Will the new foster care law give grand­par­ents a hand?

Walker County Messenger - - Sports -

The aim of a new fed­eral law is to re­duce the num­ber of chil­dren who end up in the troubled foster care sys­tem — the big­gest re­boot of the child wel­fare sys­tem since 1980.

But al­ready, the Fam­ily First Pre­ven­tion Ser­vices Act, signed into law by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump in Fe­bru­ary, is gen­er­at­ing some con­tro­versy. A key point of con­tention: how it will treat ex­tended fam­ily mem­bers car­ing for chil­dren out­side the foster care sys­tem — and whether they will be el­i­gi­ble for fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance.

“Some­times a strict in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the law might have un­in­tended con­se­quences,” said Dr. David Ru­bin, di­rec­tor of Pol­i­cyLab, a re­search arm of the Chil­dren’s Hospi­tal of Philadel­phia.

Crit­ics of the law, mostly state and lo­cal of­fi­cials in Cal­i­for­nia, say it could end up di­vert­ing more chil­dren into the care of grand­par­ents and other rel­a­tives who won’t be el­i­gi­ble for the same ser­vices and fi­nan­cial help as li­censed foster par­ents. Oth­ers in­sist the law helps more “kin­ship care­givers.”

“The law is ham­mer­ing home the im­por­tance of fam­ily con­nec­tions,” said Ana Bel­tran, spe­cial ad­viser for Gen­er­a­tions United, a Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based fam­ily re­search and ad­vo­cacy group. “It’s a huge step for­ward.”

One of the in­ten­tions of the law is to ad­dress the havoc the na­tion’s opi­oid epi­demic is wreak­ing on fam­i­lies. Largely be­cause of the cri­sis, more and more grand­par­ents are rais­ing their trau­ma­tized grand­chil­dren. For those grand­par­ents and other ex­tended fam­ily car­ing for these kids, help is of­ten lim­ited and can vary greatly from state to state.

“The foster care sys­tem has been strug­gling to meet the needs of kids, and states have had a re­ally dif­fi­cult time keep­ing up,” said Karen Howard, vice pres­i­dent of early child­hood pol­icy for First Fo­cus, a Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based child ad­vo­cacy group that worked on the leg­is­la­tion. “They’ve been stretched to the brink.”

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment won’t re­lease com­pli­ance guide­lines for the new law un­til Oc­to­ber, so states are still fig­ur­ing out how the changes will af­fect them.

“A lot of de­tails aren’t there in the law,” said Bran­don Ni­chols, chief deputy di­rec­tor of the Los An­ge­les County De­part­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­ily Ser­vices, which, along with other lo­cal Cal­i­for­nia agen­cies, op­posed the leg­is­la­tion.

“There are some con­cerns we have,” Ni­chols said. “We’re hop­ing it doesn’t go down a road that un­der­mines fam­i­lies.”

Catch-22

Be­tween 2012 and 2016, the num­ber of chil­dren in foster care in­creased by 10 per­cent, a jump that the U.S. De­part­ment of Health

and Hu­man Ser­vices at­trib­uted to the opi­oid epi­demic. Six states — Alaska, Ge­or­gia, In­di­ana, Min­nesota, Mon­tana and New Hamp­shire — saw more than a 50 per­cent jump in their foster care pop­u­la­tions dur­ing that same pe­riod.

Mean­while, the num­ber of chil­dren in the foster care sys­tem who are be­ing raised by rel­a­tives in­creased by 6 per­cent be­tween 2008 and 2015, ac­cord­ing to a 2017 re­port by Gen­er­a­tions United. In 2014, more than a third of chil­dren re­moved from their home be­cause of a par­ent’s drug or al­co­hol abuse were placed with rel­a­tives.

For ev­ery child in foster care with rel­a­tives, an­other 20 chil­dren are be­ing raised by grand­par­ents and other rel­a­tives out­side the foster care sys­tem, the re­port found.

Those are the rel­a­tives that have crit­ics of the law most con­cerned.

The law for­mal­izes the prac­tice of di­vert­ing chil­dren into in­for­mal foster care sit­u­a­tions where their care­givers won’t be el­i­gi­ble for foster care pay­ments and the chil­dren’s wel­fare won’t be mon­i­tored by the court, said Angie Schwartz, pol­icy pro­gram di­rec­tor for the Al­liance for Chil­dren’s Rights, a Cal­i­for­nia-based le­gal ad­vo­cacy group.

