When caseworkers remove children from their homes and place them into foster care, it can be jarring and traumatic. A new law in New York aims to ease the transition by enabling a wider circle of family members and even non-relatives to become the kids’ foster parents.
That law, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed in late October, broadens the definition of relatives. Previously, only certain blood relatives of a parent of a child in foster care could petition courts to become the child’s foster parents.
Now, in addition to blood relatives, the courts will consider non-blood relatives, such as people related to the child by marriage or adoption, and even so-called fictive kin — “an adult with a positive relationship with the child,” such as a step-parent, godparent, neighbor or family friend.
The courts will also consider those caring for a half-sibling of the child.
Each time children are taken from a home, they are traumatized, said Darcey Merritt, an associate professor at the New York University Silver School of Social Work. “The trauma is ever so slightly lessened if they get to stay with people who have a positive impact,” she said.
In many New York counties, relatives and fictive kin are often the first choice of child welfare agencies when a child cannot stay at home. Some of those caregivers become licensed foster parents, though many others agree to care for children on an informal basis.
If a child welfare agency instead opts to place kids in “stranger” foster homes, New York law also allows relatives to petition the court to intervene and become the child’s foster parents. This new law signed by Cuomo expands the scope of people who can make such a petition to include family friends and non-blood relatives.
State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Children and Families Committee, sponsored the legislation, called the Kincare Bill. She said the bill will allow children in foster care to remain in communities they know — a priority for advocates concerned about the persistent overrepresentation of children of color in the system.
“They [foster children] are much more likely to be successful if they have an environment which meets their needs in many different ways, including having a culturally familiar upbringing,” Montgomery said.
The vote for the bill was unanimous in both the state senate and assembly. It was sponsored in the assembly by Ellen Jaffee, a Democrat who represents the Rockland County area north of New York City.
Any adult applying to become a child’s foster parent must meet other requirements in addition to qualifying as kin. For example, those adults must petition the court no later than 12 months from the date that caseworkers removed the child from his or her home.
If approved to become a foster parent, newly eligible adults can receive the monthly stipends all foster parents receive. Relatives may also be eligible for KinGAP, which is the state’s kinship guardianship assistance program. KinGAP allows a child to exit foster care into a permanent relationship, while ensuring continued financial support to their caregiver.
Montgomery said, “We’re now just shifting who is eligible to receive support for those children.”
As of December 2018, there were about 15,800 youth in foster care in the state, according to a spokeswoman for the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS). As of June of this year, there were 14,149 certified foster homes with 28,530 beds, she said.
OCFS is backing the new law. The agency “supports and wholeheartedly embraces expanding the definition of eligible foster parents to include non-relatives and fictive kin, offering more options for youth to be placed in their home communities with families they know and trust, who can provide them with a safe and nurturing home,” said the OCFS spokeswoman, Monica Mahaffey, in an email.
The New York State Public Welfare Association, which represents 58 county child welfare agencies, declined to comment on the new law.
Montgomery’s office said a raft of advocacy groups supported the Kincare Bill, including New York State Kinship Navigator and AARP New York, the state chapter of the national organization that lobbies for older Americans.
Though AARP began its advocacy on kinship issues around grandparents raising grandchildren, “we’ve always been supportive of laws that have been supportive of families raising children,” said Bill Ferris, a lobbyist for AARP New York.
Both Merritt, the NYU social work professor, and Gerard Wallace, senior director of New York State Kinship Navigator, said the new law will help ease the state’s transition into a sweeping new federal reform called the Family First Prevention Services Act. The law restricts when states can spend federal dollars to house foster youth in institutional settings, like group homes. That means counties will have to rely on more foster families, whether or not they are relatives of a child.
Merritt predicts that “we’re going to have a dearth of foster parents” under Family First. To that end, the Kincare Bill can help fill the gap when Family First goes into effect in New York State in two years.
“It makes sense to me that they [lawmakers] would relax those restrictions [on relative foster parents] so that there would be more available foster homes,” she said.