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 heartbreaking blog 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.

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Marie K. Cohen
About Marie K. Cohen 68 Articles
Marie K. Cohen (MPA, MSW) is a child advocate, researcher, and policy analyst. She worked as social worker in the District of Columbia's child welfare system for five years. She is a member of the Citizen's Review Committee for the DC Child and Family Services Agency and the DC Child Fatality Review Commission and a mentor to a foster youth. Follow her blog at fosteringreform.blogspot.org, on Facebook at Fostering Reform or on Twitter@fosteringreform.

26 Comments

  1. You know what I’m sick of the bonding and attachment argument being used. Foster parents only bond to kids they want. Not kids they want to pass along. It’s usually the babies.

    • Same can be said for blood relatives. We are in the process of adopting a 10 year old who was originally going to live with his maternal aunt. She felt it was her obligation to take family in. That lasted for 3 weeks before SHE put him back into the system. She said he was too much for her.

    • Well, you and I usually have different takes, but I enjoy our rivalry in the Chronicle. Do I deserve your thanks for making you aware of the Idaho group in my previous column. If so, you are welcome!

    • Not in this case. I saw the same story in the Idaho Statesman, but delayed writing about it in order to respond to Joshua New on predictive analytics. But I’m sure you’ll inspire other columns 🙂

  2. “Censorship reflects society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.” – Potter Stewart

    To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.” – Frederick Douglass

    “All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently, the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.” ― George Bernard Shaw

    A few thoughts, since you apparently fear any kind of real or challenging discussion and only want to allow posts that immediately agree with you and support this legislation.

  3. I’m not entirely comfortable with this. I know on the surface it seems so simple to “just let the fosters keep them!” but there is a huge conflict of interest in even allowing foster caregivers to adopt.

    Foster care by it’s nature is supposed to be temporary with the best outcome for the parents to fix whatever was wrong and the child to return home. By allowing fosters to adopt at all and especially to get into fostering specifically with the hope of adopting (foster-to-adopt programs) it destroys that boundary that is needed. Too many feel entitled to a child simply because they did the job they were paid to do. Nannies and daycare workers do an almost identical job but no one would support them suing for custody of the children they are paid to care for or support the notion of a nanny feeling entitled to a child under their care. Somehow state-paid foster caregivers often do and everyone seems fine with it or to treat it completely differently than other paid child caregivers. As a result there have been numerous cases of fosterers becoming too attached to a child and quite bluntly refusing to give it back and delaying reunification for up to 10 years as a result which most certainly did cause immense trauma to the child involved.

    Relatives already face a massively uphill battle when it comes to social services. I’m not sure that making it even more difficult and tilting the balance of power even more in foster caregivers favor is doing kids any favors.

    • I agree, foster care is supposed to be temporary for most children and foster parents have to go into this knowing that they will probably have to give the child back. If they are not willing to do that, they should not become foster parents. But if over a year passes before a relative comes forward, I don’t think that relative is any more kin to the child than the foster parent–much less as a matter of fact.

    • Most people would feel differently. Many of us have relatives who lives outside our city and perhaps even our country or even continent. Sometimes we only see those relatives a handful of times in our childhood but that does not diminish the often special and intense bond that exists between such family members. For myriads of reasons you outlined yourself, it can take time for family members to be notified and be in a position to take the child. It seems more than a little unfair to portray a child being transferred to their grandmother or aunt who they may very well know as being this massive trauma and indignity to their rights and yet as staying in a legalized foster care scenario as somehow better for them.

      Multiple moves are terrible, no one is arguing that. Being transferred to a relative is not the same as being put through 10 or 12 foster homes.

      It’s always interesting how almost every piece of legislation that comes out under the guise of ‘best interest of the child’ is pretty clearly best interest of the stranger wanting to adopt the child and not actually the child itself. It continually lowers the amount of time families have to fix problems or step forward, tries to minimize and devalue the importance of blood relationships, tries to place absolutely no significance on the potential loss of culture for a child and so on and so forth. None of these things that have been shown to actually be beneficial for the child in the long run.

