Foster Care: Practical realities of government assistance

Well, we’re 6 months in to our first foster care case and there are some systems I’ve learned more about that I thought I would share. I have grown up in a fairly wealthy area, surrounded by generally conservative people and have not had much first-hand experience with the “welfare system”.  Now, my two foster children are eligible for WIC (Women, Infants and Children) and are on Medicaid. Here are some observations on these two programs.

WIC – I love it, generally! The sign up process was terrible. I had to come with the children to an office that wasn’t convenient.  The place where we did the sign up was completely inappropriate for young children, which was strange, since that’s a HUGE portion of the clientele that WIC serves. We were in this tiny cubicle with no toys, no door, chairs and desks to climb under, cords to play with, knick knacks and writing utensils in easy reaching distance from the 2 year old. It didn’t help that he is an extremely active child, who at that time, had practically zero self-regulation skills and did not listen to a word I said. It was trying…Then, we had to back to the waiting room once all the paperwork was finished to wait for the nutritionist. After a short wait, she called us back to weigh the kids and get an iron reading (read – prick his finger with a needle! was NOT prepared for that – thanks govt!). Then we had to go BACK to the waiting room to wait to be seen by another person.  Another wait, another call back to another office. Here, they explained the benefits and gave us our WIC cards, which work like debit cards basically.

Generally, I’m impressed by the scope of the program. They’re focused on helping families get the nutrition they need, so the parameters of what you can buy with your WIC benefits are pretty narrow. Some of it doesn’t make sense to me (like WIC doesn’t cover many of the blended fruit/veggie baby foods), but most of it does and it covers food that the kids actually eat – formula, milk, eggs, cheese, fruits, veggies, etc. The amount of fruits and vegetables they allot for a month for our 2 year old seems paltry – $8. But since I’m buying for a family of 7 now, maybe it’s just hard to pull out what of our produce expenditures he’s actually consuming.  I love that it’s a swipe card and that all the benefits are just on it. There’s no reimbursement to deal with – you just have to pay REALLY close attention to what you’re trying to buy with it and make sure the grocery store you’re going to takes the card. (Target doesn’t take them…not sure Wegmans does either). It makes checking out a bit of a nightmare though (plus I can’t use the self checkout!).  I’ve had to squash my slightly ashamed feelings as I wonder what people are thinking when I use these cards along with my regular credit card purchases and when I have all 5 kids, plus an ever-bigger baby bump with me in the check out line. Thankfully, if anyone in line around me has had any nasty comments in their heads – they’ve kept it to themselves. Pretty sure that’s God’s grace and mercy on them because this hormonal mama would probably lose it all up in their faces if I heard it…..

All the clerks have been super gracious and patient with the process, for which I am so grateful.  All the checkout workers at our local Giant in particular have been super helpful and understanding of my complicated check out system whenever I’ve come through. What a blessing!! Many also offered little tips on how to make the system work for me – like making sure I ran my Giant card on every purchase even though it wasn’t coming out of my pocket. This way, I’d get any related coupons on formula or baby food.  These coupons were super handy because some months the baby ate way more than WIC thought she would! It also counted towards my gas rewards points, which was awesome for all the extra driving we’re doing. Yay Giant!!

On to Medicaid – what a mess! I know our healthcare system is such a political hot button right now, and having experienced a tiny bit of working with Medicaid, I have MUCH more empathy for everyone involved with all the policy-making. The first doctor we saw under Medicaid was terrible. The kids were screaming almost the entire time he examined them (how exactly are you supposed to hear if a child’s chest is clear when she is screaming?!?). Then, the little boy had to get 5 shots and the nurse came in with no help and proceeded to stick him 5 times in the least efficient way possible. It was so, so traumatic. As quickly as I could I tried to get them seen by our family doctor. Our practice isn’t taking in any new medicaid patients, but my particular provider said that she would take the medicaid payments and see us anyway. Thank God for her! It was so eye-opening to see the limited options that are available for people on medicaid. The primary physicians were few and far between.  We had to find a specialist also and that took quite some time.

The explanation of benefits that come back to us have been baffling as well. We’ve yet to receive a bill for this yet, but one of them that came back said that while the immunizations that were received were a covered service, the person who stuck them with the needle was NOT included. Huh? So you cover the shot, but not the nurse who has to administer the shot? Who makes these rules? Who has to cover that expense? I know for a fact that the nurse spent good time preparing the vaccine in the correct size needle and then taking her time to make sure we were all ok after the sticking was over.  Mind boggling…

I think my biggest takeaways from this part of the experience is that you can’t really tell anything about a person’s story by how they buy their groceries, and that life is generally more complicated than is portrayed in most political debates about government assistance. There are no easy answers to how to build a social safety net. Any policy maker who makes it seem simple has just not done their homework.


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