Pa. Rep. Tarah Toohill with one of her foster children

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Tarah Toohil grew up intertwined with the foster care system.

Over the course of her childhood, her parents took in 42 foster brothers and sisters. You read that right. Forty-two.

Some of them stayed for just a few days, and some of them her family eventually adopted — turning them into permanent residents in the household. As the oldest sister to dozens of foster children, her interactions with them made a lasting impact.

“I thought these siblings of mine were on roller coasters, which could be very unhealthy,” Toohil told Billy Penn. “The system wasn’t always about the best interest of the child.”

Now that she represents Pennsylvania’s 116th legislative district, Rep. Toohil (R-Luzerne County) is working to make foster care a little more affordable and attractive.

With help from organizations like the Public Health Management Corporation and its affiliate Turning Points for Children, Toohil is drafting a proposal for an adoption and foster care tax credit. If passed, it would provide a one-time tax deduction of $500 for people who take in foster children, and $1,000 for people who adopt children in Pennsylvania.

So far, Toohil said she’s got about 20 state legislators on board from both sides of the aisle. She expects to release the first draft of the bill in the next few days.

This political action comes just a few months after Philadelphia put out an “urgent call” for more foster parents. In the city, more than 5,000 youth are currently in foster care. Most of those children ultimately reunite with their biological families, and another 600 are adopted every year, per data from Philly’s Department of Human Services.

But the city says it needs more people to help with the transition — and fast. In March, DHS announced it needed at least 300 additional families to foster Philadelphia kids. This was the first major recruitment of foster parents in the city in more than a decade.

Statewide, this recruitment got advocacy workers thinking: What can we do to incentivize folks to consider fostering?

The first of its kind

In her own home, Toohil adopted a 4-year-old and a newborn out of foster care.

She often recommends fostering to other people, but she always encounters the same road block. Time and time again, families tell her it’s not in their budget.

“It’s not that they don’t have the heart for extra children,” Toohil said. “It’s that they can’t afford it. With the 16,000 foster children we have in Pennsylvania, we need to get families over that hurdle.”

This proposal wouldn’t be the first incentive to adopt. There’s already a federal adoption tax credit, and there’s also a monthly stipend for Pa. residents who decide to adopt out of foster care, per Toohil.

State Rep. Tarah Toohil adopted her youngest son, Blaise Burkhardt, as a newborn from foster care. Credit: Courtesy Tarah Toohil

But those don’t apply to people who simply foster, a critical stage in the process. And even then, the current state subsidy isn’t particularly high — to the best of Toohil’s knowledge, it hasn’t been adjusted for inflation in about 20 years.

“If you’re truly spending the subsidy on the child, it’s not enough,” Toohil said. “This is just one little, additional bonus for some of those tightly strapped families that don’t they think could economically withstand having another child.”

A security blanket

Dawn Holden, the CEO at Turning Points for Children, said there are a handful of ways that Pennsylvania foster parents could use the money. The one-time tax credit may seem small, but she insists it could be meaningful.

She estimates 90 percent of Philly kids who need fostering grew up experiencing economic hardship. When they foster, parents take on the responsibility of footing the bill.

“With the families we work with, they don’t have a lot of money saved up,” she said. “How can we get something into the pockets of folks?”

It’s like a security blanket for new foster parents, Holden explained, that could go toward a school uniform, summer camp registration or extracurricular activities.

Indeed, some current foster parents in Philly say more money would help.

Aishah Holman, a 41-year-old foster mother, said the proposed tax credit would enable her to travel more with her five children. Every year, she plans a family vacation — this year, it’s to Jamaica — and $500 would make a dent.

“It could help them go on a trip or celebrate,”she said. “It would help out. I would use it toward the family.”

Ultimately, advocates for the bill hope it will help. Ideally, it’ll relieve the financial burden enough to get Pennsylvania parents to foster.

“We really strongly believe children do best when they’re in homes, not institutions,” Holden said. “We feel like this potential bill gives us the opportunity to incentivize more folks in the community…to consider fostering.”

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...