“Family First:” Prioritizing Kinship Foster Care
Wednesday, September 1st, 2021
In honor of National Kinship Care Month, today’s newsletter comes from VPLC’s Family and Child Welfare Attorney, Valerie L’Herrou with University of Richmond School of Law student Megan Kaleah.
Kinship care means the “full-time care, nurturing, and protection of children by relatives.” Relatives may care for children through informal arrangements with parents, through foster care, or through “kinship diversion.” Kinship diversion, sometimes known as “hidden foster care,” is when Child Protective Services (CPS) places children with a relative outside of foster care.
Foster care is intended to protect children from neglect or abuse, but it’s traumatic for a child to be taken from their family, creating feelings of fear, insecurity, and loneliness. To help children feel safe, loved, and wanted, kinship foster care should always be considered before placements with strangers.
Though Virginia has one of the lowest rates of kinship foster care in the US, the state “diverts” nearly as many children away from foster care to live with relatives as are in the foster care system (around 5,000 children a year). Recently, Virginia adopted a “family-first” approach to foster care, but challenges to foster placement with kin remain.
The Problem: Relatives Face Barriers in Becoming Kinship Foster Parents
Children do best in homes of adults with whom they share a bond, but beliefs and policies sometimes result in a child being placed in a home with strangers instead – or diverted to “hidden foster care” where relatives do not receive financial support to care for the child.
Once a child is in the foster care system, relatives face roadblocks when trying to gain custody of the child. For example: while federal law allows states to make exceptions to some licensing standards, many relatives report that local departments choose not to do this.
Once a relative has been denied approval as a foster home, the decision cannot be appealed.
What Needs to Change: The Beliefs and Policies Preventing Kin from Being Approved as Foster Parents
Old narratives around how we view kinship care have created conditions that make it harder for relatives to become foster parents – and for children to thrive. Reframing how we think about kin as foster parents and foster care policy will help:
New Belief: Every relative should be considered as a potential foster placement on their own merits. (Instead of: “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”)
New Belief: Most relatives work hard to support their families even without an additional child; grandparents may live on social security. We all need support to care for children.
(Instead of: “Relatives should take in children without asking for financial help.”)
New Policy: Every child should be placed with kin who are willing and able to take them in with the help of foster care training and financial support.
(Instead of: the policy of keeping caseloads lower by diverting children to “hidden foster care.”)
New Policy: If a crime doesn’t make a relative ineligible to take a child outside of foster care, it should not bar them from being approved as a foster parent.
(Instead of: the policy that allows a child to be placed in “hidden foster care” even if a relative has a “barrier crime” on their record – but not placed with that same relative in actual foster care. Some crimes serving as a “barrier” to foster care approval are low-level misdemeanors that occurred years ago.)
Good News for Kinship Care
Virginia has improved its support for kinship care by creating the Kinship Guardian Assistance Program (KinGAP). KinGAP allows those children who have been placed in kinship foster homes to exit foster care to the custody (guardianship) of their relative, with some financial supports.
KinGAP saves the state money, supports the relative in caring for the child, and allows children to have a permanent home with kin. It also means a child’s relationship to their parents does not need to be completely severed (as it must be for adoption) – visitation may be allowed.
Unfortunately, due to the low numbers of children in kinship foster care, the number of children who qualify for KinGAP is very small. Very few children have been able to take advantage of this important program, leaving far too many children unable to find a permanent home with a kinship guardian.
The Solution: Steps Virginia Can Take to Improve Kinship Care
First, relatives who can provide the child with a familiar, loving, and safe environment should be prioritized to receive the same financial and educational supports that stranger foster families receive.
Second, relatives who provide “hidden foster care” outside the system should receive training on how to care for the child, assistance with any educational or mental health needs of the child, and more financial supports. (Relatives currently may get some financial support, but nothing near a foster care payment.)
Third, barrier crimes that do not reflect a danger to children should be removed from Virginia’s list.
Fourth, Virginia should consider liberalizing the rules for the state-funded KinGAP program.
Finally, relatives should have the opportunity to appeal CPS foster care placement decisions. Relatives denied the opportunity to become a foster parent should have a chance to appeal to court. Fifteen states, including Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland, grant relatives a right to appeal foster care placement decisions. It is time Virginia joins them in prioritizing family relationships.
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