Child protection investigations are typically precipitated by a crisis in the family. Rapid decisions regarding a child’s safety must be made in the midst of chaotic situations and complex family relationships. The involvement of the child protection agency in a family also adds a new and powerful player that changes family dynamics. Assuring decisions are made in children’s best interests while being respectful of family decision making and privacy is a challenge for child welfare professionals and the judges who make decisions regarding placement options. When relatives step forward to care for children during crises or as ongoing substitutes for incapacitated parents, the child welfare agency faces important challenges regarding the assessment and selection of an appropriate caregiver.
Among the issues that must be addressed in assessments are the child’s safety, the urgency of the situation, and the implications of caregiver selection for stability in the child’s life. Throughout, caseworkers must assure that decisions are purposively made in order to meet the child’s best interests. Following placement decisions, the supervision of relatives who are serving as foster parents also becomes a critical issue.
Issue: To what level of scrutiny should relatives be subjected as a child welfare agency decides whether they are an appropriate caregiver for a child who cannot remain at home?
Discussion: When foster care placement is needed for a child, caseworkers must make rapid decisions regarding placement options. The first issue is to assure the child’s safety. Sometimes the most available, immediate safe haven is in a relative’s home, and, if the child has a positive bond with that relative, such placement can reduce the trauma of removal from a parent. However, relatives, like all foster care providers, must be assessed for their ability to provide safety and support to a child, even in the short term. The issues of permanence and a child’s well-being become critical in any assessment, especially for long-term placement.
During the panel’s discussion, it was confirmed that there is wide variation in State and local practice both in child protective services assessments and foster parent assessments. Most States conduct a criminal background check and a child abuse registry check of potential foster parents, but may not make such checks prior to placing a child with a relative in an urgent situation. A variety of other requirements are also involved in foster care licensing, although these vary greatly among the States. Some States allow exceptions to certain foster care licensing requirements if relatives otherwise meet established criteria. In assessing kinship caregivers, the requirements that most often are waived are those related to the number of rooms in the home, overall space, and income; factors that are not thought to pose safety risks.
Potential recommendations discussed by the panel included asking the Federal government to develop a model assessment tool especially suited to relatives, collecting and disseminating existing tools, and undertaking new research and/or synthesizing current research to better understand what makes placements safe. At a minimum, the panel suggested that the Federal government collect information on current State policies related to assessment of potential kinship care providers. Most panelists believe that where federal funding is used, there should be accountability and a requirement to assure the protections guaranteed children under the law, but that the Federal role should be limited, allowing States and localities to determine daily practices. A few panelists expressed their belief that there is a continuing need for Federal oversight of States to ensure that the rights of certain populations, including American Indian tribes, are not violated.
HHS Position: The Department believes that accountability and Federal oversight should remain where Federal dollars are used, but that there should be flexibility at the State and local level to determine their own assessment procedures. The over-riding concern is that decisions must be driven by the goals of safety, permanency, and well-being for children. Decisions in child protection cases are difficult and must be made on a case-by-case basis using the best trained staff and tools available.
Licensing Standards and Supervision
Issue: Should kin foster parents be held to the same licensing standards and be supervised in the same manner as traditional, non-kin foster parents?
Discussion: Some argue that the value of maintaining children in extended families is such that it is worth waiving certain foster care licensing requirements that some relatives cannot meet. Income-related standards are those on which exceptions are most often made. Many States now have dual standards for licensing and supervision of kinship care providers and other foster care providers, although under current Federal law there is no such distinction. Where kinship foster care arrangements seem stable and the children appear to be thriving, some States or counties also provide less supervision and monitoring of those homes so as to interfere as little as possible with the family. Critics of such dual systems argue that if a child is in need of protection (as placement in foster care would indicate) then agencies must remain vigilant in assuring that caregivers are able to maintain a home that meets established safety standards. Similarly, the State should monitor closely the status of children in its custody no matter where their placement. Indeed, it is argued that risk of harm to the child can be greater with a relative if placing the child with that relative leaves the child more accessible to an abusive parent.
HHS Position: Children in foster care have been removed from parents’ custody because of a perceived threat to their safety and well-being. If the child welfare system is to work in the best interests of the child, then there is no reasonable argument for the State to have different standards of protection simply based on whether a caregiver is a relative or not. We do not recommend the establishment of Federal licensing standards even for caregivers of title IV-E funded children. However, we believe that all children in foster care need and deserve the same protections by the State until permanency is achieved and we have included such a requirement in our final rule implementing child welfare monitoring, title IV-E eligibility reviews, ASFA, and related title IV-E provisions.