no say. And they are in a situation that they didn’t create,” she said.

Jacober’s association is making three requests of the governor, legislators and DES.

One, it asks for the restoration of funds to CPS to investigate 100 percent of reports to the child abuse hot line, something that DES said would not be possible with the budget cuts.

Two, it asks for the restoration of the foster care daily reimbursement rate to what it was before March.

And, three, it asks that all foster care allowance payments be allocated as one lump fund to be used as the discretion of foster parents.

The state has trouble finding and retaining foster families because “it’s just difficult work,” Jacober said.

“And if you aren’t finding the support and the resources you need to do that work, it’s even more difficult.”

Anne T. Denogean can be reached at adenogean@tucsoncitizen.com and 573-4582. Address letters to P.O. Box 26767, Tucson, AZ 85726-6767. Her columns run Tuesdays and Fridays.

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