On September 6th, 2016, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy announced that the state was placing a record number of children in care with relatives. This form of foster care, in which children are placed with direct relatives or close family friends and often relies on a special kinship waiver, is known as kinship care.
Of kinship care, Governor Malloy said:
“We know that the trauma children experience from being removed from their home is significantly diminished if the child lives with someone they know and love – a family member or another person with an established connection. We are building a system for the future and this is another milestone in that effort.”
This system for the future is already making great progress. At the time of his announcement, Governor Malloy boasted that 42% of all placements in the state were kinship placements, the highest level the state ever achieved and close to double the amount of such placements compared to five years ago. In a world where kinship is rapidly becoming the new gold standard for child welfare, these numbers represent tremendous progress in helping minimize the trauma associated with entering the foster care system.
Since the passing of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act (FCSIA) in 2008, states have been bolstering and improving their kinship infrastructure. Studies have shown consistently that children placed into kinship care have a greater chance for positive outcomes within the foster care system. As kinship care is a relative newcomer to the child welfare system, however, it can be difficult for states to know precisely how to handle the unique challenges that such kinship families face. In the benevolent rush to improve the system, it is unsurprising that vulnerabilities in the child welfare system might come to light.
One month after Governor Malloy’s announcement, one such vulnerability made its way into the news: A 19-month-old boy living in the care of two relatives had been admitted to the emergency room with a severe case of malnourishment, broken bones and other severe injuries. This tragedy brought the nature of kinship care directly into the spotlight – the relative caregivers with whom the boy was placed had a history of abuse and neglect allegations, criminal history and, critically, had failed to finish the licensing process 150 days after they were supposed to. Although kinship care placements are intended to help build a better child welfare system, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) had placed this child into a home which was clearly unfit, and they did so well before the kinship caregivers were appropriately licensed.
Kinship Care Compromise: Presumptive Eligibility and the Kinship Waiver
The failures of Connecticut’s DCF are numerous in this case – from missed visits to reporting failures and dismissive attitudes. A number of these failings can be laid at the feet of the workers responsible. One facet of this case, however, serves to highlight the ways in which kinship care compromises might be at odds with a child’s best interest: Why weren’t these parents licensed before they received the placement? It seems obvious that after fully completing the licensing process, the histories of abuse and crime would have been discovered and this child’s suffering could have been avoided. Why would the state even allow an unlicensed person to serve as a foster parent? It all comes down to a fairly standard kinship waiver process often referred to as “presumptive eligibility.”
Part of the success of kinship care placements is the low-turnaround time from the moment a child enters into foster care to the moment he is placed in a relative’s home. Traditional (non-kinship) foster parents are required to go through specific foster care training programs to educate them not only on the special needs of foster children but also on how the state is involved in the child’s case. This process also involves criminal background checks, fingerprinting and other investigations to determine the eligibility of any given prospective foster parent. After all, if the state is going to place a child into a stranger’s home, they want to ensure that this stranger is qualified to be a caregiver. In the same vein, a relative caregiver isn’t usually a stranger to the child in question – if a mother is forced to place her child into foster care, many people might assume that the child’s grandmother would make a natural placement option, even without training. This is the idea behind Presumptive Eligibility – because the child is already familiar with the intended kinship caregiver and has a direct relation to them, in all likelihood that relative is going to be the best and quickest placement option.
However, when you consider the training and preparation that goes into becoming a foster parent (a process which, in New Jersey, can take up to six months to complete), a child would have to enter the traditional foster care system before her relative could take her in. This transition can bring a lot of challenges to a child, including days of missed schooling (which translates into lower graduation rates). In theory, the state could place the child in an unlicensed home anyway, ignoring their own standards in favor of getting the child into a familiar home quickly. However, if a state places a child in a home that does not meet the licensing requirements, the law dictates that state may not claim the federal Title IV-E and IV-B funding that the act provides. Essentially, in order to expedite kinship placements, states would need to take on a larger burden of funding and supporting the unlicensed homes. In Connecticut, which is a leader in kinship placements, this arrangement would likely be untenable. That’s where presumptive eligibility, or a kinship waiver, come into play.
