COMMENT: Counting the problems of Idaho’s overwhelmed foster care system


The foster care system in Idaho is overwhelmed. Foster care stories are private and personal, but the numbers alone paint a grim picture. As Idahoans who care for one another, we cannot take our eyes off these children and their families.

The Idaho Department of Child Protection receives nearly 23,000 calls annually reporting suspected child abuse, neglect, or abandonment (https://healthandwelfare.idaho.gov/). Among them, 2,864 children are in such imminent danger that they have to leave their homes. Some of the children are able to return to an improved home environment after family intervention. Other children are taken in by family members. That leaves Child Welfare with finding safe but unknown homes for 694 children.

There are not enough homes to accommodate all the children at risk. How the hell did Idaho come to this and what does the future hold for our adopted children?

The state of Idaho has 58,000 children living in poverty, and our definition of poverty is terribly disconnected. The 2022 federal poverty guideline for a family of four is just $25,701 a year. According to recent data, 96,000 children in Idaho are being raised by parents who don’t have secure jobs or are struggling to get by. A June report by CDA2030 found Kootenai County renters pay an average of $1,695 per month. One hundred and six thousand children in Idaho live in single-parent homes, and 24,000 children in Idaho do not have health insurance.

In an economical pressure cooker like this, children can unfairly bear the brunt of their parents’ frustration and poor coping skills. For many, the stress is unbearable, and it’s the kind of stress that breaks families apart.

To deal with this untenable situation, Idaho needs a strong and compassionate foster care system: not one that is outdated.

Some children spend the night at the child welfare office, having nowhere to go. Some children are placed in short-term rentals (serving five children at a time). Most of these placements are temporary and last up to 10 days. In 2021, the bill was $100,000 per year (KTVB-TV Boise). The remaining children are sent home before child protection thinks the parents are ready to resume care (Idaho Capital Sun).

The coping mechanisms these children develop in the face of abuse and abandonment can sometimes be violent or destructive. Over the past year, more than 300 foster parents have requested a change of placement for a child they have fostered – 189 of these were due to child misbehavior. Idaho has lost about 100 adoptive parents from the program over the past two years. If we don’t have safe places for foster children, then what happens as the need for foster care continues to grow?

The foster care program has been underfunded for years. Adoptive parents in Idaho were reimbursed at the lowest rate of most western states. Foster parents in Idaho were reimbursed between $395 and $584 per month. Those monthly numbers were $150 to about $300 less than neighboring states.

In 2020, the Idaho Legislature turned down $6 million in grants that would have helped families with child care because some lawmakers believed “mothers should stay home and take care of their children.” Remember that 106,000 children in Idaho live in single-parent homes. Imagine being a mother who has to balance the risk of child neglect with the need to work to pay for housing. Who will stay home with these children if their only parent has to work? How many of these kids have to watch each other or are they just left home alone?

We can do better.

In March 2022, the Idaho Legislature took a big step forward. He increased funds from the Department of Health and Welfare for the host program. Approximately $96.6 million was added to the child welfare budget. These funds will pay for 21 additional social workers that we badly need. Salaries for social workers and security assessors will increase by 7%. Kootenai County is finally starting to tread water rather than drown when it comes to social worker staffing. These funds will certainly help.

But Idaho’s population continues to grow. And Idaho’s new abortion restrictions are set to go into effect. These factors indicate the likelihood that the need for foster care will continue to increase.

Democrats are encouraging all Idahoans here and across the state not to look the other way while Idaho’s children become collateral damage.

• • •

Evan Koch is chairman of the Kootenai County Democrats. Barbara Ostipwko is a resident of Coeur d’Alene.

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