Herger accused of foster-care freeze-out

Congressman Wally Herger, R-Chico, is at the whipping end of a just-released report that charges the congressman is about to freeze foster-care placement dollars at a time when placements due to methamphetamine use are skyrocketing in the Northstate.

Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a bipartisan nonprofit group comprised mainly of law enforcement members, on March 30 released the document titled, “Keeping the Promise of a Safe Home for Northern California’s Children: The Impact on Child Abuse and Future Crime of Capping Federal Foster Care Funds.”

Neither Herger nor his aides could be reached for comment by press time, as they were traveling in the district.

For the last 25 years, the federal government has matched states 50-50 in paying for foster care. As a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Herger last year introduced legislation that sought to cap the federal match at its current level of about $2 billion, with slight increases not enough to keep up with inflation. The session ended before a vote, so Herger is expected to reintroduce the idea.

“It limits funding for foster-care placement, which was always guaranteed regardless of need,” said Brian Lee, the Oakland-based organization’s deputy director and an attorney who co-authored the report. “Our main concern is, especially in Northern California, where we’ve been seeing increases in foster care loads, if you put a cap some kids are going to be left behind.”

That would leave local governments in the position of deciding whether to leave more kids in potentially unsafe homes or to dip into county general funds to make up the shortfall.

“It’s a no-win situation for the county,” Lee said.

The report focuses on Herger’s own 3rd Congressional District, where in 2003 there were 3,478 confirmed victims of abuse or neglect, 998 of whom were placed in foster care.

Meth is blamed for much of the increased need for new placements, and Lee said the report focused on the problem “to point out you can’t always predict what’s going to happen in foster-care caseloads. We can’t assume it’s going to stay flat.”

Since 1998, the number of children in foster care has increased by 20 percent within the 3rd District. The increase was a full 35 percent for the part of Butte County that’s in Herger’s district. At the same time, caseloads statewide have declined by 22 percent.

“There has been a huge increase in the number of kids who have been removed from homes due to meth,” said Sue Webber-Brown, a detective with the Butte County District Attorney’s Office.

Webber-Brown, who initiated a nationally recognized program on drug-endangered children, said homes where meth is manufactured are typically unsanitary, violent and otherwise disturbing. “There are many times when we have no choice but to remove these children,” she said. “If [Herger’s legislation] decreases the amount of money available to foster care, what’s the alternative available to us—is there a plan?”

The report also details concerns of law enforcement officials, who point out that children left in abusive or otherwise dangerous situations are much more likely to become criminals themselves. Those who do not turn to crime are at risk of suicide, unemployment and unstable relationships.