Just before Christmas in 2017, Daisy Hohman, desperate for a place to live, moved into the trailer of a friend who had an extra room to rent. After Hohman separated from her husband, she and her three kids had moved from place to place, staying with family and friends. Now, two weeks after living at this new address, police raided the trailer.
They found drugs and drug paraphernalia, according to court records. Others were the target. Hohman was at work at the time. No drugs were found on her, and police did not charge her.
But child protective services in Wright County, Minn., placed her kids — two daughters, then 15 and 10, and a son, 9 — into foster care. Hohman, county officials argued, had left the children in an unsafe place.
After 20 months in foster care, her three children came back home.
Hohman got a bill from Wright County to reimburse it for some of the cost of that foster care.
She owed: $19,530.07
An NPR investigation found that it's common in every state for parents to get a bill for the cost of foster care.
And the investigation found that two federal laws basically contradict each other: One recent law directs child-welfare agencies to prioritize reuniting families. The other law, almost 40 years old, tells states to charge parents for the cost of child care, which makes it harder for families to reunite.
For parents like Daisy Hohman, those bills can bury them in debt and make it harder to create the stable home they need to get their children out of foster care — and to keep them from being taken again.
The NPR investigation also found that:
NPR analyzed federal and state data, collected published and unpublished research, and sent freedom of information requests to all 50 states and the District of Columbia for documents, demographic information and other data for state foster care and child support enforcement programs.
"Try living off $10,000 a year"
Foster care is meant to be a temporary arrangement for children, provided by state and county child welfare agencies when families are in crisis or when parents are thought to be unable to care for their children.
While in foster care, children live with foster families, with relatives or in group settings. More than half will eventually return home. There were 407,493 children in foster care on the day the federal government counted in 2020 to get a snapshot of the population, according to a report from the Administration on Children, Youth and Families.
It's long been recognized that the best thing for most children in foster care is to be reunited with their family.
In 2018, Congress reformed funding for child welfare when it passed the Family First Preservation Services Act. That law tells state child welfare agencies to make it their focus to preserve families and help struggling parents get their lives back on track so that they can be safely reunited with their children.
But a 1984 federal law still stands, as do additional state laws, that call for making many parents pay for some of the cost of foster care. Among the costs the federal funding pays for: shelter, food and clothing; case planning; and the training of foster parents.
The result is that those struggling parents get big bills — NPR saw charges from $25 to more than $1,000 a month — that weigh them down in debt and make it harder to normalize their lives and their children's lives.
This is a form of child support that targets both mothers and what family courts call "non-custodial" fathers — unlike the far more common kind that is charged mostly to those fathers. Of parents who get billed for foster care: A disproportionate number — 57% in California, for example — are people of color. Many are homeless. Many have mental health or substance abuse problems.
And almost all are poor — really poor.
That's what Trish Skophammer, a child support agency director in Minnesota, found in her research.
"Eighty percent of the families that showed up in my data had incomes less than $10,000 annually. Ten thousand," she says. "Try living off $10,000 a year. You're in deep poverty if you're living off that kind of money."
Set up for failure
In Minnesota, Daisy Hohman's daughters were in the trailer at the time of the drug raid, according to case records obtained by NPR. They told social workers that they were afraid of the people who came in and out.
Hohman, ordered to get a mental health evaluation, candidly told caseworkers about her past use of drugs and alcohol, especially as she grieved the death of her mother in 2017. Child protective service workers, she said, had been called several times to check on her and her family.
Hohman followed the case plan set out by county caseworkers in 2018 and completed the steps required to get back her children. She went to family therapy sessions and submitted to random drug testing. Top on the list: She saved up money to rent an apartment "to provide the children with safe and suitable housing," the court noted.
Still, she waited to get her children back as the county and courts moved slowly to sign off on reuniting the family, says Rhia Bornmann Spears, a Minneapolis family law attorney who represented Hohman. The children say they wanted to come home and clashed with a foster parent. After 20 months, they were returned.
"It's unjust," says Bornmann Spears. "Keeping them in foster care continued to drive up the bill every month" — eventually to that steep $19,530.
Since her kids came home in 2019, Hohman has worked steadily and kept her family together. But the debt continued to cause problems.
"The bill, it hovers over me all the time," Hohman said when NPR first met her and her children, as they made dinner together in their small apartment in Grove City, Minn., in 2019. "That's my biggest concern — is this bill."
