The Hawaii Department of Human Services (DHS) and local foster parents have come to an agreement over the cost of caring for children in foster care.

The agreement aims to resolve a federal class action lawsuit that was filed in December 2013, and a related case filed in state court.

When the lawsuits were filed, foster parents were provided with a stipend of $529 per month, which was intended to cover nearly all the costs of rearing a foster child. The rate had remained in place without adjustment for 24 years, during which time, advocates argue, applying inflation would have increased the stipend to over $950 per month.

Approximately six months after the case was filed, DHS adjusted the stipend rates to three different amounts based on the age of the children in care: $576 for ages 0 to 5; $650 for ages 6 to 11; and $676 for ages 12 and up. The case continued as foster parents and the state debated whether the increases were truly enough to provide adequate care for the children in the foster care system. Under the terms of the settlement, the payments will increase to $649 for ages 0-5; $742 for ages 6 to 11; and $776 for ages 12 and up. Additionally, the annual clothing allowance for each child will increase by between $210 and $426, depending on the age of the child.

The agreement is subject to court approval, and funding for the settlement requires a legislative appropriation.

“The rates that we’ve agreed upon under this settlement agreement don’t come nearly to ($950), and we don’t think they will cover all the cost of caring for foster children, but they will definitely ease the burden of foster parents and providing that care, and we know that all parties are really focused on doing what’s right for the foster kids,” said Gavin Thornton, co-executive director of the non-profit Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, who represented the foster parents, along with local law firm Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing, and global law firm Morrison & Foerster LLP.

“Foster parents are truly a special breed. They open up their homes and their hearts to children that they don’t even know, that they’ve never met before. They sacrifice their time, they sacrifice their emotional energy, they sacrifice their own families to provide for these children, and they sacrifice financially as well,” Thornton added. “This settlement is going to help ensure that financial burden is eased, so that they can provide what’s needed for the children in foster care.”

The settlement will remain in place for 10 years, during which time DHS has agreed to pursue adjustments to the stipend amount as inflation increases the costs to care for foster children.

“The settlement between DHS and the plaintiffs ends years of litigation in both state and federal court and demonstrates that parties can work together on investing in the health and well-being of children and families,” said Attorney General Doug Chin.

“Our children and families are core to the state’s ‘Ohana Nui (extended family) strategy. This agreement confirms our shared priority to invest in keiki and their families-biological, foster, hanai, or other-and provide them with resources and support to grow in healthy environments and homes,” said Department of Human Services director Rachael Wong.

The increases are estimated to provide more than $8.5 million each year in additional support for the care of children in the foster system. Additionally, DHS has agreed to provide a separate payment to foster parents who were caring for children during the time period from July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014, $35 per month for each child involved in the foster care system during that period.

Attorney Claire Wong Black, with Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing, notes that state records produced during litigation show that reimbursements are under-utilized.

“This strongly suggests that foster parents are not aware that reimbursements are available,” she said. “If there is a foster parent that is not receiving a clothing stipend, mileage reimbursement for travel, or childcare stipend for daycare, please encourage them to contact their case worker and ask for help getting these reimbursements.”

The board rate covers some of the additional costs that the foster child brings to a resource family’s home during placement, including the cost of food, additional utilities, wear and tear on household items, school supplies, personal incidentals, and local travel. In addition to the basic board rate, many other payments and benefits support foster children and resource families, including: an annual clothing allowance; free medical insurance; free school meals; baby formula and food subsidies through WIC; certain mileage reimbursements; free bus passes where needed; child care subsidies; free access to the DOE’s afterschool A+ program; free access to the City and County of Honolulu’s Summer Fun program; activity fees; free resource caregiver trainings, support groups, and a help line; liability insurance; respite care funds; and private donations for enhancements such as camps.