“It costs more to kennel a dog than the state was paying to care for children in the foster care system.”

That’s what Gavin Thornton, co-executive director for the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, told Civil Beat’s Chad Blair last week. It’s a powerful statement and one that seems so outlandish, it couldn’t possibly be accurate.

But it is.

Indeed, if you want to kennel your dog for a month on Oahu, you’ll likely spend slightly more than $1,000. If you want to take in a child who needs a safe place to stay, three square meals a day and general support and comfort, the state will pay you roughly $600.

It goes without saying that most foster parents aren’t in it for the money. Unlike a boarding kennel, they’re not trying to make a profit. The vast majority end up paying for various things — food, clean clothes, maybe even some new toys or books — out of their own pockets because they are motivated by compassion and good will, not economics.

But while the state can’t — and shouldn’t — pay foster parents luxurious salaries, it should help ease the financial burden as much as it can. By refusing to, the government is taking advantage of these people’s charity and, even worse, making it less likely some people will be able to take children in at all.

So went the arguments of Hawaii’s foster parents in 2013, when they filed a lawsuit against the state saying that the rates — which had barely budged for 24 years — were unsustainably low. Simply adjusting for inflation would have increased the rate to roughly $950 per month.

The plaintiffs and the Hawaii Department of Human Services reached a settlement last year for a modest increase —  roughly $700 a month — which, while small, seemed to satisfy the plaintiffs, especially as a gesture of appreciation for all the hard work foster parents do.

Raynette and Edward Ah Chong, pictured with their children and their foster youth, Abraham Akana, were lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the state over low payments for foster parents.

Edward Ah Chong

But then this year’s legislative session — which simply needed to allocate the funds of the settlement — messed everything up.

During the last days of the session, House leaders turned their backs on the issue, declining to provide any money in the budget for the settlement and proving (sigh) once again, just how petty and careless they can be.

It’s hard to say why House leaders did this. When pressed on the issue on a television show, House Speaker Scott Saiki said that attorney fees in the settlement were too high.

House Speaker Scott Saiki said he scuttled funding for a foster care settlement because the attorney fees were too high.

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

But given that it took three years to reach this settlement, that the state Attorney General and the DHS signed off on the deal, and that it is still considerably less than what foster parents say is the true cost of caring for children, Saiki’s reasoning comes off as rather glib, if not downright thoughtless.

The decision has real consequences, not only for the thousand or so active foster parents but also for the many children who can’t be placed in homes because the current compensation makes it so difficult to both recruit and retain foster parents.

It also has very real, and likely very costly, consequences for the state. If the lawsuit ends up going to court, the state could be on the hook for a lot more money.

“It just didn’t make any sense,” Paul Alston, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, told Blair. “They always had the option to leave this to a court settlement. Frankly, I believe we are going to receive substantially more — both what is owed to the foster parents and the entitled fees — if we prevail, as I think we will. We will be taking double at least.”

If, as Saiki says, the House leaders really are so concerned with costs, it seems they are being pennywise and pound foolish. Now that the legislative session has ended, there is no immediate remedy for this negligence.

But with the prospect of a special session looming large to, once again, debate rail funding, it would be wise and decent for House leadership to take up the foster care funding issue again. It’s never too late to do the right thing.

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