How the Kinship Waiver Works
In order to improve the states’ abilities to provide kinship care placements that actually function to minimize trauma and improve outcomes for children, the FCSIA includes a provision that allows states to bypass some of their licensing regulations. This is presumptive eligibility. When a kinship placement is needed, the prospective caregivers can fill out a kinship waiver which allows them to accept a placement prior to licensing (though still requiring the caregivers to become licensed). This waiver varies by state and can function in one of two ways:
- Provide exemption for non-safety-related standards
Example: A grandparent only has one bedroom for her two granddaughters. Normally, the state might require an individual bedroom for each child, but in the case of kinship placements, they might provide a waiver allowing the girls to share a room.
- Provide exemption for a standard that is technically unmet but is being substituted for an alternative but equal standard.
Example: An uncle lives on property with well water that does not meet safety standards. The state may waive this standard if the uncle agrees to purchase bottled water for the niece the state is placing with him.
The idea here is not to give relatives a “free pass” into become foster parents but to minimize the amount of discomfort, trauma and transition time for children in care. This requires dedication and monitoring from the state’s child welfare agency and is precisely where Connecticut ran into problems – because of negligence in the reports of caseworkers and a failure to identify and investigate red flags by the care quality review department. In general, kinship care is considered the best option for children in foster care, but safeguards and protections must be in place to prevent this kind of tragic result.
Furthermore, a kinship waiver is not just provided to any relative for any reason. Three main factors that states must take into consideration before providing a prospective kinship parent with presumptive eligibility are:
- Impact on the child
- Circumstances of the prospective parents
- Substantial compliance with state standards
These safeguards are in place to prevent circumstances such as those which arose in Connecticut, but every state is responsible for overseeing the review process of their children in care. Here are some kinship waiver provisions from around the country:
- Kentucky might wave the age requirement (21 years or older) of kinship parents if the state determines that those relatives will adequately be able to meet the needs of the child in question. For instance, Kentucky might waive the age requirement for the 18-year-old brother of a child who is about to enter care.
- Nebraska permits the waiving of training requirements if they determine that the prospective relative caregiver understands the needs of the child as well as his or her own role within the child welfare agency and provided that other relatives of the child in question are willing to provide additional support to the prospective caregiver.
- Idaho requires that if one standard is to be waived, all other standards and regulations must be met.
With such variance across states as to the nature of their kinship waiver regulations, it’s clear that kinship care in the United States is still evolving. Cases such as the one in Connecticut are rare but stinging reminders that there is always more to be done and can compel states to update their standards and oversight processes to create a better, more nurturing child welfare system.
New Jersey’s Growth
In 1999, New Jersey itself came under attack for sexual abuse perpetrated against a child who had been in the state’s foster care system. This massive lawsuit, settled eventually for around $1.2 million, was the start of major reforms for the Department of Children and Families (DCF), formerly known as DYFS. At the time a federal monitor agreement was signed in 2006, DCF was found to be a system where children were “subject to additional deprivations in a poorly managed and grossly overburdened child welfare system.” However, growing from these reforms, the state was prepared when the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act was passed in 2008. Today, the state requires both a home inspection and appropriate background checks before a child may be placed in a relative’s home and requires the prospective kinship caregivers to work with DCF to obtain a licensing application within five days of the placement. As of 2015, 39% of children in the New Jersey foster care system were placed with a kinship caregiver, well above the national average of just 27%. No state or single solution is perfect, but by remaining vigilant the best ideas will surface in the effort to provide positive outcomes for these children.
As the country moves to increase the ratio of kinship care placements, it will be important to continually review and revise our standards. However, it’s important to precisely pinpoint the causes of tragedies and fully understand the nature of the flaws in the child welfare system. The failure of a state to adequately address the needs of a foster child or to protect him from negligence or abuse at the hands of relative caregivers must be understood completely. In the case of Connecticut, a review of the state kinship waiver process, subsequent quality care reviews and caseworker diligence is necessary, but child welfare professionals should not wait for tragedy to strike before looking to improve standards. It is clear that presumptive eligibility can lead to problems if the organization responsible for its oversight can’t effectively ensure that kinship caregivers are fully capable of providing the best care, and no state is immune to that possibility.