The $19,530 bill was just a few thousand dollars less than Hohman's entire paycheck in 2019, for her seasonal work at a landscaping company.
The debt went on her credit report, which made it hard to find an apartment big enough for her family or to buy a dependable car to get to work.
To keep down her costs, she made do with a 2004 Pontiac Grand Prix with more than 250,000 miles on it, changing the oil and doing minor repairs to keep it running.
When Hohman filed her income tax, instead of getting the large rebate she expected, she says, her refund was garnished.
Charlie Borrell, a recently retired Wright County Commissioner, said he and other officials on the county health and human services board thought the charges to Hohman and other women were excessive and asked the county to reduce those bills. He doesn't know if that happened.
Jami Goodrum, the director of health and human services in Wright County, said she could not talk about Hohman's case or why the bill was so large, "because it is private data." But she notes that what Wright County charges parents has "decreased dramatically in the past four years" from $101,906 in 2018 to $54,329 in 2021.
Hohman says she's told she still owes several thousand dollars as of December 2021.
To charge poor families for the cost of foster care "sets them up for failure," Borrell says. He's seen mothers, often single mothers, work overtime or take on a second job to pay off the debt – "and then the kids are left alone and unattended and do not get the parental guidance that they need."
"This is not a conservative versus a liberal thing," says Borrell, who describes himself "as conservative as they come." He says: "This is about keeping families together."
Billing parents for foster care undercuts the efforts of child welfare agencies to help parents and children reunite, according to the limited research on the subject. The added debt extends the time children spend in foster care and then keeps families in the impoverished conditions that put children at risk for going into foster care in the first place.
Economist Maria Cancian studied this in Wisconsin. Cancian is the dean of the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University now, but several years ago, she was director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Some counties in Wisconsin charged parents for part of the cost of foster care and others did not. That created, Cancian realized, a "natural experiment."
Cancian and her team of researchers wanted to measure: When parents get a bill for foster care, does that make it harder to get back their kids?
When financially strapped parents had to pay for some of the cost of foster care, they struggled to find money required to follow a case plan.
"One common condition for a mom to get her kids back is to establish housing. So to rent an apartment," says Cancian. "And while it might not seem like that much to have to pay fifty or a hundred or two hundred dollars a month in child support, if you are a very low-income, low-earnings mom, that can be the difference in being able to save money for first and last month's rent on a decent apartment or not."
Even a small bill delayed reunification by almost seven months. "Our estimate suggested that charging a hundred dollars a month in child support increased the time that a child was out of home by about six months," Cancian says. "6.6 months was the point estimate."
That extra time in foster care matters. It increases the cost to taxpayers, Cancian notes, since daily foster care is expensive. And it inflates the bill to parents.
It matters, too, because there's a clock ticking for parents, who are given a set amount of time to prove they should get their child back. In most cases, if a child spends 15 out of 22 months in foster care, federal law directs the child-welfare agency to begin procedures to terminate a parent's rights to the child in order to place the child for adoption and find them a permanent home.
The debt from being charged for foster care follows a mother "even after the child is reunited," and that, says Cancian, keeps the family vulnerable. "We have cases where a child is back home with Mom and the mom is at risk of losing her child again because of poverty ... That doesn't make sense from a child well-being, family well-being standpoint, or from a taxpayer standpoint."
Good intentions gone wrong
There are 198 graves behind what was once the Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children. There's a museum there now, the Minnesota State Public School Orphanage Museum.
Anne Peterson, the museum's director, walks through the small cemetery behind the grand 19th century red-brick building on a hill overlooking Owatonna, Minn., and reads off the names of the children buried there. "Francis Schnitzki, 3326 ... Otto Hagenmeister, 3367... Veda Goulen, 3177 ... Baby Boy Wolfel, 3165."
Each grave has a newly installed cross with the child's name and then, below, the original stone that once marked the grave with no name, just a number.
The graveyard shows the history of America's good intentions toward abused and neglected children and the parents who struggle to care for them — and the unintended consequences.
When the building opened in 1886, it represented a new and idealistic philosophy for protecting children who'd been maltreated or abandoned -–usually by parents dealing with alcoholism or disability, incarceration and poverty. At the institution, the children would be fed and clothed and go to school.
The expectation, Peterson says, was that families, when their lives were easier, would come to take back their children or that other families would adopt the kids.
