Streamlined Foster Family Approval Process Could Leave Relative Caregivers Behind

California’s new Resource Family Approval Program (RFA) may produce more qualified foster families, but it may also discourage relatives from stepping up to foster their grandchildren or other kin.

RFA merges the varying standards by which relative and non-relative families are approved to foster and adopt children in California’s child welfare system. The California Department of Social Services (CDSS) and advocates believe that the streamlined approval process will improve efficiency, increase parent preparation and increase permanency.

At the same time, advocates are concerned that the additional requirements of RFA may be superfluous to relative caregivers and a challenge to complete within the truncated 90-day period. And as such, that the process may discourage relative caregivers from fostering.

“Resource Family Approval equalizes approval standards for all caregivers, ensuring that all foster children are placed with families who have been assessed, trained, and prepared to provide a loving and caring home for young people who have been abused and neglected,” said Susanna Kniffen, director of child welfare policy at Children Now, a nonprofit child advocacy organization.

“As we implement RFA, we need to be mindful of the unique needs of relative caregivers who often get multiple siblings overnight with little to no warning or time to prepare,”  Kniffen said. “We cannot let the promise of RFA unintentionally push our most valuable caregivers out of our system.”

Kings, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Santa Clara counties piloted the new approval program between 2013 and 2014. Now, Butte, Madera, Monterey, Orange, Ventura, and Yolo counties are beginning implementation. Over the next few months, San Joaquin, Siskiyou, and Stanislaus counties will join them. These early implementation counties, like the pilot counties, will provide the CDSS with insights to help improve the program prior to its adoption by all 58 California counties in January 2017.

Now is a particularly important time for California to get the foster family approval process right. RFA is being rolled out statewide with funding from Assembly Bill 403 (Stone), the state’s overhaul of the child welfare system, which was signed by Governor Brown in October.

AB 403 will lead to the closure of many group homes, which will increase the need for qualified foster families. RFA has the potential to strengthen the pipeline of available foster families by making the approval process more efficient.

Until now, foster parents who wanted to adopt a child have had to repeat portions of the lengthy and invasive approval process that includes a social worker visiting and assessing their home. RFA combines the approval standards for adoption, relative foster homes, and non-relative foster homes. Under the program, every potential parent will undergo a single approval process, authorizing them to be able to both foster and adopt.

From “Resource Family Approval 101: An Orientation for Counties and Others to the Basics of the Process." California Department of Social Services. 25 November 2015. Webinar.
From “Resource Family Approval 101: An Orientation for Counties and Others to the Basics of the Process.” California Department of Social Services. 25 November 2015. Webinar.

“The new coordinated process will eliminate duplication, reduce paperwork and maximize the efficient use of staff and system resources,” according to an overview of RFA produced by CDSS.

It will also more thoroughly assess and train potential foster and adoptive families, and a single case worker will shepherd the parents through the approval process. According to a CDSS webinar, this change will allow parents to build a relationship with their case worker, making the process less confusing and intrusive.

At the same time, all parents will be required to complete a psychosocial assessment, provide references, and complete training before they are approved, as well as undergo an annual review. CDSS and advocates hope these steps will better prepare parents for taking children into their home and that, ultimately, this will lead to greater placement stability and the forging of lifelong relationships.

Though RFA is a positive step in many regards, the additional requirements of RFA combined with its time constraints may prove to be a stumbling block for relative caregivers.

When a child is removed from his or her home, the social worker first looks for relatives who may be able to foster the child before searching the pipeline of approved non-relative foster parents.

Unlike non-relative caregivers who typically complete the approval process prior to having a foster child placed with them, relatives often take in a child before they fully complete the process. These relatives step up in an emergency situation to foster a particular child, for instance a grandchild, niece or nephew.

Once RFA takes effect, relative caregivers will have to complete a home safety check within five days of receiving the child and a criminal records check within 10 days. They must complete the full Resource Family Approval process within 90 days.

Meeting these time constraints may prove difficult for relatives given the other demands on their time and the traumatic nature of the situation. While completing RFA requirements, relatives are caring for a child or multiple children for whom they were unprepared. They are helping the child to cope with the trauma of being removed for his or her home. They may also be helping with the legal or psychological issues of the family member from whom the child was removed.

RFA prepares relatives not only to foster their own kin, but also to foster non-relative children and to adopt. Many relative caregivers, however, may not have a desire to do so. Advocates are concerned that the additional requirements of RFA will deter this important population of caregivers from fostering.

Thirty six percent of foster children in California are placed with their grandparents, aunts, uncles or other relatives. Relatives are often social workers’ first choice placement for foster children. Studies have shown that foster children placed with relatives have greater stability, fewer behavioral problems, and more positive perceptions of their placements.

Notably, anecdotes from pilot counties indicate that some relatives have been excited to learn that after completing RFA they are approved to foster non-relative children.

It would be a big win for California’s child welfare system if relatives approved under the new program went on to foster other children in addition to their kin. This outcome is the best case scenario. In the worst case, relatives are discouraged by the requirements of RFA and decide not to foster at all.

Lauren Johnson is a candidate for a Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management degree at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. She wrote this article while taking the school’s Media for Policy Change course.

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