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Issues, Kansas, Politics

CARE-ing for Children

So, a lot of talk lately about Senate Bill 158 – the “Leave it to Beaver” bill that supposedly rewards good, clean, churchgoing families who foster children. Something seemed odd about this bill in the media, especially with regard to the “churchgoing” part, and I thought it deserved a little closer look and scrutiny. It turns out, I was right. What’s more interesting, though, is that it’s still a bill with problems, but people are focusing on the wrong parts.

Folks have criticized the proposed CARE program for it’s emphasis on rewarding the “traditional, ideal American family.” Some of that criticism is not wrong. After all, even in the 1950’s, Leave it to Beaver did not represent the “normal” family. They were a constructed ideal, used to market an image (not to mention products) that was emphasized by the times. It was during this time, for instance, that the Cold War was escalating and we were neck deep fighting against Communism while our populations were migrating to the suburbs. We were prosperous, but tense. People looked to things like television for comfort, so it was natural to use this medium to push agendas.

Let’s hit the easy thing first. The idea that SB158 is looking to reward good, churchgoing families isn’t exactly right. Nowhere in the bill does it mention Christianity, church, or religion. Instead, the point in question specifically says:

(8) the family is involved in a social group larger than the family that meets regularly, preferably at least weekly Senate Bill 158 (Line 26)

Obviously church fits this description pretty aptly (and I’m sure there’s some intent to reinforce exactly that idea). But so do sports. So do the Boy/Girl Scouts. So do many neighborhood groups, school organizations, and other extracurricular activities. Given the way the bill is written, and how oversight of the foster system is executed, it’s easy to assume every bit of flexibility with regard to this condition will be made available in the programs. This is especially true considering statements from within the foster system itself:

Several Kansas adoption agencies FOX 4 talked with are opposed to the bill, saying some of their “super star foster families” do not fit those guidelines. Proposed stricter guidelines for KS foster parents met with criticism, Fox 4 News

So, as far as that particular issue goes, I don’t view the “churchgoing” component to actually be that threatening or problematic since organizations are likely to “flex” that particular requirement as much as they can. Remember, there is an admirable goal under the covers of the bill and this particular section, which is basically a pay-for-performance component for foster families. When it comes to foster kids, especially, that social component can be very important to ensuring they are well-adjusted and grow into considerate adults. So, yeah, it might be challenging criteria to meet, but I think it has merit and value.

That said, there are other issues that I do think need some attention. Plenty of discussion is already taking place about how the checklist points of an “ideal family” doesn’t necessarily correlate to the outcomes for foster children. That’s an argument with no clear winner. But, consider this clause:

(1) A husband and wife team married for at least seven years, in a faithful, loving and caring relationship and with no sexual relations outside of the marriage Senate Bill 158 (Line 15-17)

Husband and wife. With the tides of “traditional marriage” all but changed, same-sex couples are immediately excluded from being in the program because reasons. This is instantly challengable in court as a violation of equal protection once the same-sex marriage issue is locked down. Not to mention, wouldn’t you rather have a child in a stable, fantastic, supportive same-sex home than in the quagmire that is a group home? And why seven years? I mean, I guess I can see why you’d need to pick some number, but what actual reason is there for it being seven? Moving on!

(5) no alcoholic liquor or cereal malt beverages in the family’s home Senate Bill 158 (Line 21)

This is a silly nitpick, but… what if I use cooking wine? That’s an alcoholic liquor in the home. And let’s be realistic here, teetotalers aren’t exactly something you trip over every day in any circumstance, let alone specifically in the foster-family industry. Maybe just store it in the garage or shed outside. Then again, I suppose you could just do all your drinking at the bar…

(7) either the husband or wife, or both, does not work outside the home Senate Bill 158 (Line 24)

So, this is the big one to me. Let’s start by saying, anecdotally, if you make enough money to meet all the criteria in the bill and not have both parents working, you probably don’t need the extra pay to begin with. That’s not a very valuable argument, but it’s at least worth saying. Even that not withstanding though, there’s been a debate raging for years now about how it’s nearly impossible to provide a solid, middle-class household without both parents working anymore. It’s a shaky premise to imply that both parents working outside the home results in worse outcomes for foster children. This is even more significant in Kansas, a state that ranks 26th in median household income, a number that reflects two working adults (we’re about $26K per capita, and $51K on the household).

My criticism really comes down to this: the bill has no clue what’s “ideal.” At least three clauses are carefully veiled swipes as social issues, that have no bearing on the actual quality of a foster family or the outcome of the kids involved. Senator Knox (R – Altoona) is just trying to be a social warrior carrying the banner of a cause that hasn’t asked for this “help.” (Knox himself has been a foster parent, though, which bears disclosure.)

“The bill is based on the nuclear family. We have several single people, and we also have same-sex couples that are fantastic fosters.” Erin Teeter, director of foster care for Wichita Children’s Home

The thing is, we’re dealing with people. Children. Their outcomes are the most important thing to consider. Pay-for-performance is an incentive to encourage good couples to step up/into the mix, who wouldn’t otherwise. Basing that performance on arbitrary, specious requirements though is the wrong approach. It’s no different than the way we are destroying education by eliminating the power the people have who are in contact with our kids on a daily basis. Instead, they should be focusing on the organizations and case workers that interact with these families on the ground, on a regular basis, to identify their “super star foster families” and reward them accordingly. We should do this regardless of the individual characteristics of the family unit, and instead emphasize the success of the outcomes. Different families can be equally successful for completely different combinations of reasons.

And that’s where the wheels really fall off for me. Where, in the bill, is the discussion of the actual results of foster family? If you want to institute a pay-for-performance plan, then you have to measure the actual performance, not the conditions for entry. There’s no consideration for things like some foster children that can be… more difficult than others. Children that might require a much different structure to be successful, and might see smaller, but more valuable gains from the system compared to others. If you care about the outcomes for the children, then that should be reflected in wording and conditions of the bill.

Foster parenting is an inherently qualitative process, and being good at it means understanding that issue to the core. It’s possibly the most important factor that can separate good from less good foster parents. So why is that not at all reflected in the bill?

(Photo Credit: CC by-nc-sa 2.0 misterbisson)

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