Tax Deduction Likely Not the Solution to Foster Parent Shortage

Jan 6, 2014

There are more than 11,000 children in state custody. There are fewer than 4,000 foster homes in Oklahoma. 

"So, as you can see, we have a need every single day for children to be placed in a home," said Sheree Powell with the Department of Human Services.

The foster kids to foster homes ratio is improving, but not enough.

On Jan. 1, a new state law went into effect. Foster parents now qualify for a tax deduction of $2,500 for single returns or $5,000 for joint returns.

Paula Ross with the Oklahoma Tax Commission says since the deduction is the result of a legislative action, it's here to stay.

"I think it's something they feel like's an incentive for those people that put the time and effort into it, so it's something that they will be able to claim every year," Ross said.

Of course, foster parenting isn't a moneymaking endeavor. Between the new tax deduction and state reimbursements, the DHS position is foster parents might break even.

Lana Freeman is president of the Foster Care and Adoptive Association of Oklahoma. She's also been a foster parent for 30 years. Her view of foster parents' financial situation is decidedly less optimistic.

"You can't really, actually, board a dog for what it costs foster parents to — what they get for taking care of these children," Freeman said.

The consensus seems to be that a tax deduction is nice but inadequate. Numbers back that up. 

A 2007 report established minimum adequate rates for children, known as the Foster Care MARCs. They're estimates of the cost to raise a foster child in one of three age groups.

Oklahoma's MARCs average $21.07 per day. The state's actual reimbursement rates average $15.71. The state isn't on track to meet its MARCs until fiscal year 2017.

The MARCs don't cover all the costs of caring for children in need of more intensive foster care. Powell says that's a problem on the rise.

"That is one of our greatest needs right now, is for Oklahomans who are willing to be foster parents," she said. "But not only that, but who are willing to take children who have experienced severe, traumatizing abuse."

These children need therapeutic foster care. It's really a team treatment approach involving foster parents, therapists and doctors.

Nearly twice as much training is required for potential foster parents, and they must keep detailed daily logs about how they're following the child's treatment plan. Ann Hurst is the director of therapeutic foster care at Shadow Mountain in Tulsa. She says the children face challenges in many parts of their lives.

"They might struggle at school," she said. "A lot of our kids have difficulty with food, knowing when enough is enough or hoarding food. Some of the other major problems that our kids have is just regulating their emotions.

"They feel their emotions very intensely, and it happens all of a sudden."

Hurst says there's a good reason kids needing this kind of foster care have so many obstacles to overcome.

"Most of our children have a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. When you come into danger, your brain does the fight or flight, and a lot of times our kids fight," she said.

Freeman has been a therapeutic foster parent, and she's seen children across the spectrum. Some have to visit occupational therapists several times a week. Others may have violent outbursts.

"I've known children that hit sheetrock and busted all the sheetrock in the house," Freeman said.

Oklahoma does pay therapeutic foster parents an additional $17.97 per day. Some foster parents say it's still not enough, but Hurst says that's not why people continue to do it.

"I don't think you can put any amount of money on that joy that you feel whenever you know, 'You know what? When that baby came to me, he couldn't get dressed. He didn't even know how to bathe'," Hurst said. "And now he gets up, puts on his own clothes, runs out to me. [Asks,] 'What's for breakfast?'

"You know, that's just — it's amazing."

Right now there are about 600 Oklahoma children in therapeutic foster care and around 150 waiting to be placed. Those waiting to be placed are likely in a shelter or a hospital.