The Foster Care Roundup asked experts and practitioners in New York to provide their insights on the systemic changes that could improve the quantity and quality of approved relative care placements in the state.
We spoke with Heidi Redlich Epstein, the director of kinship policy at the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law; Gerard Wallace, the director of the Kinship Navigator; Sabrina Jaar Marzouka, the commissioner of the Dutchess County Department of Community and Family Services; and Kathleen Coleman, a kin caregiver based in the Yonkers area.
Read their thoughts below.
Heidi Redlich Epstein
Director of Kinship Policy, ABA Center on Children and the Law
When children can’t remain safely living with their parents and must enter state custody, both child welfare law and policy clearly prioritize placement with relatives or close family friends or kin. Research confirms that compared to children in non-relative care children in kinship homes fare better. Children in the care of relatives’ experience:
- Increased stability with fewer placement changes and fewer school changes.
- Higher levels of permanency and less reentry into foster care. Relatives are more likely to provide a permanent home with about 32% of children adopted from foster care adopted by relatives.
- Better behavioral and mental health outcomes.
- More positive feelings about their placements. They are more likely to express that they like who they live with and less likely to run away.
- Increased likelihood of living with or staying connected to siblings.
- Greater preservation of cultural identity and community connections.
There are many challenges faced when trying to help create a kin-first culture within the child welfare system. The system itself is designed to make it easier to place a child in a previously approved or licensed foster home. This home is most likely that of someone who is a stranger to the child. Issues such as overly restrictive licensing standards, cumbersome and time-consuming training requirements and complicated legal systems with limited legal representation for kin are a few of the barriers faced by relatives who wish to care for their kin.
Systemic change bolstered by supportive laws and policies as well as a culture shift needs to occur in order to prioritize kinship placements. Change needs to happen from the top down with state and county leadership that believes that the best placement for a child should be with family.
Director, NYS Kinship Navigator
In New York State, an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 children live in kinship families, mostly with grandparents but also with other relatives and family friends. Less than 5,000 of these children are in foster care. Kinship living arrangements include informal custody (no court orders), legal custody or guardianship, “direct” custody pursuant to an Article Ten proceeding and adoption.
While some families receive preventive services and others receive adoption or guardianship subsidies, most kinship families are on their own. For them, resources include 22 local Office of Children and Family Services kinship programs, the eight new regional Permanency Centers (only guardianships and adoptions), a number of small county support group programs and the statewide Kinship Navigator.
All these resources can be reached via the Navigator’s help line and website, which also provide access to extensive legal fact sheets and other relevant kinship information.
Kinship families are an important resource for child welfare agencies. Private care is less expensive and, more importantly, more likely to produce better outcomes for children, especially regarding family stability and child well-being.
Studies show that children placed in care with relatives fare much better emotionally and intellectually than children who go into foster care with nonrelatives. Yet, these families face many obstacles. They are disproportionately poor but may not have access to special “child-only” public assistance grants. They do not qualify for legal services, but they often need attorney representation in family court. They often face their own children (i.e. the parents) who are disruptive of family stability and they face daunting challenges raising children who have suffered trauma and loss, but have access to a kinship system of care that is funded with less than $6,000,000.
Another barrier is access to foster care. While New York City and some “rest of state” counties have high relative foster care rates, many counties appear not to facilitate kinship foster care. Cumulative numbers are stark. In 2016, NYC placed 3,750 children in foster care, with 1,121 in relative foster care. The rest of the state placed 4,625 children, with 492 in relative foster care. Instead of foster care, many counties use “direct” custody, with NYC placing 140 and the rest of the state placing 2,038.
How the utilization rates could differ so significantly is a subject of debate. Anecdotally, kinship services providers report that kin are often used as a resource but without facilitated access to foster care. Instead, placements occur via:
1) informal arrangements (no Article Tens) where relatives are asked to temporarily assume care, often used as part of a “safety plan,” sometimes termed an “alternative living arrangement” or “parole” (no data collected);
2) “direct” custody where placements with kin are made pursuant to Article Tens but without foster care (data collected, see above); and
3) Article Ten conversion to Article Six custody or guardianships (no data collected).
The Kinship Navigator helps kin apply for public benefits. It provides assistance in filling out the complex public benefits application and ensuring that eligibility determinations are accurate. It helps find legal assistance and offers free consultations with attorneys. But it has no recourse to help kin to become foster parents once they’ve assumed care.
