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A closer look at the practice of billing parents for their child's foster care

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

When parents go through periods of crisis and their children are at risk, the state steps in. Kids go to foster care. A judge tells parents all the things they need to do to get their kids back. For mothers and fathers, it's often a confusing process, especially in one state where NPR investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro found that parents can follow the court-ordered steps and still lose their children forever.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: This summer, Courtney and Jeremy Johnson of Beaufort County, N.C., lost their battle to get their twin sons home. The ruling from North Carolina's Supreme Court came days after the Johnsons made their July visit with the boys to celebrate their seventh birthday. They never got to see their boys again or just say goodbye. Courtney Johnson wonders what her boys must be thinking.

COURTNEY JOHNSON: Did my mom just - did my parents just leave us? Do they just, like, not care? And as a mom, you should be able to fix their pain. And not to be able to fix it you just try not to think about.

SHAPIRO: The termination of parental rights is the ultimate punishment of parents for when there's been significant abuse or unfixed neglect. The Johnsons faced allegations of neglect. Child welfare officials said they didn't get their twins to medical appointments and didn't supervise them enough when one boy burned his fingers on a barrel of burning trash.

C JOHNSON: My kids are good kids. And like I said, I'm not a perfect mom. I don't think there is a perfect mom. But my kids are loved. My kids are so loved. And they have - like, they have what they need.

SHAPIRO: In the end. The Johnsons were permanently separated from their sons on the grounds that they failed to pay a little-known debt to government to reimburse part of their boys' foster care. Last year, an NPR investigation raised questions about the practice of billing parents for their child's stay in foster care. And earlier this year, the federal government told states to stop. Yet one month after that new federal guidance, the state court ruled against the Johnsons for nonpayment, even though the Johnsons say they weren't told to pay that money. The county says there was a warning buried in two lines of a court document. But then the county didn't get around to issuing a payment order for another two years, not until after it started the process to terminate the Johnsons' parental rights, where the failure to pay was then used against them. Jeremy Johnson says he didn't find out until the day he was summoned to court.

JEREMY JOHNSON: So I go in there, and I sit down. A person comes to me and tells me that I owe $17,000 in arrears.

SHAPIRO: Seventeen thousand for three years of foster care. That's a lot for a family that's living from paycheck to paycheck. That bill can keep struggling families in debt and delay or even prevent them from being reunited with their children, which is why the federal government this summer recommended that states stop making parents pay. The Johnsons say they would've tried to pay if they've been told.

J JOHNSON: Yeah, it just came out of the blue because if I knew in the beginning, I would've never gotten in arrears.

SHAPIRO: He was already paying faithfully the child support for his teen daughter from a previous relationship. And he steadily paid off that $17,000 even after the twins were taken away. The county garnishes his paycheck - he says about $500 a month - and takes his tax returns. After Courtney's earlier relationship with another man ended, she says he and members of his family filed complaints with Child Protective Services about how she disciplined and supervised the four children from that relationship. When the twins were born premature and showed developmental delays, county officials said she didn't take them to all their therapy appointments. Courtney says officials overestimated the developmental delays and that the boys caught up. The twins went into foster care. The older children went to live with a relative. The Johnsons followed the court's orders to get therapy, to go to parenting classes. They visited the boys regularly and brought presents.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

SHAPIRO: And the court said they needed to find this bigger trailer with three bedrooms.

C JOHNSON: The twins' beds because they were - like, had smaller mattresses. This is the boys' room.

SHAPIRO: I've seen bunk beds. So not much room up there on top.

C JOHNSON: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: It costs more money, so Jeremy quit his job driving for the nearby egg farm and got a better-paying job on a construction site, even though it's often a five-hour commute round trip.

Lots of toys.

C JOHNSON: Oh, yeah, lots of toys. Legos. This is their Lego table.

SHAPIRO: At one point, the boys came home on a trial placement. But it lasted just five months when one twin burned his fingers...

J JOHNSON: Just a couple fingertips.

SHAPIRO: Couple fingertips.

...On a burn barrel behind his grandfather's trailer.

J JOHNSON: We put burn cream on it and wrapped it up.

SHAPIRO: Child welfare officials put the boys back into foster care and started the termination process. State officials in charge of child welfare declined requests for an interview, but a spokesman said North Carolina intends to follow the new federal guidance to stop charging parents for the cost of foster care. And NPR analysis found laws in at least 12 states that say parents can lose their parental rights for failure to pay some of that cost. In North Carolina, NPR found that ground comes up in about a third of cases to terminate parental rights. We found several families, like the Johnsons, who argued they'd never been told to pay. North Carolina's Supreme Court said it doesn't matter because parents have an inherent obligation to support their children. Basically, it's on the parents to ask what they owe and how to pay. Attorney Timothy Heinle, who teaches child welfare law at the University of North Carolina's School of Government, says that puts parents in an impossible position.

TIMOTHY HEINLE: If I walk up to my social worker and hand her $20 or $50, is she going to take it to the foster parents the next time she sees them?

SHAPIRO: Heinle says the answer is no. The social worker can't take that money.

HEINLE: There's no system in place for that sort of payment.

SHAPIRO: It takes a formal order, a child support order, to set up the government system to make those payments. And by the way, the money that parents are expected to pay - it doesn't even go to foster parents. It goes into the state treasury. Last month, the lawyer for Courtney Johnson filed a last-hope petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking it to tell North Carolina to stop taking children from families like the Johnsons for failing to pay something they weren't told they needed to pay. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.