      I also can’t possibly see how multiple custody petitions will speed things up, since that is the supposed goal of all of this. Even working through ONE petition (the parents, to get the child back) can take 2 or more years and I have seen battles go for up to 10 years. You’ve advised relatives not to wait until parents are TPRd to step forward. How will having 5, 10, 15 or more petitions from relatives make things simpler or more streamlined? I know families that have more than 50 members who would all step forward to take in the youngest members. Should all 50 submit a petition for custody for the same 1 child? Each of those 50 households will need the social worker to do homechecks, interviews with them and everyone they know as per becoming a licensed foster home. How will that speed things up? Social workers #1 complaint is already being overworked with nothing done to change that, hire more social workers or lessen the amount of kids coming in to care.

    • Would you say that nannies and daycare providers do the same job as parents? Because I wouldn’t. So that analogy is moot. Foster parents are more thank nannies or day care providers. They are the proxy parents. And they are the one who repair the damage down by parents in a lot of cases. Most foster parents know they are temporary and like myself, in most cases support the children going back to parents. But when that becomes impossible, id that child has been with the foster parent for an extended length of time, they should be the first person considered for adoption. Just because someone shares the same blood, as the author stated, does them make them and may more suitable placement for a child than does a foster home where they have already formed attachments. Breaking those attachments to send the child to live with a relative is more harmful in the long run.

    • Sorry but I stand by my statement. Foster caregivers are paid childcarers. They are not defacto or proxy parents and that very statement is exactly what I and others here have warned as dangerous. Foster caregivers who arbitrarily assign themselves rights, titles and equivalence.

      I would like to see proof of your statement that removing a child from foster care to live with blood relatives is harmful in the long run. I have seen no evidence to that in any study, while the harmful effects of long-term foster care or blared out every other week in yet-a-new study that documents how pretty much half or better of foster children are pregnant, homeless, on drugs or in jail within just months of leaving the system or while in the system.

      Allowing the government to effectively pick someone’s parents (by choosing someone’s foster care and then writing legislation that makes it nearly impossible for relatives to undo that placement) is a very slippery slope.

    • This can go both ways. We had a family member, a young child, enter care earlier this year and we didn’t wait even a week before stepping forward and requesting to have the child placed with us, believing a kin placement was the best. What did CPS do? Place the child with a foster family and send out letters to other “family,” many of who were not blood related, while we sat on the sidelines practically begging to have the child.

      He then spent 5 months with a foster family that, of course, he bonded with while CPS told us they were searching for family to step forward. They even sent a letter to a grandfather who had passed away several years ago!! The entire time we were calling the case worker and asking what more could be done to have the child with us. We were told consistently that we weren’t ‘being considered’ for placement, yet they couldn’t give us a reason why.

      Fast forward to about 6 weeks ago when they called and said the foster home had become disruptive and they wanted him with us ASAP. While we are thrilled and grateful to have this child, there is much that could have been minimized for him, had they just placed with family to begin with!!

      Being a foster parent is tough and while I recognize their role, there are always 2 sides to the story and CPS could conduct business with a lot more transparency and give greater attention to these kin relationships.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience. You are right that that more transparency is needed. It sounds like they were looking for family but for some reason they ignored you while they searched for other family members. Maybe they were set on another relative and just did not want to tell you, but they should have told you what was going on and why. I totally agree that family is usually the best choice, but I think that letting children bond with unrelated foster parents for a year or more before placing them with family is cruel and harmful to children.

  4. Early efforts to identify, locate and engage relatives of children entering the Foster care system is a priority both legally and ethically. In the mean time we rely on foster parents to provide warm, affectionate and responsive temporary care to children of all ages. In this process children and foster parents will bond, its inevitable and in fact healthy. However, that bond creates no claim by the Foster parents on the child. Foster parents by design are temporary. Adoptive parents by design are permanent. For Foster parents it is critical to know which type of parent you are or want to be. When you decide you want to become adoptive parents than seek children available for adoption. In the United States we have over 100,000 legally available children and youth on any given day.
    Public agencies are responsible to find, engage and authentically partner with parents, relatives and tribes, when they do this foster parents are more able to manage their feelings and expectations while fostering. When agencies fail to do this, this painful and disruptive conflict result. Parents, relatives, tribes and children should not be punished for the conflict that results. Idahoans should go to the legislature, not to create laws that punish relatives, children and tribes buts to create laws and funding that result in a system that can consistently meet its responsibilities. In the meantime this age old conflict will continue and everyone one will continue to pick a side. One more point, ASFA was passed in 1997 with federal Incentive payments for completed adoptions. The requirement to search for, locate and notice relatives was not passed until late 2008, that bill provided no incentives or additional funds to states to implement Family Finding. That is the place for continued advocacy.