Then an "indenture program" started. Families — often farmers — looking for workers could hire the children. "They signed a contract saying that they were going to treat this child as a family member," Peterson explains, "send them to school five months out of the year, feed, clothe them, and when they turned 18, they were going to get two suits of clothing and $75 for their labor."
So a system that was designed to help children and families instead created financial incentives that kept families apart.
The school closed in 1945 as the use of foster care and adoption grew.
Today's child welfare system also struggles with conflicting incentives. Laws meant to hold parents accountable can end up keeping families apart.
Until 1961, foster care was paid for by the states. In the 1960s and '70s, the federal government started reimbursing the states — but only for children whose parents were eligible for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the federal child welfare law at that time.
In 1984, Congress told states to start billing those parents whose children got foster care subsidized by the federal government under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act.
The idea was to make people who received welfare share the responsibility of getting assistance from the government.
At the signing of the bill that reformed child support laws and included the foster care provision, President Ronald Reagan called the failure of some parents to financially support their children a "blemish on America."
States, following the lead of the federal law, then added their own laws to charge parents not covered by welfare whose children went into foster care. Often, these ended up being working poor families. In NPR's 50-state survey, all but a few states said they'd added their own laws.
Pressure to pay
And states do try to collect.
When parents don't pay, states garnish wages, take tax refunds and stimulus checks and report parents to credit bureaus.
They can use "a whole range of tools" to pressure parents to pay, notes Carol Becker, a former analyst for Minnesota's Department of Human Services.
"They can take away their driver's license," adds Becker. "If they have another license — let's say you're a farmer and you need to spread pesticide, you need a license for pesticide."
Those bills don't go away, says Becker, who analyzed the issue for the state of Minnesota in 2018. Her unpublished report found that in 22% of cases, parents owed money for five years or longer.
In Orange County, Calif., researchers in the child support services office found one woman who had spent three decades trying to pay off her foster care debt.
Child protective services took away her child because there was danger from the violent father who was abusing the mother.
"She was the victim of domestic violence," says former director of child support services Steven Eldred. "The child support program charged her $150 a month. She was unable to pay that. And with the application of interest, that debt swelled to $8,000 at one point."
The woman paid a tiny bit whenever she could. "It took her over 30 years to totally retire that debt," Eldred says. "It's a perfect encapsulation of the terror of this program."
Child support offices have changed in recent years. They've even changed their names — from child support enforcement to child support services — to show they're intent on helping families.
The thinking about these parents has changed, too.
"The original thought was that these were malefactors," says Eldred. "They were people who had done something bad. They had mistreated their children, so we should make them pay for their program."
Abuse is an issue in only 16% of cases when kids go to foster care, according to Casey Family Programs, a foundation that seeks to reduce the need for foster care.
Mostly, the issue is the parent's neglect. Maybe there's no food in the refrigerator or the parent is homeless or addicted.
These are often issues of poverty.
"These people were not bad people. They were people in need of help," says Eldred. "In the overwhelming majority of the people in the child welfare program, a significant contributor to the reason they're in that situation is poverty. So this just makes it worse. It's fuel on the fire. As far as it comes to taking care of the children."
Becker says her research in Minnesota showed the same thing. "These are families on the edge. These are families that are struggling to feed their kids, that are struggling to have a roof over their head. And what do we do: We slam them with a bill from the government."
Spend a dollar to get a quarter?
There was another surprise that researchers turned up: It costs the government more to go after the money than it actually collects.
Trish Skophammer, the director of the child support services division in the Ramsey County, Minnesota Attorney's Office, was one of the first to question the practice of charging impoverished parents, in her 2017 doctoral thesis at Hamline University.
Skophammer calculated how much it cost offices like hers in Minnesota to track down parents who owe for foster care and then collect.
She concluded that those collection offices actually lose money.
In Minnesota, they spend a dollar for every 24 to 40 cents collected, Skophammer found. The reason, she says, is that these parents are so poor, they have little to set aside to pay off this debt. And, also as a result of their poverty, they move frequently – and that means child support offices spend more time and money trying to find them.
Skophammer presented her findings at national conferences of child support service officials.
That's where Eldred, who until March ran the child support services office for Orange County, Calif., first met Skophammer. "When she said 'twenty-five cents collected for every dollar I spend as an administrator,' that just jumped off the screen."
