Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Kinship is More than just Blood

Jamie Law has fostered 28 children. But she says her fostering days are over.
In April 2013, she picked up a two-day-old baby from the hospital. A year and a half later, she and her husband signed paperwork to adopt him. Shortly after he turned two years old, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare placed him with an aunt that he had never seen.
Idaho is not the only state where children are routinely removed from foster parents with whom they are bonded and want to adopt them, in order to be placed with strangers who happen to be related to them by blood. Readers who follow Meghan Walbert’s heartbreakingblog have been reading along as her foster son “Blue-Jay” became progressively more attached to her family.
Now, almost 10 months after Blue-Jay was placed in her home at the age of three, a relative is within weeks of being licensed as his caregiver. It took Blue-Jay the better part a week to calm down after Walbert spent a night away from home. Now she is worried about how he will react to a permanent separation.
Separation from a parent or long-term caregiver is always traumatic for a child. If the child then forms a bond with a new family and is subsequently separated from that family, further trauma will result, even if the child is returned to the parent. But if the child is placed with yet another stranger, the trauma is likely to be even greater. And there may be lifelong effects on the child’s ability to love and trust others.
One of the major goals of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 was to speed up the achievement of permanency so that children would not have to go through repeated separations or continued limbo. If a child has been in care for 15 out of the last 22 months, the state is required to file for termination of parental rights.
But there is no such deadline for relatives to come forward. Even if the state files for termination of parental rights after a year, it may take as long as another year for an adoption to be concluded. If a relative comes forward during that time period, the child may be moved after two years or more with the foster/adoptive family.
As I have seen in my own experience, relatives often do not come forward as soon as a child comes into care because they hope the parent will be able to get the child back. They often wait until the child’s goal has been changed to adoption. But this additional disruption can be harmful to the child.
Idaho’s foster parents want to do something about this. A new organization, Idaho Foster Care Reform, has earned over 1,500 likes on Facebook since February 5, and similar stories have been pouring in. Forty foster parents and former foster children packed a committee hearing on February 12 to tell their stories.
Idaho legislators have already introduced a bill that would require the agency to locate and contact relatives within 30 days of a child’s removal. The relatives would be informed that they have 45 days to volunteer as a placement resource for the child. Thanks to the passion of the Idaho foster parent group, the legislation is on a fast track for consideration.
The Idaho legislation is a good start. Also needed around the country are ways to expedite the licensing of relatives to care for children both within and between states. Even if relatives come forward right away, it may take months to get licensed—months in which the child may bond with the foster family. Many states have provisional licenses for kin, so that children can be placed with them while they gather the documentation for a permanent license.
The District of Columbia now tries to license relatives (including an immediate fingerprint check) on the same day the child is removed. Not all relatives can be cleared so quickly, but it does mean that some children are spared the pain of multiple disruptions.
When the relative lives in another state, the licensing process often takes as long as six months. Legislation has been introduced to automate this process so that social workers no longer have to photocopy documents and submit them on paper through a succession of offices. Congress should pass this law, Modernizing the Interstate Placement of Children in Foster Care Act, immediately.
No effort should be spared to place children in care with appropriate relatives quickly. But after a child has bonded with his current caregivers, blood should not trump the bond formed by months of daily loving care. Children who have already been abused or neglected by parents should not be abused by the state as well.
This column was published in the Chronicle of Social Change on February 23, 2016.

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