(FOX 9) - Michelle’s son played hockey and raced motocross. He was from all accounts a normal teenager, but then something happened his parents never expected.
“When he was 14, he was the victim of a traumatic experience and then almost immediately his personality changed,” his mom said.
A couple years later he committed a serious crime and got a nine month stay in juvenile detention. Then, she got the bill. It was $7,000 a month, for approximately nine months, totaling $63,000.
“It was such a huge amount of money and it’s something our son did that we are almost getting punished for as well,” Michelle said. “If you’re an adult in prison you don’t have to pay for it.”
Her family eventually negotiated the total amount down to $23,000.
Roland’s son was in foster care for three years. He got a bill too, adjusted for his low income, for nearly $4,000.
"Last year was horrible. I couldn’t see my own son," he told the Fox 9 Investigators. “It’s a travesty.”
RECOUPING A TAXPAYER COST
When children are placed outside the home, whether it is in some kind of foster care, a group home, treatment center, or juvenile detention, there’s a taxpayer cost.
And in Minnesota, like every other state, counties will attempt to recoup that money from the parents or guardians. In fact, the Federal Government pays 66 percent of the cost of trying to collect the money.
For Carol Becker, a former analyst at the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), it didn’t make sense to charge poor parents to take away their kids.
“These are people who are poor, overwhelmingly poor,” she said. “Two-thirds are at the federal poverty level or below. These are parents of kids they can’t feed, are homeless, struggling in school, these are poor families with children.”
Becker was part of a small team measuring the effectiveness of DHS programs.
She was asked to analyze how much it was costing to bill parents for outplacement costs.
SPENDING $10M TO COLLECT $3M
The FOX 9 Investigators obtained a draft copy of the study from DHS.
The findings were shocking, but not surprising to anyone in the system.
About 4,500 Minnesota families owed $10.8 million for out of home placement. The average bill, often adjusted for income, was $1,174.
Minnesota counties spent $10.5 million in administrative costs attempting to recover that money from parents, but collected only $2,987,594 from parents.
“So for every dollar we spend, we collect 30 cents from these parents. It does not make sense,” Becker said. “The rationale is that those children are the responsibility of those parents, and we want to hold those parents accountable. The problem is the parents that get into the program in the first place are already struggling, and we just make it worse.”
HURTING FAMILIES IN TROUBLE
As the director of Ramsey County Child Support Services Division, Trish Skophammer, has seen the hardship.
“I had many phone calls from parents, mothers in particular, who said my children are in out of home placement and I need to do some things to get them back, and now you are taking money out of my household," Skophammer said.
Family court will often demand a parent go into drug treatment, get counseling or to find more stable housing, all things that require maintaining a household income.
In some cases, counties are able to reduce or eliminate out of home placement costs if it is determined to be a financial hardship on the family. But there is no consistent criteria or standard across the state.
A study from the Wisconsin Institute for Research on Poverty (Oct. 2016) found that even a $100 a month bill for foster care can cause to a six month delay in reunifying the child with their family.
“If you lose your home that’s just going to keep your child in out of home placement longer. It’s counterproductive to take money out of the home you are trying to bring child back into. Especially if stable housing your issue,” Skophammer said.
Skophammer wrote her Phd on the subject, with a more limited data set, finding the same ratio of cost-effectiveness, 30 cents recouped from parents for every dollar spent. Becker was her advisor for the project.
Even DHS seems to understand the policy of making parents pay for foster care is counter productive. Chuck Johnson is a Deputy Commissioner.
“Probably not a great policy given the population we work with this in space, given the collateral consequence of what I think was well intended. Let’s make sure the taxpayers aren’t responsible for the cost if there is someone else who should be," Johnson said.
LAWS REQUIRE COLLECTION
The problem is federal and state law requires collection of outplacement costs from parents.
State law even allows the interception of child support payments from a non-custodial parent.
If most agree the policy is a bad idea, why does it continue to exist?
‘I DON’T WANT THIS RELEASED’
She gave the study to her bosses and was later terminated.
According to Becker, a complaint was filed against her by the director of the child support division at DHS, who it so happens, was also a student of Becker’s at Hamline University, where Becker teaches public policy.
In class, Becker presented her findings as a case study of bad government policy.
“In the basement of Bush library at Hamline University, because she was a student of mine, she blew up at me. In front of the vending machines. She said, ‘I don’t want this released. You are doing this to harass me. I’m going to shut you down…’ and she did.”
The director filed a complaint that Becker had violated federal and state privacy laws, even though Becker was working for DHS, and the data had been stripped of any identifying information, like dates of birth, social security numbers, or identification numbers.
In a statement, the director who complained about Becker, told the Fox 9 Investigators she was not authorized to speak about personnel matters, but it was her “duty to be a trustworthy steward of private data” and its “unauthorized release.”
Becker was terminated on April Fool’s Day, but reached a written settlement with DHS last month.
“The state said if you don’t sue us, we’ll take away the termination letter,” Becker said.
Becker is one of a half-dozen former DHS employees who have criticized an entrenched and sprawling bureaucracy at the department.
“It is hugely risk adverse. Nothing changes. Nothing gets changed,” Becker concluded.
Deputy Commissioner Johnson, who temporarily left DHS himself during a policy dispute earlier this year, doesn’t believe Becker was terminated for bringing issues to light.
“I’ve been here 30 years, and there’s lots of internal policy debate. I don’t think anyone was trying to bury this policy. I didn’t see that,” said Johnson.
There is currently a state task force examining the issue of parents paying for out of home placement costs. That task force may have some recommendations for the legislature.