Eldred returned to California and asked a team of eight researchers to look at collections from 62,500 people across California, and they, in a 2019 report, found the same result. In California, Eldred says, county child support offices lost a dollar for every 27 cents they collected. An updated version of the report in 2020 said the counties lost a dollar for every 41 cents collected.
Another report, in Washington state, found similar numbers: 39 cents collected for every dollar spent.
"Very often in any government program, you have a cost-effectiveness element and then you have a social-good element," Eldred says. "If you're giving out blankets to people who are cold in the winter time, the cost-effectiveness is terrible — you're just giving away blankets. But the social good more than makes up for the cost-effectiveness."
As for charging parents for foster care: "This is terrible social policy," Eldred says.
And bad budget policy. The child support offices lose money going after these parents.
So why collect?
Because the little that they do bring in goes to other state and federal agencies, which split the money that is collected per the 1984 law. To those offices, it's found money.
"So this is all gravy for them," Eldred says.
Not that much, though.
NPR gathered federal and state data and found that what states collect from parents and return to the federal government is just a little more than $70 million a year. State and county governments keep an equal amount.
That's a fraction of the $2.8 billion a year the federal government sends to states to pay for foster care.
There's a lesson in the one year when collections soared: 2020. States returned $113 million to Washington, a 59% increase.
The reason: That's when parents got the first round of relief checks, money meant to be a lifeline to families struggling during the pandemic. But those checks were easy for states to garnish.
The amount that states report collecting is just a fraction — probably just single digits — of what was billed and still owed — because parents rarely pay.
NPR asked states how much child support debt was still owed by parents. Most states said that they do not compile this figure. But in the six states that shared data with NPR — Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, North Dakota, Washington and Wyoming — the child support still owed by parents of children in foster care totaled $68 million at the end of fiscal 2019. That's nearly as much as the federal government collected from every state that year.
In Louisiana, according to the state's response to NPR's request for records, one parent owed $78,843 for foster care.
"Best interest of the child"
States don't actually have to go after all this money. There's some leeway in the 1984 federal law. It says parents should be charged to reimburse some of the cost of foster care when it's "appropriate" — but it does not define what that meant.
Many child welfare agencies interpret that language as a reason not to charge parents. The most common exemptions are when a parent is unable to pay or if billing the parent is not in the "best interest of the child," for example when the state is hoping to reunify the family.
But many child welfare officials feel obligated by the federal law to send a bill to parents. NPR found that every state and the District of Columbia bills parents and returns money they've collected to the federal government.
In addition, states that drew up their own policies also built in discretion whether to charge. NPR reviewed laws, administrative documents or child welfare agency manuals from 31 states. Eighteen of those states allowed for some latitude.
Three states — Oregon, Nevada and New Mexico — told NPR they try to maximize their discretion and charge parents sparingly.
Daniel Hatcher of the University of Baltimore School of Law says the federal government "definitely has the authority, arguably the mandate" to tell states to reform their practices.
It could issue a regulation or other instruction, says Hatcher, author of The Poverty Industry, "clarifying that child welfare agencies should not take resources from foster children because to do so would violate their fiduciary role to protect children's best interests."
NPR wanted to ask officials at the responsible federal agency — the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — why they don't make the rules clearer and tell state and county child welfare agencies to stop sending bills to impoverished parents.
Officials at the department's Administration for Children and Families declined NPR's requests for an interview.
Some members of Congress want answers from HHS.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., says he is looking for bipartisan support before he reintroduces a bill with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., that would end the practice of charging parents for the cost of foster care and other forms of assistance.
"This should be a system designed to help the child. It should not be a system simply to collect payments for state bureaucracies," Van Hollen says. "It makes no sense to me when you've got a family that is now ready to take back their child, struggling every day to make ends meet, that you would saddle them with a huge bill at the same time. That just puts an anchor around a family's neck at a time when you want to do everything you can to support them and their kids."
Daisy Hohman, the mother who got the $19,530 bill from the county in Minnesota, says the time her kids went to foster care was traumatic. She feels child protective services was wrong to take them in the first place.
There was one good outcome, Hohman says: "My kids being gone really showed us all what we took for granted with one another. We have always been a close family, but we got ever closer after all that."
And then there's the continuing burden of her bill.
Even after her tax returns were intercepted, she says the last bill she got from Wright County says she still owes more than $7,000.
She says she doesn't know where she'll find the money to pay it.