“It’s just a piece of Fam­ily First, but to us, it’s a big deal,” Schwartz said. “I think it starts to shape child wel­fare pol­icy, [es­tab­lish­ing] a shadow child wel­fare sys­tem.”

As an ex­am­ple, Ru­bin points to a hy­po­thet­i­cal: What hap­pens to an 11-year-old who’s act­ing out be­cause he’s seen and ex­pe­ri­enced too much, and his grand­mother is hav­ing is­sues of her own? He’s liv­ing with her, but if she’s not li­censed in the child wel­fare sys­tem, she’s not el­i­gi­ble for foster care pay­ments. It’s un­clear if the grand­mother, as the child’s guardian, will be el­i­gi­ble for fed­er­ally funded pre­ven­tion ser­vices to keep the child out of foster care.

In Cal­i­for­nia, Ni­chols and other gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials worry the law will place a burden on ex­tended fam­ily mem­bers. They are con­cerned that more chil­dren will be di­verted into a rel­a­tive’s care with­out the swath of ser­vices and fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance that come to chil­dren liv­ing with li­censed foster par­ents.

The fo­cus on pre­ven­tion ser­vices for troubled par­ents is great, but it po­ten­tially comes at a cost for kin­ship care­givers who could be forced to choose be­tween get­ting help for their adult chil­dren or for their grand­chil­dren, said Cathy Sen­der­ling-McDon­ald, deputy ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the County Wel­fare Di­rec­tors As­so­ci­a­tion of Cal­i­for­nia, a non­profit rep­re­sent­ing Cal­i­for­nia’s county hu­man ser­vice di­rec­tors.

“It’s such a catch-22 for these rel­a­tives,” she said. “It’s a ter­ri­ble choice we’re ask­ing them to make.”

But other child wel­fare ex­perts in­sist that’s a mis­read­ing of the law.

“If they’re el­i­gi­ble to be­come foster par­ents, there’s noth­ing to keep them from mov­ing for­ward,” Bel­tran said. “It’s not ei­ther-or.”

Keep­ing Fam­i­lies To­gether

When Trump signed the law in Fe­bru­ary as part of a stop-gap spend­ing bill, child wel­fare ad­vo­cates hailed the law for its fo­cus on keep­ing fam­i­lies to­gether and keep­ing kids out of foster care.

And to that end, a good chunk of the law fo­cuses on pro­vid­ing at-risk fam­i­lies with pre­ven­tion ser­vices such as par­ent­ing classes, ther­apy and sub­stance abuse treat­ment. That’s a first, and it means that pre­ven­tion ser­vices will be treated as an en­ti­tle­ment, like Med­i­caid.

“Child wel­fare agen­cies are do­ing a lot on a pretty thin bud­get, and the opi­oid epi­demic adds a lot of pres­sure,” said Hope Cooper, found­ing part­ner of True North Group, a Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based pub­lic pol­icy con­sul­tancy that ad­vised child wel­fare agen­cies on the new law.

The new law, she says, means the fed­eral gov­ern­ment will give states some much-needed as­sis­tance. It also fun­nels fed­eral funds into pro­grams that work.

“That’s re­ally im­por­tant to states,” Cooper said.

Sup­port­ers also say the law pro­vides guid­ance to grand­par­ents and other rel­a­tives who step up to care for chil­dren when their par­ents can’t. Chil­dren fare best when they can stay with their fam­i­lies, re­search shows. And when it’s not safe for them to stay at home, grand­par­ents are of­ten the first and best choice. The new law rec­og­nizes that, many child wel­fare ex­perts say.

Now, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment will fund what it calls “kin­ship nav­i­ga­tor” pro­grams to link grand­par­ents and other rel­a­tives with coun­sel­ing, hous­ing as­sis­tance and other sup­port ser­vices. Pre­vi­ously, some states of­fered those pro­grams, and many did not.

Many grand­par­ents car­ing for grand­kids are strug­gling to get by on fixed in­comes, hov­er­ing near the poverty line, ac­cord­ing to Gen­er­a­tions United. Most end up tak­ing care of grand­chil­dren be­cause there’s been an emer­gency and they

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