States Holding Foster Kids Ransom

By Taylor Jones

Associate Editor, Vol 24

In America, estimates show that six percent of all children and twelve percent of black children will have been placed in foster care by the age of eighteen.[1] As a result of interactions with Child Protective Services, on any given day there are roughly 438,000 children in foster care.[2] When children are taken from their families and placed in the foster system, the parents are charged child support, to be paid to the state. Child support is frequently imposed on families because of the belief that parents should remain responsible for the financial well-being of their children.[3] Although intended to provide for the needs of children in foster care, child support, when imposed on families without sufficient funds, can have a number of negative collateral consequences. One such consequence includes an interference with the return of children to their families based on an inability to pay child support to the state.

Child support is imposed on families as a type of cost recovery scheme. The individual child or children involved do not receive money directly from their parents. Instead, child support is collected from parents with children in the foster system in order to reimburse or offset the government’s costs for providing foster care services.[4] The funds collected are meant to serve as revenues for states with limited resources. While the cost of child support varies among states, it does not typically track the child’s actual costs while in foster care. Instead, the amount is typically generated based on the income of the parent or parents. Thus, a parent could be paying more money to the state than their child is spending while in foster care. Such a discrepancy does not raise many eyebrows likely because of the widely held belief and assumption that parents should be responsible for the financial care of their children, especially when the parents are not providing custodial care.

While it is expected that parents financially provide for their children in these circumstances, the imposition of child support on indigent families can have severely negative consequences. Such consequences suggest that child support should not always be ordered. Most drastic of those consequences is the delay or even cancelation of the reunification of a child with their family because of a failure to pay child support.[5] In many if not all states, a parent’s failure to pay their child support payments can be considered during proceedings regarding reunification or even termination of parental rights.[6] What is most troubling about such a process is that in many cases, parents are involved with CPS for issues related to their financial situation.

Involvement with CPS is largely related to family income; poorer families are more likely to have CPS actions lodged against them.[7] Additionally, low income families tend to be separated from their children for longer periods of time. When parents with little financial capacity are forced to pay child support to the child welfare system, it reduces the economic resources that may be spent to feed, clothe, or shelter their child once returned to the care of the parent. A study done in Wisconsin actually suggests that there is a strong correlation between child support orders and a child’s time spent in foster care. Where child support orders are imposed, the child is more likely to spend more time in foster care.[8] Though limited to the single state involved in the study, such findings may reflect national trends. They beg the question: When don’t we need child support?

Presently, agencies have some discretion to decide if a foster care case may not be appropriate for child support enforcement.[9] This discretion, however, is hardly ever used.[10] Although CPS itself claims to be interested in “promoting the well-being of children by ensuring safety, achieving permanency, and strengthening families to care for their children successfully, the child support system is interested in recouping the costs of caring for children in the foster system.”[11] These interests, while frequently compatible, can and have come in conflict with each other. However, there has been little research analyzing the interactions between the child support system and CPS’s policies or objectives.[12]

The imposition of child support on families without the financial capacities to pay it often slows or halts the process of family reunification. In cases involving indigent parents, courts should be required to make ability-to-pay determinations, and CPS should advocate in favor of such determinations in order to promote reunification. If CPS is truly dedicated to reunification and ensuring that families have the capacities to care for their children on their own, then CPS must not take from parents the very resource that is needed to become stable parents: money. The financial interests of the state should not reign over the significant interests of reunification of parents and children. It is time to stop holding children of low-income families as collateral.

[1] Maria Cancian & Steven T. Cook, Making Parents Pay: The Unintended Consequences of Charging Parents for Foster Care, Children and Youth Serv. Rev. (2017)!

[2] Foster Care, Children’s Rights, (March 31, 2019 12:35PM)

[3]Child Support and Foster Care Collaboration, Healthcare and Family Services, (March 31, 2019 7:07 PM),

[4] Daniel L. Hatcher, Collateral Children: Consequence and Illegality at The Intersection of Foster Care and Child Support, 74 Brook. L. Rev. 1

[5] See supra note 1

[6] Grounds for Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights, Children’s Bureau, (March 31, 2019)

[7] Megan Martin & Alexandria Citrin, Prevent, Protect & Provide: How child welfare can better support low-income families, Ctr. for the study of Soc. Policy (2014) (“Research also shows that stress from factors associated with poverty increases the risk of parenting difficulties and can affect a parent’s ability to meet the needs of his or her children”).

[8] supra note 1

[9] See supra note 4

[10] Id.

[11] How the Child Welfare System Works, Child Welfare Info. Gateway, (Feb. 2013)

[12] supra note 1