When Congress and the Clinton Administration ended “welfare as we know it” in 1996, they replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children with a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. As families were removed from the welfare rolls, states were allowed to keep any “surplus” that resulted. But the surplus funds were supposed to go toward helping poor families become self-sufficient.

Many states have abused that discretion. They have taken TANF surplus funds and spent it on child abuse investigations and foster care. Now it looks like Maine is jumping on that bandwagon.

The Sun Journal reports (story, March 24) that the state Department of Health and Human Services is planning to take nearly $35 million of TANF money and divert it to what State Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, calls “child welfare and foster family stabilization programs.”

What does that mean? Brakey apparently didn’t say. But, according to the story, the cuts in eligibility that created the TANF “surplus” led to a 50 percent increase in childhood poverty in Maine, just since 2011. Poverty often is confused with “neglect” and when that happens, the children are often taken away and thrown into foster care.

So now it sounds as if the money that could have helped those families stay out of poverty will be diverted to subsidizing the middle-class families who take in their children. In other words, a return to the bad old days.

I was a foster parent back when Maine had one of the highest percentages of children in foster care in the country, but also one of the highest rates of pay for foster parents. I was involved in changing the system to something more humane when Gov. John Baldacci took me off the picket lines and asked me to be on a reform committee.

It was years of work with many frustrations, but we ended up with far fewer children in the system and strong evidence that they were better off. Things got so much better that Maine’s child welfare system was nominated for an Innovations in American Government Award in 2009.

But when we were done with our years of committee work, I said one thing publicly and in print — we didn’t change the financial incentives so things eventually will drift back. Everyone in the system, including foster parents and private agencies that oversee many of the placements, gets paid by the child by the day. So in order to make more money, more kids have to be in the system longer.

If you set up a situation where more children are being removed, like pulling supports out from under parents, you are going to need more foster parents. So increase the rate of pay, right? I used to make $2,500 a month per child. My kids were paid a higher rate because they were labelled “treatment level,” but 85 percent of the kids in the system were at that level at the time.

When the state, quite logically, decided to re-evaluate kids on a regular basis to see if they needed to stay at that designation, my agency called a meeting to teach us how to document to make our kids seem more difficult than they were.

It is a racket. You get what you pay for. Pay for children to be safe and well fed in their own families. All children — even poor children — deserve that.

Mary Callahan of Lisbon is organizer of the Maine Alliance for DHS Accountability and Reform.