  5. It happened in my family. My sister had a foster child from the hospital. No relatives came forward that were qualified to care for the baby. Once her goal was changed to TPR/Adoption, an aunt and uncle decided they would “give it a try.” Baby was removed from foster/adoptive parents at 14 months old to live with relatives she didn’t know and had had maybe three visits with. I have two foster children and it’s taken over two years for my older child’s goal to change to adoption. There’s no way in hell anyone is ever going to try to take her from me, I don’t care what kind of blood they have. She’s my kid now.

  6. It sucks for the foster parents who get attached to the child, but until that adoption is final there is always a chance the child will be removed and placed with someone else. Family first. That is how it should be. It doesn’t matter if the child has never known the relative, living with relatives trumps non related caregivers. Just because some family are not in a place to take the child in right away does not mean they lose any and all chance to take the child at a future time.

    • The family of that child should not be so selfish and should realize the affects of their actions ON THE CHILD. It isn’t about the relative, it’s about the child. The child is binding to the foster parents. If relatives aren’t in a position to care for a child relatively quickly after the child is taken into care then the bond that is formed SHOULD trump blood! All research points to how damaging it is to remove a child from a caregiver to whom they have bonded. If the relative really cares about that child and a significant amount of time has passed, the the relative should do what’s best for the CHILD and let them remain in the care of the person to whom the child has attached while still maintaining contact with the child.

    • That essentially means that adoption will cease to exist. Because as it stands I have yet to see any modern country where a parent can be TPRd after less than 12 months and this article deems that basically after a year a child is probably secure in their foster home and should never be moved.

      If it’s traumatic to go to a relative, it’s equally traumatic to go to a complete stranger who wants to adopt them.

      Thus, adoption will now cease to exist because it’s cruel to remove foster children from foster homes. The only adoptions will be to the foster caregivers. No one else. Ever.

    • I agree 100% with you. I have been with my boyfriend for 6 years now. His “stepdaughter” had a baby 3 years ago. My boyfriend and I have been in her life since day 1 and she loves us very much. Dcf just took the baby from her mother a litthe over a month ago because of substance abuse. Now the baby is in foster care. And from what I found out today at court is the mothers uncle is taking the baby…he has only met her once when she was first born. Doesn’t know a thing about her and is getting to foster her (for money of course) and my boyfriend and I can’t get her because we aren’t “blood” related. Such crap. She is my family. We love her so much. And now another stranger is going to get her. Blows my mind and BREAKING my heart!!!! Blood does NOT trump the bond we have

    • I am so sorry to hear this. It sounds like you were at court, so I guess the court is aware of your interest and your involvement with the child? Have you been in touch with the social worker and the child’s attorney (if she has one?). Some states do recognize the bonds of “fictive kin,” those who are not related by blood but have a relationship with the child. But it can be an uphill battle when a blood relative wants the child. How does the mother feel? If she wanted you to get the baby, it might make a difference. My thoughts and prayers are with you and this little girl.

  7. Babies belong with their mothers and fathers, if not with their mothers OR fathers, if not with grandparents, if not with extended family. “Adoption” to genetic strangers should be the last resort when no one in the child’s family can be found to take responsibility, and then it must be done with openness and transparency–the child’s identity, family history, and the knowledge of and ability to interact with family members must be preserved. No money should be given by the adopters in exchange for the baby, nor should they receive extra welfare or tax benefits in addition to what is available to every other parent.

  8. You must be from the planet Mork. The real disruption is people propagating this bs, “kinship is not blood.” Tell me what judge and what county has a problem of children being removed from their foster homes for a relative? I’ll tell ya there’s NONE, none, zeeeerrrroo because it doesn’t happen near enough for your argument to even fly.

    And if it did, what is the problem with children being re-united with loved ones?

    • You, my friend, must be from a different planet. The problem isn’t placing them with family. The problem is family members waiting months or even years to come forward, meanwhile the child had formed a bond to the foster parent. Not to mention that A LOT of times it isn’t “reuniting” them with the relative because it is often a distant relative that the child hasn’t even met! That’s pretty much the same as adoption to complete strangers. Just because you share blood, that doesn’t always make you family. And it happens WAY more than you think it does. Your naïveté is a huge part of the problem!!

    • My comment was not to you. I loved and agree with your article. I was responding to Gwaag Freebird’s comment.

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