While there are instances of successful suits against counties for such “diversion” practices, reform can only follow from statewide actions. Beginning in the late 70s, suits like Miller v. Youakim and other county suits have sought equal treatment for kin along with non-kin. But in many New York counties, kin still remain “diverted” from kinship foster care.
In counties with low utilization rates, better policies and practices, similar to those in high utilization rate counties, need to be implemented in order to achieve more uniform access to foster care for vulnerable kinship children. For instance, even in “rest of state” counties, in 2016 there are utilization rates higher than 50% for relative foster care (for examples: Allegany, Greene, Dutchess). How some counties can reach such high numbers of kinship foster families, when other counties have percentages lower than 10% raises issues of local policies and practices.
If counties favor kinship foster care, then practices follow. So in the final analysis the issue is practices. Does a county facilitate emergency placement with kin, facilitate trainings, and expedite investigations? Or does it have practices that delay placements, place barriers to trainings, and advise kin that they’d be better served by “direct placements’ and other non-foster care arrangements. At the core, this discussion requires the state Office of Children and Family Services to examine local practices, advise counties on best practices that facilitate kinship foster care lawfully, and hold low-scoring counties accountable for policies and practices that dissuade kin from seeking foster care.
As recommended in the NYSBA Task Force on Family Court Final Report (2013), the lack of uniformity in access to foster care for relatives is a critical issue that without statewide enforcement of best practices, will continue to do a disservice to kinship children.
Sabrina Jaar Marzouka
Commissioner, Dutchess County Department of Community & Family Services
Imagine you receive a call from social services asking if you would be a resource for your niece because your sister and her husband were arrested? Of course, you say yes; after all, this is your kin.
Research has shown that out-of home placements with a familiar relative tend to preserve family ties, and are less traumatic for children than placements with non-relatives. The Dutchess County Department of Community & Family Services (DCFS) adopted a family-centered practice that involves actively seeking relatives at the onset of a case and at every step in the process, including at the “Family Resource” meeting, all “team decision-making” and “family team” meetings. This approach resulted in an increase in kinship care, from 26 to 75 approved relative foster home placements from March 2015 to March 2017.
So here you are, accepting the responsibility of caring for your niece. Now what? Are you prepared to meet the financial, emotional and educational needs of a child who has gone through some trauma? How will you manage boundaries with your sister, your emotions and mixed feelings for the situation?
At DCFS, our case worker will meet with the relatives and explain the options: (a) gain temporary custody through Article 10 with DCFS supervision and with financial assistance through the Temporary Assistance (TA) program; (b) become a relative foster parent with foster care payments for the care of the child, but with DCFS retaining custody and providing supervision; or (c) request legal custody as guardian under Article 6, with no further assistance or interference from DCFS.
So here is your dilemma: If you choose to become a relative foster parent, you will receive training and monthly financial assistance (ranging from $671 to $824) but will have limited decision making for your niece’s care. However, if you chose temporary custody under Article 10, you can make decisions but will receive less direct support and the financial aid through TA is reduced (ranging from $469 to $574). And by the way, you do not have much time to decide because Family Court appearances are scheduled.
What can New York do to improve kin practice in foster care?
We are experiencing an increase in Article 10 placements, partly because families are unable to commit to the nine-week Caring for Your Own training offered to kin foster caregivers. So they opt for Article 10, and we have little to offer them. While New York State implemented a subsidized kinship program in 2011 that has assisted many who choose to become foster parents, those who opt for direct placements have to complete more paperwork to obtain less financial support.
These payment differences between Article 10 and Foster Care placements result in stark variances in the resources provided to public kinship care families. Regardless of their kin care options, relative caregivers deserve and require equal financial and emotional support.
As a grandparent, I know it is very important for children to be placed with relatives because they have a yearning for belonging and being with family that loves them. I was always in my grandchildren’s lives and was put through a nightmare by CPS when they insisted on putting my grandchildren in foster care and tried to have them adopted if I was not able to hire a lawyer to fight to get them legally. The terrible ordeal went on for a year and we still do not understand why they made us go through that process when we asked to take them from the beginning.
The Family Service Society of Yonkers have really been a wonderful help in so many ways. Not only financially but the support group meet and discuss different challenges and resources to make our family life less stressful and more enjoyable. Being a grandparent, it was like I started all over again — having three children this time instead of just one.
I only wished that CPS would not put children through such terrible process like they are unwanted baggage. Two of my grandchildren still to this day have terrible memories of their foster care parents. Every day, my husband and I work hard to try to erase any of their memories of foster care and pray and hope that CPS would work hard and search for relatives of children before putting them in foster care and eventually to be put up for adoption.